Last month, two scheduled performances in Paris by Swedish organist and singer-songwriter Anna von Hausswolff were canceled for a reason that seems strange in our time of pandemic shutdowns and right-wing hysteria over censorship: satanic panic. Von Hausswolff brings a religious sense of ceremony to her operatic loud music, whether she’s dropping a single distorted chord into oblivion, boasting and soaring through gothic rock tunes, or spinning long passages of ominous drone. She often performs and records in churches, on room-filling pipe organs. The Paris appearances had attracted a crowd of fundamentalist Catholic protesters to block the doors of Notre-Dame de Bon-Port church, apparently startled by a lyric from Von Hausswolff’s 2010 song “Pills”: “I made love with the devil. “
Yves Trocheris, the priest who made the decision to cancel, defended von Hausswolff admirably, making it clear that he was acting out of concern for public safety and not because he agreed with the fundamentalists. Still, his candid denial of her alleged Satanism carried some unintended humor. Listening to von Hausswolff’s new live album, you might not disagree with the protesters about the wild and dark forces swirling in this music. There’s something menacingly subversive about running it in settings with a history of rigidity and repression — but maybe it’s not so bad lifting a hell of a lot.
Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival was recorded in 2018, during a stirring ensemble performance of material from Dead Magic and the miraculous, at the time the last two albums by von Hausswolff. The set list makes Live in Montreux an ideal introduction to her work for anyone interested in the breakthrough of 2020 All thoughts fly, her fifth album and the first for Southern Lord, who put her impressive vocals and backing band aside for stormy solo organ instruments. Like Nick Cave, for whom she opened in Montreux that evening, von Hausswolff is a rakish charismatic singer, with a menacing air that seems at once sincere and playful. She couples this theatrical expressiveness with old-fashioned vocal virtuosity, which will amaze you just as much with a melodic leap as with a twist of pristine nice singing to rock’n’roll growl.
Live in Montreux charts a rough trajectory from one pole of Von Hausswolf’s songwriting style to another. Opener “The Truth, the Glow, the Fall” comes closest to pop, a tale of doomed relationship with a deceptively effervescent organ ostinato. Closer “Come Wander With Me/Deliverance” is a 15-minute barrage, with doom metal riffs and passages of boisterous free improv that suddenly switch back to chord changes that would sound at home in a romantic-era symphony. The misty melody of the previous mode splits the difference between Cave’s murder ballads and Kate Bush’s art-pop fantasies; the Wagnerian rumble of the latter is more like swans or neurosis. Von Hausswolff and her band – guitars, bass, drums, percussion, synth, pipe organ – deliver both sides of their music with exciting high drama and careful tuning to subtleties of harmony and arrangement. Even the ambient leaning sections move on purpose, adding or removing each new layer and pushing the whole thing somewhere else.
Von Hausswolff isn’t a woman of nostalgia, but there’s throwback appeal to her treating the rock concert as an ambitious and at times solemn spectacle. In addition to the more direct reference points, Live in Montreux also remembers recordings such as those of Tangerine Dream via a detour Ricochet and Pink Floyd’s Live in Pompeii, marijuana-scented live totems from the 1970s that made the musicians feel like wizards and the stage as their magic ground. There’s nothing ironic about the music’s ominous heaviness, but it does have a sense of mischief. You can almost hear Von Hausswolff smile as she slips into a vaguely demonic register during the opening section of “The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra,” turning an otherwise mundane line — “My feet aren’t enough” — into an unholy incantation. The climax of “Ugly and Vengeful” includes passages of overwhelming density and dissonance interspersed with largely unaccompanied vocal runs. The band gets ready for a moment before coming out on top every time, like a super villain merrily brandishing torture devices before administering them.
although Live in Montreux is an inviting survey for newbies, it’s also worth a listen if you’re already familiar with the source material. Some tracks, like “Pomperipossa,” have been reworked for maximum power, but the biggest rewards are more subtle: the drum’s delicacy fills “The Truth, the Glow, the Fall,” the band’s way of pausing to catch their breath before the coda of “The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra”, or shifts the chorus harmonies by changing a single note. The next time von Hausswolff rolls through Paris, those angry Catholics need to give her a chance. Her music may be diabolical, but she is not without grace.
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