Devour by PharmakonRelease date: August 30, 2019
Label: Sacred Bones Records
Pharmakon has always been a project focused upon the idea of confrontation and with a pervading sense of entrapment. Many noise projects are confrontational by nature – the pure visceral violence of being affronted by a wall of sound – but Margaret Chardiet does not only dole that punishment out, she is more than well-equipped and capable to confront the listener in terms of existential concept and the dread and lasting meaning that can be engendered from the worrisome tropes she chooses to magnify.
On Bestial Burden, what I still consider to be the ‘breakthrough’ Pharmakon record, Chardiet meditated on the unsettling thought of how our minds are tethered, jailed within our bodies, and if those bodies should begin to fail – as they necessarily will – the pure terror at the thought of the mind eventually having to endure through this. Pharmakon albums are not an easy listen, sonically or spiritually. A related, parallel thought process is presented on new album, Devour, whereby she posits that self-cannibalisation is akin, a fitting allegory, to the self-destructive nature that humankind holds at its core. Namely, that society is inextricably compelled to end in imbalance, unrest, greed, and eventually unspooling into the highest forms of oppression and violence. All, at any one time, with the will and desire to destroy any facet or memory of the individual. So, you know… cheery stuff.
Devour is marked out immediately as a different beast to its forebears in how it has been recorded. Although split into five tracks, the first three are a one take recording, and the last two, for ‘Side B’, are another single take – both performed live in the studio. It translates the overwhelming, tangible aspect of Chardiet’s work in the live setting over incredibly well, meaning Devour is surely the most frightening sounding record in the Pharmakon discography, which is saying something. The first thing that struck me about the album is how much more metallic, industrial sounding everything on it felt, compared to the ‘organic’ noise of previous records, especially 2017’s Contact. One can only assume this was to reflect the all-pervading technological oversight we endure in our 21st century lives, as well as the industrialisation that has led our cities to be what they are, and which drives our societal expansion and supposed “improvement”.
The record kicks off with an immediate barrage of noise from ‘Homeostasis’ and is followed by the unrelenting bludgeon of ‘Spit it Out’, but it’s the short segue in between that truly unsettles, as the noise lulls and the effects fall away from Chardiet’s voice, to only leave her ragged, distressed breathing, sounding some way between panic attack and recovering from a fervent speech. These lulls and switches of pace, volume or tonality of noise is what Pharmakon as a noteworthy project is known for and truly excels at. It focuses in on the loops of modern life by mimicking them by caressing the listener into getting used to the looping noise, albeit harsh, and just as the mind acclimatises to this new paradigm, Chardiet rips the motif and created comfort away, introducing a new layer of sonic horror and conveying new woes and dread for the consciousness to fear.
The album is, without doubt, a monumental noise record, but also an utterly exhausting listen. It is, purposefully, an ordeal. Because that is what modern society is; that is what a mind has to endure and navigate, often painfully, largely unsuccessfully, on a daily basis. The record is not the soundtrack to collective angst – it is that angst, that panic become noise. No better is it represented than closing track, ‘Pristine Panic / Cheek by Jowl’, an epic ten-minute ebbing, vibrating piece of menace that, if you’re not careful, will surely make you feel similar to suffering motion sickness. It’s centre of gravity is unknowable, and it’s certainly not the same as yours. It is a horrible, unsettling track, in the very best sense; a primitive sonic weapon serving to smash the terrible mirror of modernity the album formed and now encapsulates.
Devour is a troubling record. It will no doubt inspire a strong, lasting emotional response. If it doesn’t, I suggest looking yourself in a mirror, long and hard. It will be interesting to see where Chardiet takes Pharmakon on from here. Because, although I do ‘enjoy’ this album for representing her live performance so well, I have always relished hearing pieces reinterpreted at her gigs that I had appreciated so much on previous fully realised, processed records. I think there’s a lot more Pharmakon can explore in the studio, and I do hope future LPs return to and exploit that potential, albeit taking some facets of what makes this so incredible away, too. Devour is a truly awesome (in the true sense of the word) piece of art – involving, entrancing, thrilling, thoughtful, and terribly uncomfortably human. A beautiful horror show, performed live, now communicating its buzzing dread into your home.