The latest album from Jenny Hval, Norwegian singer/songwriter and cross-arts experimentalist, is, she says, a “fictitious story, fed by characters and images from horror and exploitation films of the 70s”. It is, then, on one level, a homage to the gaudy source material that inspired the theatre and imagery of both the Goth and Black Metal scenes.
‘Blood Bitch’ is, however, as is always the way with Hval, many things. It is a meditation on menstruation, the common thread “which ties together the virgins, the whores, the mothers, the witches, the dreamers and the lovers”; in other words, all of the multiple roles conferred on women, one of the central preoccupations of Hval in her ongoing investigations of the role and characterisation of womanhood in pop and rock, which led her to invent the challenging formula of “soft dick rock”.
The album is also autobiographical, reminiscing on her 90s past as singer with the Goth metal band Shellyz Raven, as well as her present day existence, the hectically transient one of an artist who spends a lot of time shuttling internationally between events and festivals.
Having made her first solo outing in 2006, Hval’s first few albums were deceptively orthodox in terms of arrangement and production, sometimes lulling the listener with trip hop, her enervated but insistent voice reminding a little of Stina Nordenstam. However, in 2014 she met Norwegian producer and versatile avant-garde musician Lasse Marhaug when he interviewed her for his fanzine. They began working together and it’s fair to say Marhaug has had a shattering impact on her music, encouraging her to express herself in concurrent, simultaneous ways, juxtaposing pop with brutalist noise broadsides, field recordings and use of studio technology to recreate something that at times recalls the German form of radio play known as Hörspiel – using various tactics to create a sonic theatre that reflects the many strings on her bow: writer, performer, artist (with faint overtones of Tracy Emin and Cindy Sherman) as well as musician.
‘Blood Bitch’ begins, ceremoniously, with ‘Ritual Awakening’, a brief prelude which sets the atmosphere of what is to come, one of charcoal and red hues, of smoke and mirrors. ‘Female Vampire’ follows, driven by a skeletal, stalking, arpeggiating riff and reverb used, as with Maria Minerva, to suggest a multiplicity of being rather than as a mere effect. This bleeds, as it were, into ‘In The Red’, whose frantic, cyclical, panting enables us to break through the fourth listening wall, as if hastening deeper into the personal labyrinths Hval is exploring.
‘Conceptual Romance’ is quite the loveliest track on the album, its pop centrepiece at least. It revels in its dark chocolate-sweet changes, its tremulous vocals always teetering on the verge of prose rather than lyric, as Hval purringly contemplates the perpetual bliss of a “sexual holding pattern”. ‘Untamed Region’ follows and is disquieting by contrast, its spectral keyboards recalling early Pink Floyd. The word “immersive” is over-used, but this music really does situate you in the place it is outlining, an interior space, the attic of the lively mind where memories, like past electric toys, are still charged. All of a sudden, however, its atmospheres are cut across by a narrator, which I had to check wasn’t the sound of a radio coming from another room. It speaks, in a way that has wider political applications, of the impossibility of oppositional forces to settle on a coherent narrative.
‘The Great Undressing’ is another tableau, set against the distant cantering of sequencers and a preamble in which a friend asks, “What’s this album about, Jenny?” and Hval answers laughingly and evasively that it’s about vampires. The production offers a welcome scent of wind and air, of liberation. The overdubs of ‘Period Piece’ lend an effect similar to the sepia tint on old photographs, while ‘The Plague’ begins with furious tabla before Hval declares “I don’t know who I am”, falling backwards morosely into a five minute abyss of reverb.
‘Secret Touch’ is a return to pop mode, with its tinny ‘Funky Drummer’ riff, but it sits in the aftermath of all that has preceded it, another argument for listening to albums in sequence rather than cherry picking. “Ravishing, ravishing… ” declares Hval. “Most of all, absolutely necessary.”
Finally, ‘Lorna’ whirls as if on a rusty carousel, an infinitely spinning memory, unresolved. It’s a fittingly vivid, haunting climax to an album whose modern artistic detail deserves repeated listening.