3.5 out of 5 Stars
Brother-sister duo The Knife may not be a household name outside of their native Sweden just yet, but that hasn’t stopped the pair from reaching close to iconic status among those who follow the nuances of the progressive hipster music scene. After the release of 2006’s stellar Silent Shout, Olof and Karin Dreijer swept the Swedish Grammis (yep, with an “i”), earned best album of the year honors from indie godhead Pitchfork, embargoed any future live performances and threatened to break up several times. Perhaps for the better, The Knife has decided to take somewhat of a hiatus.
In the meantime, Dreijer has seemingly felt compelled to go off on her own. Enter Fever Ray. In many ways, her solo project comes off as The Knife II. The eponymous debut has all the alien soundscapes, wraithlike vocals and distinct Euro-electronic elements that made Silent Shout an enigmatic standout. But it would be inappropriate to think of Fever Ray as solely a continuation of The Knife. In keeping with the family motif here, one could think of Fever Ray as The Knife’s moody, gothic sister — the slightly creepy one who broods alone in her room for hours and doesn’t make a peep at the family dinner table.
Fever Ray doesn’t so much imply darkness as demand it. Opener “If I Had a Heart” descends like an ominous storm cloud, its blend of foreboding tones blotting out all hopes of anything resembling The Knife’s lighter, poppier moments. A hypnotic, industrial backbeat carries the track, inducing a mantra-like grimness that sounds like something Rasputin would fall asleep to. To the album’s credit, Fever Ray maintains this bleak vibe throughout without the sense of trying too hard. It’s never gloomy for the sake of gloom. Rather, it manipulates mood and emotion with the utmost restraint and artistry.
For an album that emotes so potently, it’s fairly astonishing how sparse the production is. Most of the tracks rely on only a few droning synths and simple, programmed beats. Hardly inadequate, this minimalist approach adds to the desolation and also brings a chilly tranquility. There’s a frightening tension between uneasiness and relaxation throughout Fever Ray. For instance, “Keep the Streets Empty for Me” sounds like something that would play in a gothic spa, striking a balance between trippy horror-movie soundtrack and well-written Enya track.
The success of the album, however, hinges largely on Dreijer’s haunting, digitally affected vocals. Though not great in a traditional, pitch-perfect sense, her voice is icily evocative and fits naturally into the mix. When electronically detuned, Dreijer displays a duality that makes her sound like she’s battling a strange beast within (like on the album’s most sinister track, “Concrete Walls”). When left comparatively untouched by studio wizardry, her distinctly Swedish voice conjures up a mix between Bjork and M.I.A. sans antidepressants.
Considering the dominant mood of Fever Ray, it’s clearly not a party album. It’s more of an introspective, alone-in-your-room-with-headphones record (or a life-threatening-drive-through-a-snowstorm record). Although sometimes too dark and plodding for those with less-than-spectacular attention spans, this meditative album is perfect for canceling out the external world for 50 minutes a pop. When it comes to gloomy Swedish electronica, you could do a lot worse.