Fever Ray; Zola Jesus | Live review

O2 Academy, Brixton, London SW9

In celebrity culture, visibility is all; overexposure no longer really exists. Pop demands that its stars, particularly its female stars, reveal a great deal, whether it is flesh or feeling. R&B requires a lot of leg; tousle-haired singer-songwriters, meanwhile, are valued for their nakedly confessional lyrics.

How refreshing, then, to witness two sets by female solo projects – midwestern US newcomer Zola Jesus, and Swedish electronic darling Fever Ray – played out in near-total darkness. Zola Jesus is lit – in theory at least – by the dimmest of purple glows. Fever Ray fills the Academy with a peasouper of dry ice, before carving it up with lasers.

But there is a sense of humour abroad in this gloom. Two dozen chintzy Victorian standard lamps wink in formation behind Fever Ray and her band, a deft touch that undercuts the atmosphere of frigid foreboding inaugurated by tonight's opening act.

You can just about make out the diminutive robed figure of Zola Jesus pacing fretfully up and down the lip of the stage, like Lady Macbeth with a new pedometer. She is flanked by two  mute apparatchiks, coaxing forbidding electronics out of keyboards. Some bleached hair peeks out from under her head covering. When Zola Jesus sings, you can only marvel at how such a cavernous voice can come from a ribcage so tiny. (Operatic training is the mundane answer.) "It's gonna be all right," she intones repeatedly on "I Can't Stand", but Nika Roza Danilova's music forcefully suggests otherwise.

A quick image trawl on Google reveals Danilova's transformation from road-kill-fondling midwestern goth to the more sophisticated sound and image manipulator of today. The cover of Zola Jesus's latest long EP, "Stridulum II", is a 3-D picture of Danilova making like Stephen King's Carrie, all covered in gore (chocolate syrup, apparently).

The music within, replayed majestically tonight, transcends the easy tag of art-goth, however. Danilova's mastery of simplicity and dynamics suggests a powerful pop brain is at work under all that peroxide. Although austere and glacial, her songs are virtually all love songs, filled with longing and melancholy.

Zola Jesus's records have thus far come out on tiny auteurist labels, but, at its best, her vast music demands a far bigger audience. "Night" could well be the biggest hit no one outside of the blogosphere has ever heard; it builds and builds exquisitely as Danilova climbs on to a speaker, exposed, finally, by a strobe of digital cameras.

You can't really see Karin Dreijer Andersson (she who is Fever Ray) either. But logic dictates she is the robed figure in the middle of the stage under a three-lobed headdress, best summed up as papal via tribal. One percussionist has a sword sticking out of his back; the guitarist occasionally brandishes a giant staff aggressively behind Dreijer Andersson. You can't actually see them, but the band are all wearing masks as well.

Dreijer Andersson has rarely been seen without a face covering in recent years, since the success of the Knife – the other feted electronic band she shares with her brother, Olof. When Fever Ray won the best dance artist award at a Gothenburg ceremony in January, Dreijer Andersson pulled back a red veil to reveal what looked like a pig mask in melted plastic, and grunted her thanks. The on dit is that Dreijer Andersson might have been making a point about Muslim women having acid thrown in their faces.

Cited by sources as disparate as Pitchfork and the Times as an album of the decade, Fever Ray is nearly two years old now; it was intended as a brief stopgap for Dreijer Andersson, who also juggles two children and opera collaborations alongside the Knife and Fever Ray.

But its success has extended Fever Ray's lease. This short tour is billed as the very, very final outing in the lifespan of this album. But there is a new Fever Ray single to accompany it – a cover of Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street". Like the other covers the band have essayed, it has been thoroughly Fever Rayed tonight, melding seamlessly with the pitch-shifted, pagan-leaning near-dance music either side of it.

Gabriel's song is a tribute to the American poet Anne Sexton, an anguished figure who took her own life in 1974. Sexton's work derived from her life as a mother and wife; it's worth remembering that Fever Ray, the album, was written during the long sleepless nights when Dreijer Andersson was tending her youngest baby.

If you listen closely, domesticity is intimately bound up in Fever Ray's notionally forbidding music. Live, Dreijer Andersson tends to obfuscation, but on record, there are revelations aplenty. "Seven" finds her by the kitchen sink, talking to a friend about love and "dishwasher tablets" – priceless lyrics that are, truthfully, a little lost in tonight's imposing arrangement of the song. "Concrete Walls", meanwhile, features penetrating sub bass whose menace is subtly leavened by the flashing Victorian seance lamps and homely poltergeist clanking.

You can't help but think that Fever Ray's consummate visuals deserve to be seen, rather than hidden in a bank of sickly sweet dry ice. But you emerge from tonight's gig with a sense of mystery and possibility intact, something all too rare in these over-examined times.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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