It begins with the sound of a church organ, an arpeggio played on the lower notes, a melody teased out in the higher register, before a snare drum beats out an ominous, stuttering tattoo. Three minutes in, guitars begin to rumble like clouds gathering on the horizon, the melody slowly swelling, threatening to tear the sky apart. This is Anna Von Hausswolff’s “Epitaph Of Theodor”, and as dramatic, instrumental openings to albums go, it’s close to overwhelming. But it’s followed by something even more intense: “Deathbed”, which growls and resonates sinisterly before shards of metallic thunder shatter the drones and a funereal beat forces the song to lurch forward. Only after some four and a half minutes of this ferocious clamour do we hear a human voice, and it’s unleashed with a fierce power, rising and swooping, a vast bird pursuing its prey until the song reaches its final, unexpectedly triumphant climax.
You want to talk about compromises? No. Nor does Anna Von Hausswolff.
These two songs alone represent a quarter of ‘Ceremony’s sixty minutes, but there are eleven more on an album that confounds and dumbfounds from its start to its end. To those who used Anna Von Hausswolff’s debut album, Singing From The Grave, to compare her lazily to Kate Bush, it will come as a brutal shock. The fragile atmospheres of that impressive debut, one that earned her huge acclaim in her native Sweden, have been blasted away, and what’s emerged from the wasteland left behind is a dizzying masterpiece that, she proudly states, calls upon, amongst others, Elizabeth Fraser, Jefferson Airplane, PJ Harvey, Earth, Barn Owl, Nick Cave and Diamanda Galás.
Though she now lives in Copenhagen, she grew up in the once vibrant, bohemian neighbourhood of Haga in Gothenburg, Sweden, to a family who counted amongst their ancestors Bernhard Reynold von Hausswolff, an 18th Century governor of Falun, Sweden, who helped bring an end to the burning of witches. Her father, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, is a composer and visual artist who’s also co-monarch of the kingdoms of Elgaland-Vagaland, so it’s perhaps not surprising that she’s chosen to pursue a radical direction with her music.
“I didn’t just want ‘Ceremony’ to be a collection of songs,” she says. “I wanted it to be like a film, with every single part connected to the other, with shifting moods and settings, but a thread holding all the tracks together. I listen to a lot of film scores, and in many the music is able to move freely without the typical structures that we find in commercial music.”
Arguably ‘Ceremony’s most significant ingredient is the church organ of Gothenburg’s vast Annedalkyrkan, whose pipes are featured on the album’s striking cover. Employed on nine of the album’s thirteen tracks, it also provided von Hausswolff with the excuse to record for five days in the century old building, its cavernous space adding to the record’s formidable magnitude. (Work was completed at weekends over several months in producer Filip Leyman’s studios.) She found in the organ’s sound a link between her own writing and a developing obsession with “drone metal”, allowing her to add layers of thick textures to the songs. But – thanks to its inevitable associations with existence and mortality – the organ also suited the themes that lay at the heart of the record, which she defines as “nature and death, or the division of humanity and nature. From the moment we exit the womb, we start our paths towards materialism and destructive behaviour, and these days I feel that the gap between nature and human is growing bigger. I wanted to grasp my inner nature and be unified with nature again. ‘Ceremony’ is a celebration of life and everything that it contains, especially death, because in death we will be truly one with nature again.”
That’s not to say that ‘Ceremony’ is a bleak record, something highlighted by the extraordinary “Harmonica”, which sounds like Dead Can Dance channelling a Vashti Bunyan song with arrangements by Ennio Morricone. “It’s a song I wrote just after my grandfather passed away,” she recalls. “It’s about how culture and traditions can travel from generation down to generation, and in this case from him to me by music. Just before he died, he gave me a harmonica and he told me to practise hard and only write about things that are relevant to me. His deathbed inspired me to make ‘Ceremony’.”
He’d surely be proud of the bold, single-minded consequences of his legacy. Whether it be the placid but grandiose “Ocean”, the hymnal “Mountains Crave”, the grim, experimentalist “No Body” or the oddly exhilarating “Funeral For My Future Children”, ‘Ceremony’ is a genuinely thrilling, timeless, inventive and even sometimes – in the purest sense of the word – gothic accomplishment.
“This record isn’t really about Anna von Hausswolff as a vocalist or as a person,” she concludes. “It’s about the music and all that it contains. Singing from the Grave was a raw and emotional record that happened fast. I think of it as an impulse. ‘Ceremony’ is more of a vision: something unfinished and unresolved, a glimpse of the future.”