upheaval

i wish i could explain to you what happened to me 12 hours ago. i’m still not fully recovered from the two-hour rite that occurred on-stage at massey hall last night; to borrow a phrase from a friend, i’m emotionally hung over. i apologize for how long this e-mail will undoubtedly be.

first of all, rumours that they play nothing from agaetis byrjun during their shows were false; they played 3. they also played another song that i recognized (“nyjalagia” from the svefn-g-englar ep, i think); the rest were songs i didn’t know.

secondly, the details: they didn’t go on until 9:00, they finished at 11:00, no encores (short of a few bashful bows), and they didn’t say a word the entire time (for all i know they don’t even speak english). the bassist, drummer and guitarist switched instruments frequently, using synths, pianos, flutes, glockenspiels. one song involved the drummer and guitarist playing a keyboard each while the bass player played an 8-note pattern on the glock, and the singer (who normally plays his guitar with a violin bow) sat cross-legged with his back to the audience, almost hidden behind a monitor. i swear, i thought at that point that they were scared of us. that didn’t last.

i went from being thrown backward in my chair near the beginning (during “olsen olsen”, i think) to lapsing into something approximating sleep. there were songs that lulled you into a suspended awareness of what was going on. i had to remind myself a few times that what was happening on the stage is what was doing this to me. and then…the ping.

let me just say this: the laws of physics may not have been broken last night, or even bent, but they were leaned on awfully hard. sounds like that (i won’t say “sounds that beautiful” or “notes that clear” because trying to assign adjectives to the sounds does them a disservice) simply should not be able to come out of one so small without signs of effort. i realize people say the same about fellow icelander bjork, but bjork has never realized this emotive quality, and any power she manages is by dint of physical exertion. no, this sound caused disbelief. i was convinced at times that it was coming from a sampler, but then you’d see the throat move or hear his thought coming through the note. this band is not made up of people who are experts with their instruments. instead, they do whatever they can to drag you to the 40th floor of your conception of how music is supposed to happen to you, and rather than kicking you off the top, the voice, this phenomenon that sets them apart from whatever else you know, picks you up and drops you over the edge, and all you can think about on the way down is how lucky you are to be seeing this. the voice stops, you hit the ground. another song. you’re being dragged up again.

anyway, the ping. anyone who has heard svefn-g-englar (the first song on agaetis byrjun) knows what “the ping” is. it was programmed into a sampler on his keyboard, and it sounded once as a test. a lot of us in the audience recognized it, and knew what was coming. i was nervous. i was dead fucking nervous. all night i’d been praying they’d play that song (since it’s quite possibly the most gorgeous thing i’ve ever encountered); meanwhile i’d been silently pleading with them not to. i had several reasons for not wanting to hear it, not the least of which was because i couldn’t fathom how they could expect to pull it off live. the voice had to have been done with effects. the bow work had to have been done with more than one person. those words couldn’t possibly come when standing in front of thousands of dubious onlookers lying prostrate at the feet of one singing a language we couldn’t understand, all of us dreading a substandard offering of a song we had accepted as pristine. the ping grabbed me by the waist and fixed me to the chair. i leaned forward to put my head in my hands. support. they started playing it, and i felt sick. the long intro, the first verse…then the chorus. he hit it. he hit the notes, and it sounded more beautiful than ever, because you could see this heroin-addict-skinny kid making it. his mouth hardly moved. his body remained completely still, slightly bent to accommodate the bow on the strings, and his eyes closed. he sang upwards, as if he expected someone walking by outside massey hall to hear it and wonder what on earth that sound could be. whales. aliens. a children’s choir. anything but him. my body shivered, as it would later during the second chorus. i fell backward in my seat and stared. he lifted the guitar to his mouth and started singing into it, far back form the mic. the voice sounded like it was coming from a cave, echoing through the guitar and over the microphone. my mouth fell open. my hands were freezing for some reason. the song ended with the fading organ notes, ping after ping, and that voice. i wanted so badly to know what he was saying, but it can’t possibly be as numbing as the sound. it can’t matter.

the next two songs were their revenge. i honestly think they were mad at us for having to play svefn-g-englar, and the next two songs were their way of giving some back and making sure we didn’t forget it. i didn’t recognize either song, but both involved some serious aggression. i won’t even try to describe them. we’ll just say that i jumped more than once, as did the girl next to me. the closing measures of the show left bruises. standing ovation. curtain calls, two of them. no more songs. we couldn’t have handled it. i think they were showing us mercy. what sweet young boys.

ohmigod, it’s 11:00. i’ve been writing this on and off for 2 hours.

this wasn’t a concert, it was an upheaval. to me, the sign of a good concert is that i leave feeling as though i’d had my ass kicked. last night, i didn’t get my ass kicked. last night a siren made me crash on her shores, and i fell down and thanked her for it. this changes everything. i’m sure it’s unrelated, but last night i got more sleep than i’ve had in weeks. i fell asleep with svefn-g-englar traipsing through my head, and woke up with it still there. in the shower, on the subway, even listening to the new pornographers…it’s all i can hear. i’m not sure what to do.

i’ll be in my room if anyone needs me.

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