Highasakite: Sky, Clouds, and Ocean

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Highasakite rolled through Washington, D.C. in mid May; the Norwegian band is touring in support of their album, Silent Treatment. They held forth at the intimate Black Cat Backstage, which is a smaller venue within Black Cat nightclub in Washington, D.C., offering up an uplifting and ethereal experience. The band’s style melds together a variety of influences and instruments to create a unique place where shadowed, vast and intriguing soundscapes are effortlessly reduced to a whisper. Introspection, emotion, and poetic, sometimes almost non sequitur lyrics are the order of the day.

With the solemnity of a scandinavian November, singer Ingrid Helene Haavik sang the near-acapella, haunting, opening words of the slow, melodic and powerfully building song of the same name: “Lover, Where Do You Live?” She answers her own question: “In the sky. In the clouds. In the ocean.” Kristoffer Lo played his hollow bodied guitar with a bow, creating an enveloping wash of watercolor sound carefully blending with Oystein Skar’s keyboards and the understated drumming of Trond Bersu. Highasakite have mastered the slow build/burn; at the crest of the wave, the dazzling harmonies of Haavik and Lo’s voices break through the overcast, seaside skies, like the northern sun piercing the gray boundary of sky and ocean at the horizon far away.

Like a Nordic rodeo, “Leaving No Traces,” two-steps out of the gate, a ghostly caribou choral group singing background. The song, like some other Highasakite music, has a unique western feel, and channels some of best aspects of Icelandic act Of Monsters and Men’ aurora borealis country music.

As the song trails off, Lo picks up what looks like a cousin of the trumpet, but is actually called a flugabone, and transitions into a solo study, layering multiple strands of sustained Jon Hassell-like exhalations in an exhilarating shape. Using a digital delay and pitch shifter the notes waver hypnotically, and waft like smoke over one another.

The band begins to play “Hiroshima.” Phrases such as: “I should be digging my way to China, with a shovel,” and, “Heaven’s just like earth, only upside down/And I carelessly walk around” jump out at odd moments. (Haavik’s surprising and visual lyrics are a gift throughout all of the band’s material). Bersu plays the woodblocks on this song, the intensity of his drumming building throughout the song, until the oh-so-quiet release.

Haavik does not move around a great deal, and although there is not a lot band-patter between sets, she maintains strong eye contact with the audience. With a serious expression on her face — except when her audience’s appreciation momentarily makes her drop her eyes and briefly smile — her vocals, in turn, soar like an albatross, whisper like a hot spring, yelp like a wolf pup, and trill like a sandpiper.  Providing contrast, Lo moves around quite a bit, visibly emoting along with the music. All the while, Skar and Bersu skillfully weave together a rhythmic and textural fabric that keeps the music going.

“I, The Hand Grenade” is a deeply introspective song that features dark spaces between the notes.  A huge chorus surges out of the darkness, riding an arctic ocean swell of giant tomtoms and releasing Haavik’s haunting and dreamy voice in a way that reminds one of Florence and the Machine. The massive explosion of sound is immediately followed by stark, simple piano, bringing one back to reality with sobering self-awareness.

On the New Wave, tambourine-fueled, surf pulse of “Darth Vader,” — which is impossibly bouncy for a song with that name — Haavik occasionally emits small playful whooping sounds which at first seemed to come from a synthesizer, further exemplifying her vocal versatility.  “Iran” has an interesting juxtaposition of two-step, popping snare drum on the verse, with Middle-Eastern-style vocal ululations on the chorus.

Highasakite ended with “Since Last Wednesday,” its singalong chorus underscored by crashing, reverbed percussion, and accordion-like, keyboard sounds. Beautiful, and perfect in its simplicity, the tune — and in fact, the entire show — transported this listener to a place where the sun never sets in the summer, but where the cold dark can last all winter long. But as long as you travel with Highasakite, you are never completely alone.


All Photos | Katherine Gaines
Black Cat, Washington, D.C.

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