Last Night: Fever Ray at the Glass House

Last night: Fever Ray at the Glass House in Pomona; Tuesday, October 6, 2009.

Better than:
The Disneyland Haunted Mansion when it's turned terrible around Christmas time with Jack Skellington crap.

Think back: What exactly was the best hint that this Fever Ray concert would be spooky? Was it the picture of main woman Karen Dreijer Andersson wearing a terrifying avian grim reaper mask for her other band, The Knife? The series of staggeringly creepy music videos released for this year's self-titled debut? The fact that it was going to be in October?

I'd argue that the scariest thing about Fever Ray comes in the first
few seconds of the group's self-titled album. We're talking about the sound that opens lead
single “If I Had A Heart,” a low, undulating hum, not too far off from
the noise of a radiator or old fridge when heard in the middle of the
night — the kind of sound that starts up from under your house without warning, an unsettling reminder that everything you know is built on top of everything you don't.

If I Had A Heart from Fever Ray on Vimeo.

And so Dreijer, of course, opened her Glass House show with that sound. Only it was louder, played longer, and was sculpted from a steady din into a rumbling, clanking, horror-movie crescendo. Once the song moved into its dirge-like confessional verses, the show really began: slow-moving lasers fanning the room, the smoke machine working on overdrive, an array of antique lampshades suspended around the stage and pulsating in time with the music. The message from that sound and from the visuals was clear — this show was to be an experience, not a concert.

To that effect, you could barely see the band members. Each was clearly dressed in some sort of terrifying costume, but the details hid themselves in shadows: Instead, in front of the lasers and the lamps, we saw only silhouettes of people bigger than people normally are, shaped in ways that people aren't quite shaped. Dreijer Andersson, in some sort of elaborate headdress, looked simply like a human-height oblong, a slowly swaying totem pole in the center of of the stage.

But with the second song, “Triangle Walks,” came a reminder that Fever Ray's music isn't all the stuff of nightmares; it's more lyrically queasy, vaguely danceable, surprisingly bright-sounding electro. The lasers enmeshed and angled out into a sort of ceiling that the kids in the bleacher seats could reach up and touch, while the shaman-looking dudes on stage started doing some hand waving and knee-bending — you might call it dancing. From there, the band went through each song off the debut, each with its own pretty memorable combo of light arrangements: Sometimes, the lasers took the lead, while other tracks were bathed in the seance glow of the lampshades.

It'd be easy to say that in hiding themselves for much of the show, Fever Ray wanted to pull the old bogeyman's trick of proving that the things you can't see are freaky because of the things you imagine in their place. But I don't think that's what this band is about. Fever Ray, the album, is packed with skewed images of domesticity, impressionistic babble about the nature of memory and personality. “I live between concrete walls,” Dreijer says through a filter that makes her sound like a baritone-voiced robot on a respirator. It sounds like an abstraction, but what if she's just making a statement about humans confining themselves in houses? And on that terrifying opener “If I Had A Heart,” the main refrain is “more, give me more.” The otherworldly affect makes the narrator sound like something inhuman, but then, in Dreijer's natural voice, comes an observation and a lament: “dangling feet from window frame, will I ever ever reach the floor?”

Dreijer's artistic method is to grab snippets of human longing and dress them up in alien sounds — and in concert, alien visuals too. There's a message here. She sheds her costume partway through the show and reveals her silhouette. Her face, though, remains hidden in darkness until “Grow Up,” when house lights bathe her features in red. It's likely no accident that this happens in a song where Dreijer ends up crying, over a swarm of synth tones, about waiting for someone to embrace her. Desire, ambition, want: They're basic human impulses, but it also seems like it's basically human to distort and hide those impulses from each other. “Uncover our heads and reveal our souls,” Dreijer sings on “The Streets Are Empty” — which seems like a big hint at a concert where the singer eventually does uncover her head.

Critic's notebook

Personal bias: I'm probably reading too much into the concert and trying to find evidence for my earlier-proposed interpretation of Fever Ray's album.
Random detail:
The smoke machine got so intense at one point that the fire alarm went off. Funny thing was, it went perfectly with the music. Took me a little bit to figure out that it was actually a siren placed right next to my head.

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