When referring to an album by a Scandinavian artist as being ‘a bit glacial’ there is an associated sharp intake of breath. It feels a little wrong, and not a little meteorologically stereotypical; the equivalent to the Norwegian music press refusing to describe a British artist as anything other than squally, with patches of lighter drizzle.
And yet, here it just fits. Meshes Of Voice, by Norwegian pair Jenny Hval and Susanna (Wallumrød) is glacial, ethereal and various other adjectives that you could equally level at Jostedalsbreen. What is perhaps more unusual is how creepy it is. From the moment the wordless opener Droplet starts, there is an ever present atmosphere of tension and darkness.
Inspired by Maya Deren’s 1943 surrealist film Meshes Of The Afternoon, the songs from this album were written and first performed at a festival in 2009. Now it has been revived both for another live outing (the Ultima festival in Oslo) and for this release.
The cinematic influence is undeniably apparent. There’s something, particularly in that opening track, not a million miles away from the creepy classicism of a Goblin score to a Dario Argento film. Here Droplet serves as the pressure building introduction to the blood curdling set piece of Black Lake.
That is where the voices appear, Hval’s nymph-like and Susanna’s more stoic. Initially they are accompanied by only a piano and you think so far, so folky. Then the unexpected happens. Underneath the purity something throbbing and ugly grows. A brutal cloud of feedback that envelops the song, doing its damnedest to drown the understated composition underneath.
The noise has the same sense of purpose as Swans. A droning, unstoppable sense of malevolent intent. It isn’t what you were expecting to find accompanying these voices and the more upstanding instrumentation that started the song. But apparently, folky tending towards massive sweeps of bludgeoning noise can be astonishingly effective.
Albeit surreal. Like a fish riding a bicycle or the continued success of Bruno Mars, the difference between the shimmering, flittering, impish O Sun O Medusa or A Mirror In My Mouth and the screeching maelstrom of sounds that swell beneath I Have Walked This Body and I Have A Darkness is quite disorienting.
Not least when at other times, as on Milk Pleasures and Medusa, the album is almost vaudevillian, with comical lyrical interludes. On Medusa, that’s capped by the declaration that “the smell of hot, hot HOT custard fills the aiiiiir”, which leaves you desperately searching for a tin of Bird’s to try and remind yourself exactly what that might be like.
Unreal, fantastical and laden with a sense of deja vu – made more severe due to the phrases which appear repeatedly across the whole album, as song titles and then as lyrics – listening to Meshes Of Voice is somewhere between a terrifying hallucination and a relaxing daydream. It makes it a memorable, and strangely enjoyable, experience.