Fever Ray, Xela

Holly Cruise 14/07/2009

Do you have that special pile of CDs, the one mentally labelled 'summer' music, destined for car stereos as if the sheer power of association with blazing sunshine can force the clouds from the sky and drag the beams of vitamin D down to this sullen, sopping island? If so then the rain which hammered the streets of Manchester for most of the week around the time of Fever Ray's invasion of the city could only have been attracted by these purveyors of the most claustrophobic and introverted piece of musical brilliance released this year. For this wasn't the usual cold rain, whipped along by winds from the chilly Russian plains. This was tight, close rain, drenching the air with humidity even when it wasn't pouring from the sky. It was uncomfortable and oppressive. It was one extended metaphor for one of the best gigs of the year.

Never lit with more than the most meagre half light, Fever Ray's live form consists of Karin Dreijer Andersson, the woman who went from frothy Texas light indie pop with the successful-only-in-Sweden group Honey Is Cool, to the evil pop/techno/electronica hybrid which is The Knife, her project with her brother. The Knife managed to be popular in a lot of places by virtue of great songs, and yet they rarely did interviews and almost totally shunned live shows. This is what makes tonight something of an event. No one is expecting any Knife songs, just a glimpse of the woman who voices them.

Fever Ray is The Knife without the beats. The self-titled album is a dense but strangely immediate record, mostly written whilst Karin was gripped with a drowsy postnatal insomnia. In live form, Fever Ray aim to capture this state, where dreams half form to corrupt the reality of what's around you.

With a stage decorated by lamps (a motif adopted from the disorientating video for Triangle Walks, the most recent single) the band slip into view almost totally under the cover of darkness. What little light there is doesn't offer much comfort. Two characters out of a Venetian charivari appear, masked and sinister. A smaller figure arrives dressed as one of the red suited royal guards from the Star Wars films. There's what appears to be a gorilla with its chest ripped open and its ribs showing. And there's a huge mound of deer skin and antlers with a freakish shrunken head attached to the front. It's a million miles from Jonny Borrell titting around in white trousers. Thank god.

It emerges that the mound of mangled deer is Karin. She looms towards the dual microphone in the centre of the stage, and begins to sing the opening track of both her album, and her campaign as Fever Ray, the single If I Had A Heart. It would have to be a courageous heart. Previously employing her trademark low pitched vocals on The Knife's albums gave Karin the ability to sing like a man and present subversive ideas on gender and society. With Fever Ray it is used to conjure a twisted alternate reality, substituting If I Had A Hearts lovelorn lyrics with a brooding deep voice. Live, it's just shit scary. Booming to the extent that it's not even totally apparent that it's a vocal rather than a particularly deep bass note, she roars whilst not roaring, her physical stillness under that roadkill costume focusing the audience ever more on the rumble. 'This will never end/'Cos I want more/More/Give me more, give me more'. Chills abound.

And at that moment we are boxed in. Fever Ray's stage show amounted to little more than strange costume, those lamps, and two powerful lasers, beaming from the back of the stage. But from simple components are great things made. As If I Had A Heart began the lasers blasted out to the back wall of the room, then fanned out over us. As the dry ice from the stage rose it danced about in the lasers' paths. The effect was to impose a seemingly liquid roof on the audience, as if we were trapped underwater whilst onstage monsters roared.

We weren't to be held prisoner there for the whole gig, indeed the mood soon lightened, as did the lighting. Tracks like Seven and Triangle Walks do have a lightness to them, there was even a degree of dancing, although it was limited and felt more like people were being controlled by the pulsing rhythms of the music rather than any arms-in-the-air rave mood. Karin even took off her roadkill, although she had painted her face with a strange pallor and a black triangle. She sang into a regular mic too, allowing us to hear her rather sweet real singing voice rather than the effects laden rumble. But this did not mean we could relax. The mood of the show shifted almost at random. The calm Leave The Streets Empty For Me, a duet with the keyboardist formerly dressed as a Star Wars soldier, contracted with the dense rant of I'm Not Done (way more terrifying than on record). The set was similar. Lasers would gush over our heads one moment, to be replaced by the warm glow of the lamps the next. It was stunning.

At times it felt more like theatre than a rock gig, the audience politely clapping in between songs, not a sound heard from anywhere until the futile shouts for an encore after the band had vanished from the stage under cover of darkness. And what theatre! If nothing else, music should aim to move, and Fever Ray delivered that and then some. The middle eight of Dry And Dusty in particular shone, Karin's downshifted robo-voice for once calming rather than sinister before suddenly lifting into a crescendo in which, through the digital effects, her own humanity was so very visible.

Use of the word visceral seems confined to music like fast punk rock, but this show managed to be stylistically the total opposite whilst being more deserving of the adjective than any other show this year (and probably most other years). Short but sweet, and perfect.