Live at Montreux Jazz Festival by Anna von HausswolffRelease date: January 14, 2022
Label: Southern Lord / Pomperipossa Records
Trusting the good judgment of my colleagues at Echoes and Dust, I decided to seek out the incredible music of Sweden’s Anna von Hausswolff. The stunning Dead Magic album was my first listen and it’s most of that album that fills the setlist of this recording Live at Montreux Jazz Festival. Recorded in 2018 at the Auditorium Stravinsky, the album was mixed on the Queen Neve desk, which was previously owned by Queen.
The story of how Anna came to play at this established jazz festival is one of sad circumstances. A close friend, Albin Oskarsson had wanted Anna to play the festival. He put the wheels in motion for this to happen but sadly passed away before Anna was invited to open for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the festival. Anna explains “the tragedy that Albin was still not around to share the excitement with me gave me sorrow. But, through the magic of music comfort came. The show was an emotional turmoil of ecstasy and grief, shared with an incredible audience and atmosphere. And eventually, I could see his face in the venue, floating above all others, smiling and waving towards me”.
The band who created the marvellous backdrop for Anna’s incredible vocal performance consists of her cinematographer sister Maria on vocals, Filip Leyman (synth/percussion), Ulrik Ording (drums), Karl Vento (guitar), Joel Fabiansson (guitar) and David Sabel (bass). As well as providing some one of the most electrifying vocal performances I have ever heard, Anna also plays the organ, acoustic guitar and mixes the whole thing together in a gizmo called an octatrack. Finally, Justin Grealy was the sound engineer who has done an excellent job of capturing the magic and making the recording sound as immense as it does.
Opening song ‘The Truth, The Glow, The Fall’ cranks into life eschewing the floaty introduction on the studio version by heading straight to the flickering organic hum that flickers allowing Anna to soar with that sumptuous melody. She sounds so vibrant and alive, pushing her voice to the absolute limit. A scathing “down to the river” is feverishly growled adding a layer of menace, it is truly mesmerising to hear one of the finest vocalists on the planet in full flight like this. When Anna shoots out those marvellous elongated whoops it completely ensnares you with wonder. The band get lost in the breakdown section of cascading organ notes and swirling sounds before the ocean deep organ booms back in and Anna ends the song with some absolutely stunning vocal theatrics. What an opening to the show.
The only track on the album to change drastically from the studio version is ‘Pomperipossa’ from The Miraculous. As the additional pounding drums and sweeping instrumentation swell and pull like an angry storm at sea, Anna doesn’t hold back with deranged howls and shrieks. I can only imagine how this might hit you physically in the flesh, such is the power and fury created. The band launch into the slamming, droning throb of ‘The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra’ with the same intensity that Swans (appear to) whip up in their live shows. I have read comparisons of the live Von Hausswolff experience being similar to that of Swans, in terms of sheer volume and intensity but could never quite fathom how this could be. This recording absolutely drives it home how the two can be compared. The noise that Anna’s band conjure up is so powerful and all consuming, especially when Anna is pushing her voice to the limit, which she does continually. She must be exhausted after each set, such is the commitment for this level of performance. The shrieks at the end of this song are otherworldly, it really is a sound that few outside of operatic circles could even come close to making.
The passage of warped sounds combined with Anna’s droning incantations at the start of ‘Ugly and Vengeful’ is distinctly terrifying, like being close up and personal with some sort of dark ceremony. Anna’s voice is then left to float in the ether, with no instrumentation to back her up, she still captivates like no other. Halfway through this epic track, the clouds burst apart and Anna shines through like a blinding bright light, her voice filling the space. The keyboards offer some hope over the doom before Ulrik Ording blatters out a persistent thunderous beat and we’re dragged back into a blackened pit of terrifying sounds. The band, driven along by an incensed Anna, set about creating a punishing finale of tribal drums, crashing cymbals and roaring guitars.
Soothing tones open ‘Kallans ateruppstandelse’ and they are most welcome after the chaos of the previous song. What sounds like a harmonica (uncredited if so) plays a mournful lament and then Anna tenderly sings the heart-breaking melody. Her voice sounds pure and the reverb makes her completely fill every last corner of the venue with stunning effect. Set closer ‘Come Wander With Me Deliverance’ lives for four minutes as a beautiful ethereal hymn, before briefly erupting into a seismic doom rock dirge. The guitars turn into dying dragons as squalls of ear-splitting feedback crawl over the droning hum of sounds created by everyone in full flight. Again, I can only surmise that the punishing intensity of pulverising noise would turn you into a frazzled mess. As the song and ultimately this incredible set winds to a close there’s a cracking guitar solo played out over the glorious hum of this collective of musicians playing their instruments like it’s the last time they ever will. This gig was recorded in 2018, it’s as if they knew what was coming in 2019.
Artists and bands often reach for a live recording during periods of inactivity or in this day and age, as stopgap ways of bringing in some much-needed finance. But finding a quality live recording that you want to listen to repeatedly is another thing entirely. There are classics about for sure and for me, Live At Montreux Jazz Festival can be added to that list. I’ve never seen Anna von Hausswolff live and I’m pretty sure I never will, so this album is as close as I will come to what I am reliably informed is a very special experience. The sheer intensity and power of the music is wonderfully encapsulated by Anna’s truly mesmerising vocals and delivery. A stunning recording from start to finish.