Jenny Hval at The Chapel, by Jon Bauer
Jenny Hval (photo: Jon Bauer)

I was introduced to Jenny Hval earlier this year by the first single off her Sacred Bones debut, Apocalypse, girl, and it’s a beautiful, provocative examination of identity and consumerism in Western Culture. “That Battle is Over” is one of the record’s most straightforward tracks, in its relatable, bluesy intonation and consistent rhythmic component, something most of Apocalypse, girl avoids, preferring rather to lurk in mists of hovering, synthetic strings and a washy sheen that feels like the aural equivalent of a gaussian blur.

I listened to that song almost everyday until the record came out, and dug through her back catalog, discovering her previous two LPs and vocal centric collaboration with likeminded singer/composer Susanna Wallumrød; the music reminds me of a piece I read about the subtle harmonies that various household appliances’ tonal hums will gradually arrive at, influencing your emotional state depending on their harmony or dissonance, her music being undeniably confrontational, but also deceptively soothing. The performance this past week at San Francisco’s The Chapel – an early 20th century mortuary converted to popular music venue – was something I’d been anticipating for weeks, and would be her first night performing in the States in support of Apocalypse, girl.

Joining Hval on her tour, Seattle based singer-songwriter and music technology student Briana Marela eased into the evening with delicately stacked vocal loops and wispy harmonies. The revealing nature of watching someone construct a song in real time allowed Briana to flip songs on their head after reaching a climax, using her two band mates and various softwares to introduce unexpected changes.

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.