Shining a light into the darkness is one of the oldest tasks of art in the Western tradition. On Dead Magic, the fourth full-length record from Swedish singer/songwriter Anna von Hausswolff, the listener will encounter sustained moments of darkness and experience immersion in tense, enigmatic, and unnerving sonic environments that evoke the kind of distressing emotions hinted at by the album’s overall aesthetic presentation. But the music is also generously shot through with powerful beams of beauty and mystery and conveys a richness in harmony and melody through which, at times, one cannot fail to feel uplift and relief.
Dead Magic wears a surface of bleak experimental rock music and moody cinematic soundscapes. The two longest songs exceed 12 minutes, and they rise, fall, swell, glow like embers, and fade. Drumming, where it appears, is used more in the orchestral rather than the rock style, rarely locking into syncopation but added for emphasis and the generating of tension and drama. It’s as though there is a sinewy network of emotional turbulence, anguish, and worry that pulses from within the music.
But the real wonder and power of Dead Magic, taken as a whole, is not how von Hausswolff taps into themes associated with darkness and decay, nor even that she pauses over them for long periods – and certainly in this vein a partial musical lineage may be traced back to experimental rock and post-rock like Swans and to doom metal like Skepticism and Earth – but it is that she is equally adept at finding beauty where beauty is rare. Dead Magic goes into to dark places but also offers paths out of the darkness.
The most conspicuous tools for von Hausswolff are her two principle instruments: her voice and the pipe organ. Both help to set her apart from anyone else in contemporary music and both underpin the emotional language of Dead Magic. In the album’s two longest pieces – “The Truth, the Glow, the Fall” and “Ugly and Vengeful”, at 12 minutes and 16 minutes, respectively – she shifts wildly but virtuosically from using her voice to channel simple, beautiful melodies to using it to communicate wordless incantatory howlings.
In the first of these two songs, for example, there is a simple but arresting waltz melody that appears as a centerpiece and feels gentle and salutary, like a send-off before one disappears into spacious silence. In this mode of relatively conventional singing comparisons to Kate Bush and Joanna Newsom might be apt, but at other moments equivalent or appropriate points of reference will abandon the listener. “Ugly and Vengeful” roils expansively like Dead Can Dance or Loreena McKennitt until von Hausswollf’s voice sonorously and dramatically breaks open the song, confidently reshaping the mood and direction. In the amazing “The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra” she sings entirely in a kind of panicked pitch, and it culminates in a cathartic outburst of desperate, eloquent emotion. It is one of the most powerful pieces of music I have heard in some time.
There is a correspondence between her use of the pipe organ and the emotional shadings of Dead Magic. The instrument has a long history and a prominent place in traditions associated with devotional music. The album was recorded in a Danish cathedral – Marmorkirken, “The Marble Church” as she notes on her website. In the Western European devotional tradition, the pipe organ has been utilized to exude sound, to fill a space, and to immerse and to hold the performer and the listener together fully in a shared experience. That dynamic and experience are ideal for sacred and secular purposes, to wonder at the beauty, to feel consolation for the frailties of a fallen condition, and to aspire for redemption.
A presumed sensitivity to this tradition helps to explain in part why the darkness and the light of Dead Magic are both deeper and brighter than is typical in popular music formats. Another part of the explanation is that she exhibits technical skill in the composing, arranging, and performing of these songs with their array of emotional and textural contrasts, all of which increase with vitality on subsequent listens. Undoubtedly there are other elements to account for the magnetic appeal of this record. But to paraphrase the Swedish writer Walter Ljungquist in a poem circulated by von Hausswolff, the listener should ultimately endeavor to find the center of Dead Magic for themselves.