The 40 or so people who had wrapped around the stage for Briana’s set shrouded the performance in an air of hushed secrecy, a number that by the end of the evening wouldn’t grow to more than 100, giving the entire show a cultish air of devoted rapture.
By the time Jenny Hval came on stage, there was a palpable eagerness in the small, committed crowd. The stage was bare other than a microphone and accompanying stand, and her highly capable accompanying instrumentalist, who stood before a small table of densely packed synths, mixers, and effects pedals. Having just arrived from halfway across the planet, she casually remarked “I’m nine hours ahead of you guys, the future is here” and kicked into the album’s opener “Kingsize”. A song built around provocative spoken word and flickering organs, any discernible rhythm was eschewed in favor of straining plastic and wood sounds. The lyrics establish some of the record’s, and her music in general’s, main concerns – examining expectations of Western gender stereotypes and the search for true intimacy, some sort of peace of mind despite everything you’ve been cultured to need, everything you’ve been taught to be ashamed about.
“Kingsize” is followed by a distorted, rhythm heavy song off an older record, the first demonstration of Hval’s juxtaposition of muted soundscapes with unrestrained, choral explosions of violently beautiful vocal displays. During quieter songs, her co-conspirator and synths-man would stare expressionless at the sound booth, pointing at Hval and signaling to ‘turn it up’. This made for the eruptive moments to be almost painful in their sonic magnitude, physically emphasizing the pain being expressed, and giving special weight and soothing power to the moments of restraint that would inevitably follow.
Hval moved across the stage in an all beige tracksuit, adorned with a cotton candy wig, slowly shedding pieces of her outfit as the set shifted between rolling layers of tone and dancy, stuttering beats. I found myself momentarily frustrated during one of the quieter sections, when people who had wandered into the show were distractedly talking over the music and ordering drinks that required the bartender to vigorously manipulate ice cubes. I started to think about how Western, and specifically American it was of me to expect everyone to sit in quiet rapture for an hour and a half of hallowed performance.
She concluded the set under dimming lights, playing “That Battle is Over” and album closer “Holy Land”. Here she peeled off her wig to reveal close cropped, sweat soaked blonde hair, holding the wig and pieces of her tracksuit to her chest as she sung “Statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying…what’s wrong with me?”. She closed the set illuminated only by the snake-lights wrapped around her band mates synths and mixers, resting on her knees, whispering “When I went to America.. I could not align with the landscape” before abruptly ending the song with a muffled hit on the microphone.