Album Review: Backxwash – I Lie Here Buried With My Rings And My Dresses

[Ugly Hag; 2021]

On “Redemption”, the closing song from Backxwash’s Polaris Prize-winning previous album, God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out of It, Ashanti Mutinta, in reckoning with her own conception of personal forgiveness, weighed up “the pain that I’ve done compared to the pain I’ve undone” in her life. In a direct echo, her new album, I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses, opens with a looped sample of a man dispassionately espousing the purpose and benefits of pain. It’s a common theme amongst evangelical Christians; a casual search on YouTube generates dozens of videos of ‘pastors’ preaching, with a paternal smile and cold, lifeless eyes, about how pain serves to confirm the strength of your faith. Mutinta manipulates the sample, layering repetitions at intervals to create a nonsensical jumble of words. If that doesn’t make it obvious that she doesn’t give them much credence, Mutinta removes all doubt by interrupting the droning, patronising man mid-sentence with the crashing beat and walls of guitar of first track proper, “Wail of the Banshee”.

The pain of Mutinta’s lived experience has been central to her work from the moment she announced herself on the defiant trans anthem of “F.R.E.A.K.S.” back in 2018. The emotional fallout of coming out to her family and the distance it precipitated (“Feel like you lost a son but you gained a daughter […] You think I broke your heart, I think it’s for survival”), the alienation from the religion she grew up with, the mental health struggles, the self-destructive tendencies and suicidal ideation; all this pain suffused the Backxwash backxcatalogue, growing like a tumor that has resulted in each new release getting progressively darker, more confrontational and more discomfiting. 

This trajectory, call it a downward spiral, that has seen Backxwash’s sonic world draw in more and more influences from the worlds of metal, industrial, horrorcore and noise-rap, has, on this album, reached its inevitable pitch-black bottom with Mutinta indulging in and being consumed by her most self-destructive and, in her own words, “malevolent” tendencies. Conversely, I Lie Here Buried… represents the scorched earth, artistic peak of the Backxwash project.

“Wail of the Banshee” draws to mind the opening of Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition (called coincidentally enough, “The Downward Spiral”) if it were fed through an industrial grinder. In it, Mutinta paints a disturbingly vivid picture of being trapped in the torture chamber of her own mind, praying to the Lord for forgiveness (God may have nothing to do with this, but Mutinta just can’t leave him out of it), reeling off a laundry list of drugs and alcohol consumed in the vain hope of “[feeling] something”, and following her therapist’s advice to think happy thoughts in the midst of it all. It’s a searing opening that immediately sets the tone for what’s to follow and establishes that Mutinta’s skills as a producer and MC have only improved. The beats hit harder, the details in the mix are clearer, the atmosphere thicker and more oppressive. 

How much of this is testament to the skills of Will Owen Bennett and Ada Rook (Black Dresses), who are responsible for mixing and mastering the album, respectively, remains to be determined, but if there’s one thing that has always defined Mutinta’s work, it’s collaboration. It just so happens that I Lie Here Buried… features a winning amalgamation of influences and co-conspirators, some familiar from previous releasess, such as Surgeryhead and Rook, and others, like Sad13 and clipping’s production duo, who are already shining stars in their respective corners of the musicverse and will only bring more deserved exposure to Mutinta’s work.

Ada Rook even threatens to steal the show on the album’s title track, delivering a bona fide death growl earworm on the hook. As with several tracks on the album, the “I Lie Here Buried…” features a lumbering beat that only serves to make everything hit all the harder. There has been an immediately evident levelling-up in terms of songwriting: this isn’t just a sick beat backing a few verses bemoaning a wicked world; there is tension, drama and a clear progression of ideas. When Mutinta breaks into double-time rapping, it’s enough to make your hair stand on end, and it speaks volumes about her growth as a performer. The song’s climax, meanwhile – during which Rook morphs into a possessed doll from a horror film, and Mutinta channels Jonathan Davis’ breakdown at the end of Korn’s “Daddy” – is almost unbearably intense.

That intensity has the potential to be exhausting, and to some degree, it’s supposed to be. The swift evolution of the Backxwash sound into an obsidian stew of horrorcore and industrial-metal influenced rap makes perfect sense. The experience of being black and queer in a society defined by white, heterosexual hegemony is akin to being in a horror film. A potential, fatal threat lurks behind every corner, often appearing in garb bearing variations on the words ‘To Protect and Serve’. There’s good reason that the most frightening and disturbing part of HBO’s Lovecraft Country wasn’t the cosmic horror of monsters, possession and witchcraft, but rather the systemic oppression and ugly, violent racism the black main characters were subjected to. 

Mutinta tackles this head-on with the confrontational “Terror Packets”, which juxtaposes Censored Dialogue’s painful coming out story with a righteous tirade against institutional and societal oppression and terror, capped with a clip of Angela Davis describing police harassment. The instrumental features near-constant wailing, alongside horror score piano jabs, that recalls the infamous Ozzy Osborne sample on God Has Nothing To Do With It… and sets your teeth on edge. This is music that’s designed to make you squirm in your chair. Mutinta is not interested in making her truths palatable. “Terror Packets” also features a deliciously hilarious subversion of rap’s misogyny problem, which serves to put online trolls, terfs and the government, firmly in Mutinta’s crosshairs: “I’m just a dick to these hos, until the government says that I’m not.” 

Of course, that knowingly crass wordplay hides an upsetting truth: that there are plenty of people who will go to great lengths to deny Mutinta’s identity. On the album’s building-levelling final track “Burn To Ashes”, Mutinta specifically calls out journalists who call her a “man.” Absolutely. Fuck them. Bigots don’t deserve a platform as far as I’m concerned. 

As a white cishet man, I was in two minds about delving too deeply into what is a central theme on the album: the black trans woman experience. On the one hand, what credibility could I possibly have in discussing it? On the other, it would be remiss to gloss over the details that Mutinta has taken such pains to elucidate, only to draw on the more universally relatable facts of her life such as mental health issues, anger at a generalised idea of oppression, self-destructive ideation, and so on. Whilst it’s tempting not to make Mutinta being trans a key point of focus, in line with the principle of inclusivity; this approach may inadvertently serve to silence a voice and perspective that desperately needs amplifying.

At one point during “In Thy Holy Name” Mutinta makes a passing reference to life expectancy, calling to mind the shocking and saddening statistic that the average life expectancy of a black trans woman in America is 35. Mutinta is 29. No wonder her work is rife with startling images of death, either by suicide, inadvertent drug overdose, or murder. The song breaks down in startling fashion thanks to self-described Hard-MIDI artist, Lauren Bousfield, fragmenting into serrated digital shards, as if the track’s format can’t bear the weight of the subject matter. Mutinta no longer identifies as Christian, but still calls on God to come save her, because what other recourse does she have? The irony is made all the more startling by Mutinta’s decision to include a sample of a preacher, ostensibly a servant and messenger of that same god, denouncing homosexuals in dresses and calling for their deliverance.

On the very next track, produced by clipping and bearing the influence of Kanye West’s most outré Yeezus moments (“I AM A GOD!”), Mutinta screams about “blood in the water” before pitching down her voice to inhabit the divine Father himself, cruelly reminding her of her own insignificance. It genuinely feels like a biblical face-off, which continues on “Songs of Sinners”, where Mutinta delves into her paradoxical relationship with Christianity: she’s put off by the church’s apocalyptic sermons, but hates her life so much she gargles the kool-aid. The song’s infectious hook, performed by Sad13 of Speedy Ortiz, is an example of one of Mutinta’s left-field production and songwriting choices: a bubblegum-indie-pop confection of a chorus that skips merrily into the industrial maelstrom. 

A similarly stark example of counterpoint comes on the anti-Christian Missionary screed of “666 in Luxaxa”, which recalls “Black Sheep” off the last Backxwash album by virtue of featuring a skilfully looped sample of what might be Zambian tribal chanting against a richly detailed, industrial instrumental. The sample sounds menacing, almost like King Louis’ contributions on Yeezus, until Mutinta allows it to resolve and blossom at the song’s conclusion. It sounds like light pouring into a room that has been painted black, windows and all. It’s a stunningly affecting moment, not least because it is so cruelly fleeting, as we’re soon plunged headfirst back into the inferno of “Nine Hells”.

Full of deathcore guitar scratching (courtesy, presumably, of Jami Morgan of Code Orange), thunderous drums and an outro that would feel right at home on a HEALTH record, “Nine Hells” is Mutinta giving in to her hedonistic impulses, using drugs to make herself feel big enough to play basketball with the moon, and have the world at her feet. “Fuck me up,” she screams repeatedly. On second thoughts, maybe hedonism isn’t the right word; closer “Burn to Ashes” lets you know that this isn’t about feeling good, it’s about feeling less. Until one day – “spark it, boom!” – you decide to feel nothing at all. In a genius sampling flip that Mutinta excitedly teased on Twitter, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “World Police and Friendly Fire” forms the hyper-dramatic backdrop to a hair-raising statement of defiance, which lauds self-destruction as the ultimate act of autonomy. Paradoxically, it’s completely and utterly life-affirming.

There’s a lot of anger across I Lie Here Buried… and rightfully so. Mutinta told Bitchfork back in 2019 that, “as an angry trans woman, I don’t know any other way I can rap. This is the logical conclusion for me… I never knew my voice could sound like that. It comes from a place of inside rage.” An oft-repeated reference point is that Backxwash can, at times, recall Eminem’s aggressive, shouty flow. But where Eminem can quickly get grating, because, you know, a number of his songs are just yelly, unironic versions of Bo Burnham’s “Straight White Male”, Mutinta’s rage feels justified. Yes, I Lie Here Buried… is an angry album, but it’s one that inspires empathy, solidarity and rueful sadness. In a compassionate and just world, Ashanti wouldn’t be judged for how she self-identifies and presents; she wouldn’t have to pit herself against her family, against society, and against God. Her anger feels both entirely necessary and completely avoidable, if only bigotry and small-mindedness and hate could be stamped out. But until that golden dawn rolls over the horizon, we’ll just have to keep playing and amplifying and celebrating Backxwash’s music as loudly as humanly possible.