Swedish singer, songwriter, and keyboardist Anna von Hausswolff issued her debut full-length Singing from the Grave in 2012. Despite its sobering title, the album was full of melodic, fragile, Gothic ballads. On Ceremony, the term "Gothic" applies even more here than on its predecessor, yet the music has progressed almost immeasurably. Von Hausswolff employed an Annedal church organ as her primary instrument on this date (it's on nine of the 13 songs), though she also plays piano and synth. Its amazing array of tones, sounds, and timbres color the proceedings with an array of possibilities most pop recordings never imagine, let alone use. Further, von Hausswolff's approach here has been influenced directly -- and admittedly -- by the post-metal sonics of Earth and the groundbreaking vocal innovations of Diamanda Galas. The hour-long set begins with "Epitaph for Theodor," an instrumental driven by churning organ arpeggios in its lower register, while a skeletal melody is articulated in the higher one. It creates a sense of movement and building tension. When electric guitars, drums, and synth enter, they create a nearly unbearable sense of labyrinthine drama. "Deathbed," the album's longest cut, employs the organ-droning solo for the first half; when the band enters, they erupt like Earth in grand crescendo style. When she begins to sing, von Hausswolff's voice alternately soars operatically and growls emphatically, ripping at the seams of her musical universe to reach an unknown outer rim. Its ever-shifting dynamic makes the tune transcendent. The organ introduces "Mountains Crave" as something approaching a sprightly hymn, but by the time her bandmates move in, it is transformed into an elegiac pop song. The syncopated handclaps, organic percussion, and strummed electric guitars on "Harmonica" frame a lyrical, elegant, and tender paean to a lost loved one. While a repetitive six-note vamp in the organ's middle register introduces the nearly classical "Sova," percussion, crashing guitars, and thunderous drums move it beyond that border and straight into rock's purview. And while "Funeral for My Future Children" may seem a provocatively dour title, the song is anything but. It's a beautiful folk-waltz performed in grand European rock & roll style with attractive prog embellishments. Here and elsewhere on this set, von Hausswolff reveals she can construct a pop hook from even the most formal of musical structures. Her music is artful yet not pretentious; and while serious, it's not depressing. Her preoccupation with death offers a perspective beyond religion, politics, or even philosophy. Von Hausswolff is investigating the unknown in these songs, delving straight into the only mystery that really matters because of its inevitability. Ceremony is a gorgeous, provocative, and remarkably mature offering from a young composer and songwriter. It is attractive not only for its unusual, sophisticated musical presentation and smart, poetic lyricism, but for its canny instinct as well.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek