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Sharon O'Connell , June 19th, 2015 17:21

Sharon O'Connell reports from Cafe Oto, London

Photo by Tim Ferguson

"We're so happy to be here," says a smiling Jenny Hval, halfway through her set. She pauses. "We ejaculated all over the floor with our beers and had to use our costumes to soak up the mess." It's quintessential Hval – an expression of her genuine delight at playing in London, which also appropriates sexual language to expose the myth of rarefied creativity.

She's often explored the conventions of self-image/identity through her work, along with questions around gender, sexuality and semantics, and tonight the deconstruction starts before the music does. In a seriously confined floor space, performance artists Zia Anger (who's directed videos for Hval) and Annie Bielski set about dismantling the barrier between artist and audience. They primp their long, curly wigs, pout and apply lipstick, webcam images of which are projected behind them, while to one side, a pregnant Angelina Jolie appears on another screen. For someone who's used the theories of philosophical heavyweights Gilles Deleuze and Luce Iragaray as inspiration, Hval sure gives good show, and tonight is as playful and poignant as it is thought-provoking.

The spoken-word 'Kingsize' is first in a set that leans heavily on her new album, Apocalypse, Girl. With synth/sequencer/improv electronics from her two band mates, it opens with a quote from Danish poet Mette Moestrup ("think big, girl; think like a king – think kingsize") and prods gently at both Norway's conservatism and gender-based determinism, while subverting rock's daft nomenclature with the line, "what is soft dick rock?" During 'Safe', Anger and Bielski strip down to beige exercise gear and start jogging on the spot, banging into Hval as they do so, while on the sumptuous, synth-drenched 'Heaven', they mime religious ecstasy as she sings with an extraordinarily powerful and controlled sweetness, a reflection of time spent singing in a church choir as a young teen.

There's a shift with older cut 'Drive', a Laurie Anderson-style meditation on dislocation and touring in America where, over eerie synths punctuated by strident honking, Hval reveals, "I keep buying water and coffee and weird sweaters, just so I feel like I own something." On 'Why This?' she lets loose a startling banshee scream over a dreamy electronic wash, occasionally interrupted by the sounds of Anger and Bielski banging on their chair seats, the music building slowly to a hypnotic delirium raked with noise. There's a karaoke piece too, where the two women pick their deliberately off-key way through the Toni Braxton ballad, 'Un-break My Heart'.

Unsurprisingly, this raises a few sniggers, but it's a sly comment on the nature of identity – which is a continual dialogue between the self and public perception of the self – and ego. Tonight's set is intimate and at one point vaguely uncomfortable (when a camera is turned on the audience, projecting members' images on screen, the front rows freeze), but it's also empathetic and remarkably ego-less. Hval's matter-of-fact lyrics ('cock', 'cunt' and 'clit' abound), a willingness to use her voice in ways that are less than conventionally beautiful and Anger's and Bielski's very physical theatrics combine in a fearlessly vulnerable performance. That tonight is so strikingly shorn of vanity underlines just how rare this is on the contemporary pop stage.