Monday, September 14, 2009

Fever Ray album review (2009) (unpublished)


Sometimes, amazingly, hype is actually not misplaced. In the case of Sweden's The Knife it almost defies belief that their last album Silent Shout (2007), a dark and uneasy listening venture, in contrast with so much dumbed-down over-hyped music, had became so widely applauded. The brother-sister duo made no attempt to follow up the multi-Swedish Grammy winning album, but instead retreated from the spotlight in a desire for anonymity. Vocalist Karin Dreijer was about to expand her family, and so decided that The Knife, for the time being, should retire. Stepping away from her brother and creative partner Olof, Karin discovered a new freedom to work without the boundaries automatically imposed by a split input. Post-natal, she found herself working tirelessly on what would become Fever Ray, writing in an often exhausted state between nappy changes, bedtime stories and bottle feeding. This situation, unique to new mothers, resparked Dreijer's creative drive into overload. All through this mainly solo effort, we are witness to the most powerful extremes of a writer pushing themselves to be entirely selfless while still absorbed in, and open to, their subconsciousness.

The haunting If I Had A Heart begins with an ominous mechanical humming reminiscent of German industrial noise makers Einsturzende Neubauten. It's quite a misleading introduction, but does set up the theme of vocal manipulation integral to the many moods weaving throughout the ten tracks here. If I Had A Heart starts out sung slinky and soft, artificially transposed to just below a natural human voice pitch, then soaring in a yearning, child-like soprano, highlighting Karin's arresting accent. Occasionally there are multiple Karins singing the same lyric all in different pitches, then layered to give a contrasting warmth when the music reaches its sometimes icy depths. In places it is evocative of glaciers and frozen lakes, the severe north Scandinavian weather garnering more than one mention. There are many and varied topics at the heart of the songs, but Karin writes mainly in an interpretive, sketchy manner. Much of what is said is second to how it's delivered. On I'm Not Done for example, Karin's vocal is down unusually low in the mix. The effect is of a voice drowning in the music's stormy waves, yet still determined to be heard until the final breath. As one of the most impacting tracks here, its heavy tribal conga drumming and amplified echoing finger clicks draw in the listener, forcing them not to ignore that fading voice in amongst the din. On most of the rest of the album, there is little urgency in Karin's delivery. She likes to stretch all her notes and often lets the instrumentation take over for several bars, when suddenly her unaltered natural voice reappears in response to a dark menacing robotic one. This gives the effect of a parent reading a story book to a child and doing the different character's voices – the creepy voice for the villain and the sweet spoken voice of the heroine. Karin, as the mother of two young children, perhaps has subliminally taken her role as the storytelling villain/heroine into the studio.

The album's first single, When I Grow Up, is lyrically a playful look at an untainted child's view of life's endless possibilities, and yet avoids sounding remotely sugary or schmaltzy. From first listen, Triangle Walks’ gorgeous Eastern strings and enchanting whistled melody will attach to your brain and sit in your ear until you're humming it over and over. Seven thrives on a cyclic, sexy looped beat awash with an eerie wind sound effect and gloopy synth line. It’s a wonderfully uplifting moment and brings an expertly placed mood shift to the proceedings. On the pulsing Concrete Walls, Karin experiments to the extremes of the voice-tone enhancer, creating a gloomy unsettling atmosphere echoing The Dreaming era Kate Bush. The contrast of a gentler sound and crystal-clear singing on Keep The Streets Empty For Me is sublime. This desolate hymn finely embodies the sweet feeling of an exhausted, relaxed state. Dry & Dusty is melodically perfect. It exists in a world beyond clunky design, effortlessly speaking from the subconscious. The album closer, the epic Coconut, is the hot spring in a freezing lake evoking some of Joy Division’s most shimmeringly beautiful moments. Portishead came close to this sound on their last release (on which The Knife's influence can be heard all over) but Fever Ray have nailed it.

This album will be enough to send many a worthwhile electronic act back to their studios with hands-in-the-air frustration at their own shortcomings. Fever Ray is the sound of an artist with a finely tuned skill in drawing on previous experience, while remaining full of fresh discovery. Dreijer sounds so focused and precise in her ambition to present otherworldly music, imbibing her interest in film noir. This breathtaking work will not only satisfy fans of The Knife, but also show that Karin is a powerfully unique talent, perhaps even more so than The Knife’s combined strength.

I'm calling it album of 2009... What I love about Karin is she puts so much love and care into her music. She doesn't just serve up any old shit and hope it sells enough copies to pay for itself!

Fever Ray review links (official website)

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