FIRST PUBLISHED AT THE LINE OF BEST FIT
It’s not a shame about Fever Ray
I’d just finished mildly mocking Bon Iver’s Auto-Tune ballad ‘In the Woods’ from his recent ‘Blood Bank EP‘ when Fever Ray’s Vocoder-heavy debut album landed in my inbox with a mechanical clunk. Fever Ray is Karin Dreijer Andersson, one half of Sweden’s much admir’d avant-electro outfit The Knife, whose ‘Silent Shout‘ topped many a 2006 end-of-year list including the likes of Pitchfork. But The Knife are no picnic, adopting an occasionally abrasive textural orthodoxy: the use of vocoders for almost all vocals and a highly artificial sonic pallette (pure Vangelis synths, few samples) that is more post-techno than electronica. Robots singing can make for a poignant, secluded voice, as Radiohead famously employed to deliberately dehumanising effect on ‘Kid A‘ – but to my mind Add N to X’s haunting robot duet ‘BP Perino’ has never been bettered (maybe). Like The Knife, Dreijer Andersson is committed to the application of Auto-Tune for the greater part of her Fever Ray debut. But rather than serving as a synthetic mask, it adds an expressionistic and textural range to her caterwauling vocals – think Bjork in a hair pulling ambush on Gang Gang Dance’s Lizzi Bougatsos – otherwise beyond her means: from (paranoid) android and androgynous, to wheezy and ill-sounding (on ‘Dry and Dusty’), to deep and husky (‘Concrete Walls’). It’s an unusual approach since Fever Ray’s lyrical threads are less sinister than those on ‘Silent Shout': more intimate, less conceptual. Lyrics about dishwasher tablets are either mind-numbingly prosaic or charmingly offbeat, depending on how you look at it, but you can’t deny the odd little fission sparked by distorting these wistful musings with a such distortional device. Moreover, Andersson’s unshowy melodic gifts and pop sensibility radiate through the dissonance.
Whereas texturally Fever Ray is very much in the same territory as The Knife, it’s less sonically busy: there is no virulent dancefloor electro or jet engine bass frequencies. Slow-motion synth pop from start to finish, Andersson’s solo work is most indebted to Vangelis’ symphonic approach to electronic music: the uncluttered chords and deceptively simple arrangements. On a number of tracks (‘Seven’, ‘Triangle Walls’, for example) there are Far Eastern inflections which again recall Bladerunner’s reimagined Tokyo and the dystopian electro of Warp pioneers Black Dog Productions. Often opening with buzzing drones, the tracks morph and pulse gently around a central theme, with only subtle adjustments of tension. Unashamedly cinematic, almost stately, Fever Ray will be compared to Kate Bush – particularly when Andersson’s voice is left untreated (‘Keep the Streets Empty For Me’) – but the songwriting here is much less histrionic, far more economic than that. It’s a much-used cliché but this really is headphone music, to appreciate the stealthily immersive layering of synths, and the unfussy (i.e., glitch free) but thoughtful drum patterns (check out the way the Ping Pong percussion slowly insists itself on ‘I’m Not Done’). Icy but intimate, experimental but quietly infectious, Fever Ray’s debut deserves to garner the same admiration as The Knife, if not more.