Anna von Hausswolff has just released her third album, ‘The Miraculous’, and the title could not be more apt. A musical ‘florilegium’ of gothic tales, ghost stories and Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, it is indeed miraculous that anyone should have conceived of the fantastical landscapes and soundscapes that together make up this ferocious, baroque opus.
Von Hausswolff is like a modern day Wagner – all sweeping theatricals, foreboding drama and gargantuan epic tales. More importantly, she, like the much revered German composer, has a complex and unorthodox creative talent so rare that it is bordering on genius.
Inspired by childhood tales about a long ago land of kings, bloodstained landscapes, folk music and magic, von Hausswolff when questioned as to its exact Swedish location, remains tight lipped, instead referring to this “place of mystery, magic and terror” as “The Miraculous”.
Anna was drawn back to this legendary land of her childhood after reading the 1961 book, ‘Källan’ meaning ‘Source’, by Swedish author, Walter Ljungquist. Based on the journey of a young group of friends who set off to search for a magical spring in a forest, it’s central theme is ambiguity and the never ending human endeavour to find the spiritual or holy grail, something which von Hausswolff has employed as the thematic basis for her album: “If I were to search for a miracle, just like the kids in the book, then this is the place I would start looking.”
While her second album, ‘Ceremony’, was recorded in a church, for work on ‘The Miraculous’, which was recorded live (although the organ element had to be recorded and added in separately), von Hausswolff and her band set up their stall in the Acusticum concert hall in Piteå, Northern Sweden.
Situated just shy of the Arctic Circle, the Piteå concert hall is home to one of the largest pipe organs in Europe, the magnificent Acusticum, which is made up of some 9000 pipes, 208 stops and has a host of unusual features including a built-in glockenspiel, a celeste and its very own water feature, which von Hausswolff describes as, “pipes half covered in water’ which create the “screaming bird sound(s)” heard on ‘The Hope Only Of Empty Men’.
Made up of nine tracks varying in shade and tone, listening to ‘The Miraculous’ is like taking a musical journey through a kaleidoscope of cinematic and classical soundscapes. There are chapters from Brokeback Mountain, Dracula and The Ipcress File juxtaposed with images from operatic fairytales like Humperdink’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’. ‘The Miraculous’ also has the magnificent resonance of the astounding opus that is Bach’s ‘Organ Toccata’.
Anna von Hausswolff has an amazing and varied range and timbre to her voice, and intriguingly her vocal varies hugely from track to track. On album opener, ‘Discovery’ the vocal arrives very late in the game and the initial reaction is – Siouxsie! ‘Discovery’ opens with several spacious blasts of a ship’s horn – the blaring sounds of doom? Bass pipes, whirling treble and agitations of military drumming are all portentous of a drama set to unfold.
The piece evolves rapidly, and with increasing instrumental layers of electric guitar and synth, the sound gets louder until it is almost diabolically “thunderous”. Half way through, we are treated to an electronic “sound affects show” pervaded by some slow guitar playing and crashing cymbals as the vocal makes it’s long awaited arrival on stage. Vocal theatrics and powerfully evocative enunciations are very Siouxsie Sioux and rising to a crescendo bring ‘Discovery’ to a dramatic close.
While ‘The Hope Only Of Empty Men’ is fantastical and bizarre, with a “gagged” vocal, ‘Pomperipossa’ is pure Dracula/Film Noir, the stuff of dark dreams from the cemetery. It’s pure “scary around the edges” black drone, and when AvH eerily asks “Am I Scaring You?” – the auto-answer is a most definite, “YES!!”
Respite comes in the form of ‘Come Wander With Me Deliverance’, a beautifully surreal composition and for me, the highlight of the album. Here Anna’s vocal delivery is breathtakingly beautiful and ethereal. When it hits its higher reaches, it puts one in mind of a ghostly Kate Bush, but when Anna plays around with a more forceful, gymnastic style, the vocal is redolent of Susanne Sundfor. The track ramps up with some seriously good percussion, bolstering up pretty wicked guitar riffs that rip and tear across a vocal that wouldn’t be out of place in an operatic version of ‘Wuthering Heights’.
The opening bars of ‘Evocation’ wouldn’t go astray at the beginning of a heavy metal ballad. Von Hausswolff’s vocal is pure American rock goddess amidst an electrifying instrumental backdrop and the overall effect is quite stunning.
‘The Miraculous’ ends with ‘Stranger’, a meld of warm electronic and natty percussive sounds, easy acoustic and slide guitar riffs, and an heartfelt vocal. With its distinct country feel, it is a rather serene and uplifting counter to the darkness that has prevailed throughout most of the album.
Imaginative beyond the norm, creative beyond what should be possible, with exceptional musicianship and a vocal range and ability that would challenge many of today’s “success stories”, ‘The Miraculous’ is a mesmerising colossus. I relish the thought of seeing Anna von Hausswolff play this musical magnificence live.
The Miraculous is out now via City Slang.