Nine years after unleashing their pitch-black eponymous debut album, Fever Ray is back in the States again with a quake full of dark textures and sexual liberation. Though I was blissfully unaware in high school when she first toured, I’ve recently heard legendary things about their live show. One statement, a comment on a YouTube video of their 2010 Coachella performance, particularly stuck with me: “I remembered people just walked out [during the show] because they just can’t take it. It is from another dimension.” It’s a personal goal of mine to experience art so visceral that I have to take some sort of immediate action to recover, much like the paranoia those who saw The Exorcist in the 1970s experienced.
Fast forward to this past weekend at Brooklyn Hangar as a part of the Red Bull Music Festival, I wasn’t compelled to exit the venue, but I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I was in the middle of a queer awakening a la the camp and colors of Killer Klowns from Outer Space. A project that originally crept through the dark recesses of your mind has now burst onto a skewed dancefloor hidden in some seedy yet fabulous club. The characters you find at this club (i.e. the colorfully costumed dancers and musicians rejoicing alongside Fever Ray) can make love to you one moment and then tear apart the patriarchy the next. Though, as they chant “This country makes it hard to fuck” during “This Country,” I’m sure they know how to do both at the same time. And while this all makes for a joyous and empowering experience, it’s also one that’s a tad familiar.
With their first album, Fever Ray made haunting use of a mix of synths and tribal beats. This time around for their second album, Plunge, they’ve fully embraced technology and celebrated its full potential live, often injecting dance breaks and the sounds of glitching. Brooding singles from their first album like “When I Grow Up” were given a dance mix, outlined by bright synths and congas. Although their discography is too well constructed to ever be average, recreating one’s work in this manner feels like a very expected choice when you want to express your queerness. Much of queer culture centers around dancing and club music and, as important as this aspect of the culture is, I can’t help shake the feeling that an opportunity was missed for Fever Ray to express their rediscovered queerness through their infamous darkness and horror.
But it would be a huge disservice to the show to speak as if it were one big dance party. Other early Fever Ray highlights like “If I Had a Heart” kept their thick, slithering bass to shake the venue more than any pop track could. In particular, their new interpretation of “Concrete Walls” forwent the track’s sparse drum beat and filled the room with one of the most haunting synths I’ve ever experienced. The audience stood still and visibly held their breath as Fever Ray and their crew rowed us down what I imagine the inhabitants of the River Styx have nightmares about. If it weren’t for the singers’ beautifully digitized melodies, maybe I actually would have wanted to leave to catch my breath. It was exactly what I went to the show for.
When Fever Ray was ready to groove and grind, their creepy sensibility and fascinating lyricism still shined through to deliver pop music eons better than 99% of most pop music. In fact, it pains me to even call some of their new music pop music since the cheery synths of “To The Moon and Back” and “A Part of Us” sure won’t garner any sort of radio play. But Fever Ray wants to be a queerdo and they’re ready to share their sweet and creamy kisses with everybody. Including their all-female bandmates. And if they express their queerness through dance, it’d be a shame to not respect that. Especially when they make music this perplexing and enchanting.