Album Reviews

Pharmakon – Bestial Burden

(Sacred Bones) UK release date: 13 October 2014

Pharmakon - Bestial Burden Pharmakon, otherwise known as New York noisenik Margaret Chardiet, has made quite an impact as proponent of a genre known simply as ‘noise’. Her first album, 2013’s Abandon, met with plaudits for its themes of despairing body horror, becoming a boundary-pushing entry in a category that really doesn’t have any boundaries to begin with. Does follow-up Bestial Burden make the style still less definable?

It certainly wastes no time: opener Vacuum is the sound of hyperventilation, panicked breaths coming in ever-shorter intervals as if an imminent terror approaches. A bare, buzzing synth communicates urgency before falling away, the breathing gradually normalizing. It proves to be a temporary reprieve as Intent Or Instinct embarks on eight minutes of brutal catharsis. Crushing, industrial-grade sounds emerge and repeat as if imitating the grinding misery of factory machinery. Suddenly, Chardiet’s visceral shrieking pierces the air. Genuine terror ensues and even grows as her cries move from impotent to animalistic and even demonic.

The primeval approach is not altogether unexpected: the story behind Bestial Burden is that Chardiet almost died prior to her first European tour, and spent several weeks convalescing. The dying man laid up next to her called continuously for his daughter, but nobody ever showed. The experience informs the album: namely, Pharmakon thrashes uselessly against the notion that the physical aspect of self, so unimportant in so many senses – and so prone to mutilation, illness and other grotesque failings – proves to be our inevitable undoing in the end.

Intent Or Instinct’s pummeling percussion continues into Body Betrays Itself, a track that immediately adopts a threatening, unsettling stance, as if it were intended to soundtrack the most harrowing snuff film imaginable. Chardiet’s unintelligible shouts regularly ascend to screams; screams into which Chardiet pours her heart – almost literally, by the sheer bloody explosion of it. She eventually relents, the track bloating into a nightmarish cacophony that’s difficult to withstand.

Primitive Struggle offers no respite, consisting of a sample of guttural retching and coughing – Chardiet’s own, presumably – underpinned by a basic beat that builds in intensity. The drums pale next to the near-death rattles of the stricken; an aural ordeal so intense than one’s own insides churn in response. Autoimmune perpetuates the trauma as its powerful percussion provides perfidious hints of musicality, but it’s already abundantly clear that Bestial Burden is not “music” in the standard sense: it’s an art installation in audio form; a tangibly painful reflection on physical suffering. A shrill, ear-piercing note prevails throughout, and Chardiet’s expulsions are again nigh-on impossible to understand.

It is perhaps not a surprise, then, that the titular track fails to stray anywhere near classic album-closing territory – though it is an exercise in slow-burn conservatism next to its tormented trackmates. Chardiet, for the first time, exalts at an intelligible volume, asking for the whereabouts of her shadow in disarmingly sweet, Kim Deal-like tones, but her naivety soon morphs into crazed hysterics and a white noise crescendo. If this track is supposed to represent the end of the physical struggle, it’s far from a peaceful passing: one is left with a sensation of bruised helplessness, and there is no comfort or relief in the cold, deathly silence that follows.

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