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Live Review: Fever Ray at the Fonda

October 8, 2009 | 11:06 am

The first thing one saw at Fever Ray's L.A. debut at the Fonda last night was a gray sheet of smoke. It formed on the blacked-out stage, where the Swedish electro-goth ensemble waited in silhouette, then slowly crept over the crowd like something out of "The Fog," until the whole audience was obscured by  acrid mist. If you've ever harbored fears of pagan witches coming for you in the dead of night, this would not have helped you.  

But from the moment the band started playing, and a fan of refracted lasers descended to just over the audience's heads and a bevy of antique lamps flicked on and off in time to the drums, the show turned from unnervingly creepy to completely overwhelming. Fever Ray's music is a delirious and deadpan cousin to Karin Dreijer Andersson's day job in the spooky house duo the Knife, but her live show is less about performing from her record than making an entire new world around it, with a great assist from set designer Andreas Nilsson. And it's one that happens to feel like nothing less than the Satan-impregnation scene in "Rosemary's Baby."

Andersson spent much of the first half of the set wearing an elaborate coat that looked to be made from an entire skinned elk (or some other antlered creature), while her four-piece band wore various mime-inspired get-ups. She didn't even really show her face until the latter half of the show, which lent a very apropos misdirecting quality to the music. Andersson near constantly obscures her voice with a kind of pitch-shifting filter device that sometime drops it to sub-human octaves, and other times just makes her natural tone sound a bit uncanny and, well, wrong.

Feverray300 The band led off with "If I Had a Heart," the first single from her self-titled debut, and its ephemeral synth pads and dirgy bass made it more of a tone poem propping up Andersson's downshifted melodies. But the set was surprisingly drum-focused. Many great forgotten sounds of dance combos past -- reverbed roto-toms, goofy steel-drum presets -- wove into dizzying counterpoints on such cuts as "Seven" and "When I Grow Up." There was some excellent kraut-funk guitar work happening too; occasionally, it would spiral out into peals of white noise. It was tough to tell how much was sampled and how much was live, but of course, when a laser cannon is bearing down on you while the band threatens to invoke the undead with incantatory dances, that's the least of one's worries.

Yet it's all a touch campy too -- Fever Ray is truly spooky, but they know lasers and animal-skin costumes are also really funny.

When Andersson finally lost the antlers, she was done up in white corpse paint and considerable ice-blond extensions. In a way, showing her face was a small and needed denouement to her show -- a reminder that yes, a real person was behind all this, one working at the absolute forefront of sound, stage and the ways the two inform each other. A band mate closed the set by hoisting a staff in the air affixed with what looked like the "Blair Witch" twig icon; that would've drilled nightmares into any children who happened to have wandered in. But while Fever Ray never shies from its more theatrical and modern impulses, the real emotions Andersson's music brings out -- enticement, disquiet and unknowable mystery -- are much older than the stage.   

-- August Brown

Photo by Johan Renck