Record label Rune Grammofon is on a mission to introduce the best Norwegian music to the rest of the world. It’s a crusade that’s gaining momentum – The Borderline may only be half full tonight but those present listen with the rapt attention not normally seen outside the classical or jazz spheres. First in tonight’s showcase is Phaedra, the project of singer Ingvild Langgård. Playing experimental dream-folk, they conjure images of Norwegian fjords and waterfalls, but also invoke wider European influences: there are Celtic elements in the violin refrains while the vocal arrangements echo English medieval styles. Like a Norwegian Florence and the Machine, Phaedra sound as though they’ve come not just from another country, but possibly another world.
Scene of otherworldliness set, the diminutive Jenny Hval takes to the stage. Bespectacled and fragile, she looks like an owl that’s picked up a guitar, but the façade is misleading – this small and unassuming figure has one of the most versatile, powerful voices around and isn’t afraid to sing about sexual organs, bodies and the abject with disarming candour. These themes are drawn together on ‘Engines in the City’ from highly acclaimed 2011 album, ‘Viscera’, which utilises spoken word and the avante garde to meditate on the link between bodies and cities: “I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris.”
Tension builds on ‘Blood Flight’, the most accessible and also best track from the album, which pulses with a menacing drum beat and repetitive, insistent guitar riff. It also showcases Hval’s incredible vocal – with its surprising range, use of half tones and intentional flat notes she performs vocal summersaults over the simple arrangements. Slower, but with the same beating intensity, is a new track based on ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ which draws on the same absorption with the body and its borders: “You are virgin or a young boy/You’re not sure.”
With all this intense focus Hval is surprisingly funny, telling us drily, “Welcome to Norway – we have the same weather as you.” This sense of humour gets her through a tricky moment when, surprised into an encore, she reveals they don’t really have any songs left that they can remember. Ironically, the one that is eventually played is ‘I Got No Strings’ – it comes off perfectly. After a slow start as Hval meditates on “What is a woman?” the familiar but this time more grungy beat and pulse kicks in and the vocal becomes a series of perfectly controlled yelps and cries.
Despite tonight’s relatively small crowd, the impressive critical success of ‘Viscera’ and growing interest in Scandinavian experimental artists such as Hanne Hukkelberg and Silje Nes suggests an increasing appetite for work that challenges and disturbs rather than lulling us into a comforting stupor. This is probably just as well: world – get ready, the Norwegians are coming.
Words by Theresa Heath
Photo by Helen F. Kennedy