This may be just music, but your organs will know what sorcery she’s casting here.
Martin Aston 2011-06-02
An album born from improvisation, by a woman whose last album, Medea, was inspired by the murderous and abandoned sorceress of Greek legend, is duty bound to sound like an incantation. For her third album, Jenny Hval serves up lengthy tracts of serene siren song, with a pinch of acid folk, a touch of post-rock and a soupcon of goth. That makes Viscera sound slavishly retro whereas it’s anything but; note the fact the cutting-edge Rune Grammofon label are on board. If the album does tap the shivery lure and lust of ancient North European song, it’s all on her own terms. In any case, Hval doesn’t have to force the mood for a second; it’s in her Norwegian blood.
Viscera actually means the body’s internal organs, specifically in the chest and abdomen. Research into the musical impact on the pancreas or intestine is still in its formative stages but it at least sounds like Hval’s heart is in freefall. Perhaps it comes after trying out mainstream pop gloss on her 2006 debut To Sing You Apple Trees, released under the pseudonym Rockettothesky. Released in 2008, Medea’s choral-electronic tone poems pointed a way to Viscera, but under her own name at last, Hval sounds like she’s finally come home. The mood is more earthbound and primeval. Intuitive to Viscera’s pale guitar extemporisations and matching colours (synths, church organ, zither and its sadly sidelined six-string cousin, the psaltery) is the feel of endless winter darkness and summer dusks. The eight-minute This Is a Thirst sounds like Hval is channelling the dawn chorus itself, Golden Locks and Black Morning are more concentrated pastoral-misty, while Milk of Marrow and Blood Flight could be long-lost tracks from The Wicker Man soundtrack.
But for all the efforts of Hval’s cohorts Håvard Volden and Kyree Laastad, it’s her vocals at the heart of the spell. Her range of Elysian chanting, siren song and occasional growls isn’t groundbreaking but the delivery – almost theatrical at times – might stop you in her tracks. If she’s reminiscent of anyone, it’s nobody Scandinavian but exalted Canadian Mary Margaret O’Hara.
There’s one track that suggest Hval isn’t content to get lost in nature. The backdrop to Portrait of the Young Girl as an Artist begins as an eerie electronic haze over distant drums, unexpectedly slides into fully-charged Viking rock throb, and ends in a blizzard that buries Hval’s wailing protest. With Viscera, she’s clearly onto something. This may be just music but your internal organs will know exactly what sorcery she’s casting here.