Anna von Hauswolff
All Thoughts Fly
Anna von Hausswolff is easily the most interesting artist currently recording in Sweden, possibly in all of Europe (in this critic’s sincere opinion. If you don’t believe me go watch the live video for “Ugly and Vengeful”). Her 2010 debut, Singing from the Grave, was quite good but fairly conventional, mostly a woman-and-piano affair something like Tori Amos meets Kate Bush. From there she’s spiraled off into a world of Gothic dirge, Earth-inspired drone, and a gloom-and-doom sound as deep as the North Sea and bleak as a Finnish winter. Her voice readily swoops from sweet and clear to growl to banshee shriek, and is one of the most potent weapons in her arsenal of sonics. At turns angelic and apocalyptic, von Hausswolff weaves textures like the best avant composers of the 20th century and it’s not unfair to compare her work to something like Missy Mazzoli’s off-kilter and and sometimes jarring operas. 2018’s Dead Magic perfected the driving heaviness of von Hausswolff’s compositions and should be discussed as one of the best albums of the last decade; her fifth full length and first for Sunn O)))’s Southern Lord label, All Thoughts Fly, takes this aesthetic and applies it to instrumental organ music.
Organ has long been central in von Hausswolff’s music; she has considerable keyboard skills and a knack for finding truly amazing pipe organs throughout northern Europe (All Thoughts Fly was recorded on the organ at Örgryte New Church in Gothenburg. It’s one hell of an instrument), so it’s not out of character for her to explore the organ as the sole vehicle for her thunderously brooding mood pieces. What is unusual is the complete absence of her meteoric voice; it feels almost like she elected to duel left-handed.
The choice to abandon the trappings of her band (who are excellent) in some ways enhances a lot of what von Hausswolff has been aiming at for several albums. The pipe organ – alone with maybe the bagpipes – has a unique quality of being full, huge, and expansive while keeping a lonely, singular presence. Certainly it allows for notes to continue without end at every octave imaginable, and the capacity to drone somberly has become a cornerstone of von Hausswolff’s music. In von Hauswolff’s hands the organ becomes a vehicle for experimental sounds and atmospheres; All Thoughts Fly frequently doesn’t sound anything like you imagine a pipe organ to be like – this isn’t a Bach fugue. The opening track, “Theatre of Nature,” begins with a rising, echoey motif that slowly blends into an airy ambience, balancing on the edge between maverick composer and the nuances of the best atmospheric electronica (except live and acoustic). Going forward only doubles down; the bottom end of “Sacro Bosco” – the lead single, inspired from a disused sculpture garden in Italy – is a menacing subterranean throb that refuses to let go, even its airy third quarter can’t escape the dark roots. But All Thoughts Fly isn’t completely avant. “Persefone” flows like an adagio movement (though one that uses the flutter sound of close-together notes held for a long time – the organ version of feedback – to great effect), and “Outside the Gate (for Bruna)” is simply, lushly pretty.
For me, the centerpiece of All Thoughts Fly is the title track. It’s a tone piece, built around cyclic burbles that resemble the modulated arpeggios of analog synths. But about 8 minutes in the full width and breadth of that mighty set of pipes opens up around it and it’s just too powerful to process. Positively brilliant.
It’s difficult not to call All Thoughts Fly “serious” music (I hate that term but it’s more descriptive than “new music”, which kind of assumes all prior music was classical. At least “serious” attempts to give some credence to rock/pop/etc by declaring its separation). Von Hausswolff has created a work that pushes her instrument to – and past – its limits, one that’s meant to be taken seriously. It’s not for everyone; certainly it should appeal to fans of Brian Eno, Sigur Rós, even American minimalist Steve Reich, people who take an intellectual approach to tone and texture. Though she’s hinted at it before, this is a pretty wide departure from the sturm and drang of her most recent albums (particularly Dead Magic, which has brought the most international attention to von Hausswolff). But it’s good – very good – and those up to the challenge of All Thoughts Fly will be richly rewarded by an active listen.
Pros: It’s a record with little to compare it to, and for that reason alone it’s exciting. Von Hausswolff’s compositional acumen and playing skills are both top notch.
Cons: The pacing is deliberately on the slow side. It takes an active listen to appreciate most of what von Hausswolff is doing. It’s quite cerebral and appeals little to hot emotions or beats.
Bottom Line: I personally love it. All Thoughts Fly is both challenging and unconventional. Listen to it at least once; I think a lot of you post-(whatever) people will fall for it.