The Rising of Orion Rigel Dommisse
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there is life after Katy Perry.
By Eugene S. Robinson
At Brussels’ Cinema Nova, 32-year-old Virginia native Orion Rigel Dommisse played percussion and keyboards and, with her violinist–backing singer, guitarist and bass player, leaned into songs you might mistakenly describe as delicate. That’s an impression Dommisse does nothing to dismiss, as her whole general appearance — or shtick, if you’re OK with that — vibes nonthreatening, which she can get away with: dresses, shoulder-length brownish hair, angel’s-bow upper lip and a voice that trills sometimes and screams never.
Then you catch a lyric: “You can burn your house down and leave some bones / Make sure the bones look something like your own.” The song is called “Fake Yer Death,” and while Dommisse comes across every inch the Rhode Island boho — Rhode Island School of Design, home of the Talking Heads way back when, and some pretty vibrant experimental music programs at nearby Brown University — those lyrics are dark, dark and darker than her local environs might indicate they would be.
The room grows quiet as rats scurry, skeletons drown in tubs of bloodred something or other and she sings a song unsavory.
That’s the first blast of refreshing, and there’s another when you realize how wearisome it is when women performers try to deliver various versions of “cute” because, well, people like cute, right? “Even if [Dommisse] is cute and enjoys being cute,” says Belgian photographer Séverine Bailleux, “why as an artist would I want to have this be my thing on every single record on every single song at every single show? Like, forever?”
Dommisse’s lyrics, song titles and records, and her animation of all of the above, do the wholly subversive thing of playing with the form to ends that undermine said form. Which is to say: No twerking videos here. Cinema Nova screens one of Dommisse’s mixed-media video animations for a song called “Suicide Kiss (Because Dead),” and the room grows quiet as rats scurry, skeletons drown in tubs of bloodred something or other and she sings a song unsavory.
While Pitchfork’s Evan McGarvey sees Dommisse’s offering as being limited when he reviews her 2007 record, What I Want From You Is Sweet, writing, “Nearly 40 minutes of a gloomy wood nymph debut is as much as any sane listener can handle,” no one ever said we were holding it down for sane listeners. Dommisse is equally dismissive of McGarvey’s take: “It’s a shallow assessment. They’ve only reviewed my first record. And it’s lovely. There is so little gloom.” Over her next two records, Chickens and the troubled Omicron, which saw label screwups drive Dommisse to Kickstarter to get it funded and finished, songs like “Deathwish,” “Red Mirror” and “Nocturnal” do recall lots of our least-loved bedtime tales and everyone from Joanna Newsom in parts to prince of gloom Nick Cave in others.
“I was on tour in the South of France with my band and [Dommisse] asked me to add to her album,” says cellist Janel Leppin. “She was a pleasure to work with because she had an easygoing attitude, but … I’m sure that she was going through a hard time.” And there it is again, the admixture of bright light and dark dark. Which again raises the question: How much can you handle?