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Jenny Hval and Susanna

Meshes of Voice

(Susannasonata; US: 19 Aug 2014; UK: 8 Sep 2014)

Far more so than its male counterpart, the female voice is capable of heartbreaking beauty and often-absurd grotesqueries that border on the aurally profane. In the avant garde, exploring the extremes is commonplace, with performers often stretching their vocal possibilities to absurd lengths to create wholly new and, more often than not, wholly unpleasant sounds. But in this pushing of vocal boundaries and capabilities performers often find the truest realization of their artistic selves, perfectly encapsulating the darkness and light; the glorious, delirious highs and the crushing, nearly insurmountable lows.


This duality allows the performer myriad options when approaching a blank canvas, quickly establishing the requisite highs and lows, exploring each often in the form of jarring juxtapositions. But it’s in the more shadowy, middle areas that the greatest of artists tend to shine, taking on the highs and lows of waking nightmares and euphoric dreamscapes while allowing ample time for exploration of the more nuanced middle ground that strives to find a balance between the two.


Expounding upon an initial collaboration that began in 2009, Norwegians Jenny Hval and Susanna Wallumrød with Meshes of Voice literally and figuratively explore the title’s theme. Throughout, their tonally dissimilar voices, Wallumrød’s alto and often husky, Hval’s soprano and angelic, spar with one another, each dancing around the other before embracing and falling back into themselves. In addition to this literal sense, Hval and Wallumrød explore a thematic meshing of darkness and light, comingling the two throughout, generally from track to track though occasionally in the course of a single piece.


“Black Lake” plays like a lost folk song, steeped in sadness and appropriately melancholic in tone. Against a sparse yet demonstrative piano backing, Wallumrød’s voice becomes a perfect duet partner: smoky and somewhat mysterious, yet capable of exploding in a fully unleashed fury as the song begins to turn in on itself at the half-way point, dissolving into a sea of distorted feedback, as Hval’s voice joins high atop which swirling and cooing wordlessly before the initial piano figure, slightly lessened in its overall impact, returns order to the chaos.


Elsewhere, “Milk Pleasures” finds the vocalists scaling classically themed heights not generally found in or associated with standard popular music. Lyrically and thematically abstract, the song’s poetic quality places the focus on the sounds of the words themselves and their seemingly endless possibilities when emanating from the mouths of these gifted performers rather than on their inherent meaning.


“I Have Walked This Body” too embraces a folk-inspired melodic figure atop a singular drone that serves as the song’s basic foundation. A low, mournful hum shadows the primary melody, flying just below and creating a disconcerting sense of unease that gradually gives way to a wide array of sonic flourishes and compelling, atypical vocal harmonies as the stylistically dissimilar vocal pairing begins sparring while a sheen of feedback and distortion begins to take control of the whole, furthering the creeping sense of dread. Voices swoop in and out, co-mingling with the feedback, soaring high above it and crashing back beneath its brackish waters. By no means easy listening, there is a certain thrill that comes with this type of unhinged performance, exploring the darker corners of the human psyche and coming out the other side more or less unscathed but certainly forever altered.


Following this, “O Sun O Medusa”, as with several other instances of this stark tonal contrast, serves as a palette cleanser of sorts, bringing back a sparse piano/vocal arrangement with occasional quivering strings providing gently subtle accompaniment. Here again their voices intertwine in an otherworldly manner that finds influence in European classic and folk traditions, with an appropriate mix of the avant garde bestowed on the arrangements, lending them a fresh, not-quite-familiar, though not-entirely-unfamiliar feel.


Supplanting the piano and strings for a repetitive, finger-picked guitar, “A Mirror in My Mouth”, against a backdrop of ethereal atmospherics, fully allows both women to explore the open spaces and vocal possibilities, turning words over and over in their mouths, exploring each syllable’s inherent possibilities, pulling and stretching sounds with exceptional ease. “Thirst That Resembles Me” places the focus almost entirely on the intertwined vocals, employing slightly atonal harmonies to subtly dramatic effect, gently pushing one another across a droning landscape, voices somnambulant and hypnotic, the sounds of Sirens luring listeners to an unknown fate. As an angelic autoharp enters, it’s as though the skies have opened and the voices of angels have come crashing down from the heavens, cascading ever onward into the creeping dread that becomes “I Have a Darkness”.


With its croaked recitation of the title and medieval harmonies, “I Have a Darkness’” unease quickly embraces the listens, continuing the push-pull effect created across the album’s nearly one hour run time, lulling the listener into submission before plunging them into abject misery only to return several short minutes later with an angelic reprieve. “I Have a Darkness” shows the more sinister elements gradually taking a stronger foothold in the proceedings, stretching out across nearly five minutes, crackling with an electrified static that sounds of a massive thunderstorm in miniature, loosing itself on the listener, traveling a great distance at an unpleasantly lethargic pace that only serves to enhance the overpowering sense of dread. Reaching its apex, “I Have a Darkness” slowly, like the dark of night surrendering to the rising sun, allows for the return of the angelic meshing of voices.


“A Sudden Swing”, the most straight-forwardly pop song here, provides a element of hope with its lyrical indication of having “walked the body to the rim of its end”, pushing the limits and exploring the metaphorical and physical ends of which the body itself is capable. Fully satisfied with having done so, “Honey Dew” returns with a medieval folk theme and lyrics detailing the rising from the dawn before giving way to “Medusa”. One of the most shambolically beautiful songs on Meshes of Voice, “Medusa” features a barroom piano arpeggiating its way through the rather rudimentary chord progression while vocals twist and turn above, twining and falling apart only to fall back in on themselves, lovingly caressing one another in a lurid vocal embrace.


Throughout, Meshes of Voice seeks to find a balance between two extremes, creating a sense of harmony between the two that ultimately may or may not be possible. Regardless of the broader feasibility, together Hval and Wallumrød, leading lights in their native Norway, ably joining to create an album full of compelling performances rife with subtle nuance and grandiose bombast, capable of moving from dark to light and back again in the blink of an eye, each serving as a perfect foil. While both performers have shown themselves to be more than competent solo performers, with Meshes of Voice they show the result of two compelling contemporaries coming together, in the process creating something utterly revelatory and, ultimately, greater than the sum of its respective parts.

Rating:

John is a Michigan-based musician and writer. He currently reviews music for PopMatters and Spectrum Culture, while also working his way through his ever-expanding record collection at www.tumblr.com/blog/vinylcompulsion.


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