Jenny Hval Drake Underground, Toronto ON, October 7
Published Oct 08, 2016Last night (October 7), draped in a midnight black satin cloak, Oslo avant-garde artist Jenny Hval channelled the vampires she sings about on the freshly released album she's cycling through for a tightly packed audience at the Drake Underground.
Considering the jarring, fragmentary nature of Blood Bitch, the front-to-back delivery of the material was unexpected (even more so in light of the performance art routine Hval took on the road for last year's Apocalypse, girl), but with some careful manipulations, Hval found a way to repackage the experience so it was better suited for the gig arena, remaining loyal to the dream chaos and subtlety she stitched it together with on record.
For the most part, Hval achieved this by trading out Blood Bitch's spoken dialogue with some album insights and playful, poetic asides. So between delivering gorgeous vocals and choreographed dancing that found her raising her cloaked arms in the air and crossing them in front of her chest, sarcophagus style, instead of the spoken bit at the top of "Untamed Region," we got an artist statement on what the different types of blood the album is about look like.
While Blood Bitch incorporates a lot of imagery about menstrual cycles, "Some of that blood is the blood from kind of old horror films, and it looks more like paint, so it's not the kind of blood that looks very real," Hval offers. "It's more half real, half unreal chemical blood. Just like the vampires; kind of half human, half… nobody knows what."
Later, Hval skipped the skit on "The Great Undressing" — which lifts the curtain mid-album to tell us Blood Bitch is "about vampires" — so she could explain she conceptualized the track as a "workout video" inspired by a "really beautiful, great series of horror workout movies from the '80s" that she encouraged the crowd to seek out on YouTube. The capitalism/love critique "Period Piece," she said, was inspired by the phenomena of "Get Ready With Me" videos, wherein girls ("most of the time, disappointingly") put on make-up, fix their hair and accessorize before going out for the night. For Hval, she told us, these are about the ritualistic application of masks (or shields). They're hopeful, "endearing little ad[s]."
Concert banter is not inherently remarkable (and, more often than not, barely notable), and for Hval, on a very basic level, these asides serve the functional purpose of pacing out the set. But these mic moments were also deeply rooted in the subjects and aesthetics Hval is working with on her new album, and for that, they were all the more compelling live and off the cuff. Explication and confession play an important role on Blood Bitch, synthesising thoughts that probe everything from identity crises to the "accidental sci-fi" of visits to the OBGYM.
It's right to call Blood Bitch provocative, but at the same time, it's advisedly prudent to couch that criticism in some resistance to call it that, too. Blood Bitch is about vampires and menstrual blood and capitalism, sure, but they're explored as ritualistic mundanities as trivial as the daily intake of birth control. Its "shock" is balanced and tethered to tedium, more concerned with adding layers of nuance and further complication, like the women streaming their mirror time — "There are multitudes," Hval sings on "Period Piece."
So when it all came to an abrupt halt after album closer "Lorna" and its dizzy organ introspection, it seemed only appropriate that Hval lament not capping the album off with a rapturous dance track. Blood Bitch is as much a celebration of exploration, and that's what we got last night.