Alterazioni Psico-fisiche: Blanck Mass & Pharmakon
Published on Il Mucchio Selvaggio n. 752 / March 2017 (print and digital)
2017 marks the first ten years of activity for Sacred Bones. Over the course of a decade, the Brooklyn label has become synonymous with experimental music and a fascination with “beauty in a darker place”, as Fuck Button Benjamin John Power once put it while promoting his SB sophomore as Blanck Mass. Label founder Caleb Braaten & co. (“a family affair”, recites the ‘About’ section of their website) take inspiration from the visual and stylistic precision of landmark record labels like Crass, Factory and Blue Note, combined with a propensity for the dark, even macabre side of the cutting-edge. Alongside masters like John Carpenter and David Lynch, artists like Zola Jesus, Psychic Ills, Amen Dunes, Cult of Youth and Pop.1280 released their music on the label. Psychedelia, garage rock, electronica, industrial and noise are all represented in the Sacred Bones catalogue, alongside a few, slightly more insular, but no less fitting affairs, like Marissa Nadler’s spectral folk.
In the past four years Scared Bones released, almost by coincidence, a handful of records centred on the body, employed as the starting point for an investigation on the mind/body split and a wider critique of the political and social status quo. In many ways Jenny Hval’s multimedia work could be regarded as the pivot for this undercurrent. Her album Apocalypse, Girl (2015) tackled, amongst other things, the troubled relationship between consumerism and the anxiety of physical performance/prowess. The cover portrayed Hval fainted on a fitness ball. Back then Hval used ‘soft dick’ as a metaphor of resistance against the priapism of the ‘be yourself’ rhetoric and the neoliberal imperative to succeed (remember Trump babbling “You’ll be tired of winning”?). On her follow-up Blood Bitch Hval continued to question identity and societal pressures, employing menstrual blood and vampirism as metaphors of choice. The artwork sported female characters literally “bonding” through their skin.
Following a rather specular path, two other Sacred Bones artists looked at the body/mind binomial in the theory and practice of their music: the already mentioned Blanck Mass and Margaret Chiardier, aka Pharmakon. Both are back with two powerful records, respectively titled World Eater and Contact. With Dumb Flesh (2015), Power abandoned the transcendental, arpeggiating ambient of his self-titled debut for an earthier, more metallic sound, which echoed the vertiginous “body music” of his work with Fuck Buttons. The record was inspired, he tells me, by the “inevitable degradation of the physical”, an interest that was partly exacerbated by personal losses and an injury that rendered him unable to walk for weeks at the time. Chardier found herself investigating similar themes after undertaking emergency surgery to remove a cyst from her abdomen. Her mind was touring in Europe, as she had initially planned, but her body was forced to the hospital bed: this was the beginning of her investigation of the limits of the body, soundtracked in the aptly titled Bestial Buden (2014). The music they made in the aftermath of those traumatic events was filtered through different sensibilities. Whilst Blanck Mass’ mixture of electronica, field recordings and techno beats adapts well to the dancefloor, the music Chardiet makes as Pharmakon is indebted to power electronics and noise. It is confrontational, horrific even, but like Blanck Mass’ it does not shy away from the conceptual.
Following the natural prosecution of their previous works, Power and Chardier are back with two albums where the reverse process is under magnifying lens: the “ability” of the mind to free itself from the “burden” of the body . “Dumb Flesh makes no attempt to fight against our genetic lot, but recognises it and acts as surrender, as far as our shell is concerned. World Eater recognises genetic hangovers but calls for an understanding and implementation”, says Power. World Eater, he adds, is about “The understanding of violent evolved traits and our ‘make or break’ scenario”. Although, unlike Chardier, Power doesn’t see a strict co-dependence between Dumb Flesh and World Eater, a similar shift of focus can be found in the new Pharmakon album. “Much as the process from the last record [Abandon, 2013] was inverted, the concepts of Contact take the ideas of Bestial Burden and flip them over. If the body is a vessel of the mind, on one end this means possible imprisonment – its limitations, its failings, its entrapment of our consciousness – and on the other end, there is a possible transcendence of the mind outside of the body. Contact deals with this possibility”. Her two records, she adds, “are the two opposite sides of the same spectrum. The spectrum being the human experience of the body”.
On top of being linked to personal matters, the latest Blanck Mass and Pharmakon albums are firmly rooted in the contemporary political and social context. In World Eater Power expresses a frustration towards the failings of the human conscience at pursuing the common good. Just looking at the news is enough to despair at the the magnitude and consequences of the “make or break scenario” we live in. “To me, these tracks sometimes appear quite hopeless, but then, sometimes I feel that our species is hopeless”, he says. “2016 meant a lot of sadness and frustration and that was certainly a driving force when writing World Eater. The musical manifestations of these feelings have quite a broad dynamic range across the album but ultimately you’re either hearing me pissed off or trying to make myself less pissed off. It’s a reaction, but my methods of dealing with the subject matter often differ”. Given Chardier’s positioning in the industrial canon, I ask her how she negotiates her use of horror and dissonance with the genre’s inherited responsibility to encourage critical thinking. Does she agree with Throbbing Gristle’s Cosey Fanni Tutti, who often reminded commentators and fans that one of the goals of industrial culture was to employ shock value in a moral way, rather than as an end in itself? “Yes, absolutely. I think that the desire to stimulate critical thinking and communication between people comes from an interest in, and love for, people as equally as from a place of dis/trust/gust. To ignore these issues is to resign ourselves to the perils of human existence and the fragile nature of the human condition. To question, confront, deconstruct and reconstruct so-called truths is to demand more of each other, which inherently suggests that we are indeed capable of more”.
Chardiet’s album covers are just as shocking as the shrieks and admonitions featured in her music. On the cover of Abandon her torso was scattered with maggots, on Bestial Burden it was covered by animal organs. Her face appears for the first time on the cover of Contact, with dozens of greasy, imposing fingers reaching out for a touch. “At first, it was difficult to think of an image, physical in form, which could possibly represent the transcendence of the physical. But I knew that somehow it needed to be incredibly visceral – I wanted to make tangible that internal moment of contact, the moment of disillusion inside of the head. I wanted it to look as overwhelming as that sensation feels. And furthermore, I wanted to incorporate the face for the first time, as it represents the consciousness/sentience, and have it in direct contact with hands as the representation of the body (the portion of our bodies which we most often see – that is, our own experience of our bodies’ subjectivity in the world). The cover was shot again with my sister Jane, who has helped me make all of the album covers. Whether I require her to work in the mediums of maggots, rotting meat, or writhing bodies covered in viscous material, she is always there to help me. Thanks Jane.” Chardiet seems at ease with providing a context or explanations around her aesthetic choices. In this respect, Power is poles apart: he prefers to “suggest” an image and let the listeners form their ideas around it – he has defined artwork as a “necessary evil” before. Whereas the cover of Dumb Flesh was quite a literal representation/embodiment of the title, on World Eater we see the closeup of a wolf ready to attack. “Allowing somebody to form their own very personal relationship with a piece of art/music is an incredible and profound thing which is much bigger than the artist themselves. That’s why I don’t like to push my own chosen aesthetic onto my music and that’s where the “necessary evil” thing is from. I, as the person who wrote the music, in a blinding act of contradiction, have shared my thoughts and ideas about where my head was at the time of writing this music but I thoroughly encourage you to toss that all out of the window and make your own story. It’s your life, not mine. Maybe we can discuss it one day.”
The differences between their works abound in their performative repertoires. Blanck Mass’s journeys of the mind outside the body seem to chase beauty and ecstasy between one big crisis and the next. The nearly eight minutes of monster track Minnesota/Eas Fors/Naked alone are enough to encapsulate this pervading sense of intolerance for emotional inertia. “Narrative has always been a very important aspect within what I do. I want to take you somewhere, I don’t just want to ‘tell you about my day’. Here is a lot going on in that track, but to me it’s more like an EP within the album. Some of my favourite field recordings on the album are in that track. I took recordings with hydrophone from both the top and the bottom of the incredible Eas Fors waterfall on Mull for this track which was just beautiful…” You’d be hard-pressed to find anything conventionally ecstatic in Pharmakon’s music though. Contact‘s closing track No Natural Order opens with rattling sounds that evoke the claustrophobia of imprisonment. Those unnerving sonics, combined with her shrieks, recall Diamanda Galás classic (and in serious need of remastering) composition Panoptikon (1984). “The rattling sounds are unorganized, rambling, and subtle though suggestive of a similar more powerful metallic sound lurking somewhere. This represents the sleepwalking state – the state of distraction when we push what we know into the background. It is abruptly interrupted by a sickening thud – the awakening of the sleepwalking form, the beginning of disillusionment. The words accompany this state of clarity. By the end of the song, the thuds and the words are in unison, and leave a moment of cold nothingness between them”.
Although Power grew up in punk, his live sets, like Fuck Buttons’, work for both lovers of techno and rock music. Beware of Chardiet, she might come to you and scream in your ear. “The aim is to break down the rock n’ roll trope of a performer and an audience. Going into the crowd or staring people in the eye are actions towards a conversation or shared experience – that the “audience” feeds energy, intent, and meaning into the “show” just as well as absorbs energy and meaning and intention from it. There is no right or wrong way to react to this invitation. If someone stands perfectly still, moshes violently, rocks back and forth, smiles, frowns, laughs, or sobs is dependent largely on what they are experiencing and how they are processing it, and everyone will do this very differently”.