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The Royal Festival Hall is perhaps just half full when two white lasers lance through the darkness, a two-note metallic drone thrums into life and, a full two minutes later, Fever Ray (aka Karin Dreijer Andersson) takes to the lampshade-strewn stage in a ceremonial headdress that would keep her face obscured even if there was light to see by.
For the next hour Andersson holds her audience utterly spellbound throughout her debut UK appearance as Fever Ray, which is part of the Southbank Centre’s Ether 09 festival. She performs every song from her eponymous album – clearly destined to be one of the best of 2009 – alongside two covers. Those hoping to hear anything by The Knife don’t get their wish but can’t leave disappointed, such is the monolithic power of this show.
Part of that power is due purely to bass of Jamaican sound-system heaviness. From opener ‘If I Had A Heart’ to the louring glory of ‘Coconut’ it bears down from the stage, its rumbling menace contrasting with the delicate precision of a laser array that alternately beams out above the crowd in wide beams and criss-crosses the stage in a latticework of purple, crimson, turquoise and blinding white.
Lightshow aside, the onstage dynamics are few but compelling. Andersson’s band can be seen grooving in the onstage darkness but there’s predictably nothing in the way of between-song banter, or even acknowledgement that there’s anyone else in the room. This reticence seems fitting, however, and lends small moments such as the removal of Andersson’s headdress, an angular hand movement or a slow-motion shuffle and clap in time to the beat a mysterious significance. She may hate the limelight but she has presence to burn.
If there is any complaint to be made it’s that at times the low-end is so prominent as to drown out some of the subtler melodic strands threaded throughout these songs. ‘When I Grow Up’ and ‘Dry and Dusty’ suffer most notably, the latter further hampered by Andersson opting to sing the pitch-shifted chorus in a different key to the album version, which doesn’t quite come off.
These detractions ultimately prove nugatory detractions, however, as does the errant buzz that mars a section of ‘Seven’; for the most part these renditions, just like the recurrent obsessions of the album itself, are all-enveloping. It’s bracing, too, to hear the songs in this robustly tribal context as opposed to their sleeker, more headphone-friendly recorded versions. ‘Triangle Walks’ and ‘Keep The Streets Empty For Me’ benefit in particular from this approach, the added heft bringing the latter closer than ever to sounding like a doom-laden folk ballad.
Artists with a truly individual sound tend to bend cover versions to their own aesthetic, and this is very much the case with Andersson’s takes on Nick Cave’s ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ and Vashti Bunyan’s ‘Here Before’. Both sound of a piece with her own work. The former is rendered into a roiling piece of dark psychedelia, Andersson’s repeated howl of ‘I’m a stranger’ striking an authentic note of tormented alienation while a bandmate swaps his guitar for a staff and performs some kind of spirit cleansing. ‘Here Before’, by contrast, shines a light in the pervading darkness, the descending music box melody of the original replaced with blissful guitar wrapped in treated vocal samples and gently hissing synths.
Concluding with an epic take on ‘Coconut’ there’s little doubt in the crowd that they’ve been party to something awe-inspiring. Watching Fever Ray is like stumbling across a ritual ceremony of some ancient, forgotten religion, so it seems a bit of a leap to watching Royksopp, which is more like stumbling across a couple of Norwegian guys who like guest vocalists, string samples and pop music.
Given that, it’s hard to feel that the headliners are anything more than a misplaced footnote to what’s come before. Such concerns don’t appear to bother the majority of the crowd or the very amiable Torbjorn Brundtland and Svein Berge, however; nor vocalist Anelli Drecker, who cavorts around the stage in a disconcertingly insane way during the Eurovisionish ‘You Don’t Have a Clue’.
Aside from a beefed up ‘What Else Is There’ none of Royksopp’s set – culled mostly from new album Junior and their 2001 debut Melody A.M. – strays far from the original versions. A huge cheer goes up when Robyn bounds on stage for the catchy ‘The Girl and the Robot’, and the whole place goes ballistic when encores ‘Eple’ and ‘Poor Leno’ bubble into life.
The highlight, however, is Karin Andersson’s reappearance for ‘Tricky Tricky’. Wearing white gloves, widow’s weeds and a black helmet topped off with – what else? – a badger, the demonic nursery-rhyme chant of her vocal adds some much needed tension to what’s otherwise a blandly upbeat show. Whichever way you cut it, this was Fever Ray’s night through and through.
Picture of Fever Ray by Anders Jälevik via Flickr
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