Album Review: Dermabrasion – Pain Behaviour

[Hand Drawn Dracula; 2024]

Dermabrasion are the beads of sweat flying about in a mosh pit; the oily black residue caked into the crevices of a dingy punk venue; the smear of eyeshadow at 3am after arriving home in rain. The Toronto-based duo made up of Adam Bernhardt and Kat McGouran revel in this dreary and volatile energy. They are the kind of band who have the vigour to ignite an ember into a full on dumpster fire; if they took the stage at your local venue you may not know them beforehand but you would remember them well afterwards.

It’s McGouran who is the not-so-secret weapon on the duo’s debut album Pain Behaviour. Atop and amidst a backdrop of muddied guitars and bellowing drum machines, at her best she is a fascinating and almost beguiling presence. Over the galloping rhythm of “Grim Sister” she unravels her lyrical structure, repeatedly chanting “the skeletons in her closet want to dance” like it’s one continuous sentence. On the intoxicatingly punchy two minute “Proving Ground” she shouts “twist, twist, twist” like a dance command as opposed to an instruction. Even when she’s whispering at the beginning of “Magic Missile” she draws your attention in, teasing you to lean in that bit closer.

Channeling the likes of early Pop. 1280 and Zola Jesus (and the general Sacred Bones aesthetic), Dermabrasion deal in grimey and sullen tones, goth rock/post-punk guitars and bass that sound like they are coming from the earth as opposed to a speaker; while it’s not always the real dirt under your fingernails-style grime, but definitely still dirty hands stuff. “Psychic Event” wraps itself up in a foamy fuzz, the guitars on “Goblin Dance” come off like they are twitching to break free, while aforementioned “Grim Sister” plunges itself in jet black darkness after its chorus. The style matches the substance; Dermabrasion don’t sound like they are putting on costumes to fit in. Their Lunate EP from 2021 was tinnier and less forceful (the production from Josh Korody and mastering by Noah Mintz this time round is notable in how they make the band sound 10 times louder and more impressionable), but they were still channeling that same desolate punk and industrial-influenced area where the likes of LaVeyan Satanism, shame, power, and the troubles of a corporeal form are the heart of their concerns. 

It’s all the right fuel for an impacting statement and stamp on your mind, and Pain Behaviour certainly makes a good effort at grabbing your attention. Opening track “Halberdier” has a fidgety theatrical outfit about it, and the way McGouran sings the titular word has her sounding like she’s summoning an ancient demon. With a riff riding the coattails of The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”, “Betrayer Moon” toes the line between occult ritual and religious ceremony. “The morning star shines its fiery light on me,” McGouran incants like she’s basking in the moon’s glow.

Despite a solid start, though, something feels missing. The sonic landscapes aren’t often interesting enough to sustain traversing through them repeatedly; they’re wanting of more electricity and more idiosyncratic features to help distinguish the tracks from each other, but also the band from other acts traveling the same path. “Magic Missile” is that bit too stodgy and lacking in hooks to leave much of an impression (apart from some impassioned screams from McGouran) while “Psychic Event” is in need of something more interesting than the bridge sung from what sounds like the bottom of a well. Final track “Blight” comes off like an afterthought of preceding “In the Time of Queens” and consequently the album finishes on a dampened note far from its most exciting moments at the other end of the record.

In some regards it’s not surprising that an album like Pain Behaviour loses its steam and has a back half that lives in the shadow of the tracks up front. It’s a hard energy to maintain and it does take something notable to pull it off, leaving the listener craving for more. As a first round though, Pain Behaviour is a solid effort that hopefully marches McGouran and Bernhardt towards an even more incendiary follow-up. They capture that flame in moments here, creating music that truly is not made for sitting still to, music that requires the friction of bodies on a grimy club dancefloor to let the energy expel outwards and between others. To let bruises form from crashing into others, shoes to be scuffed from being stepped on, and beer to be spilled amid the carnage of the mosh pit. This is the Dermabrasion the world needs more of, the Dermabrasion you’re left wishing they captured more of on Pain Behaviour.