Pan Daijing is not here to be your friend. Your put-upon, beleaguered guide? Perhaps, but at a price. It’s no joke: her new album Jade 玉观音 is, to put it lightly, an exacting experience, not one overly concerned with whether you can keep pace. It’s singular. You might even get the feeling it’s out to get you. Well, who’s to say it isn’t?
“Is life worth living?,” Daijung intones towards the beginning of “The Goat 二月”. If she comes to answer across Jade 玉观音’s 37 minutes, it’s never particularly clear. What is here is an inspired, writhing mass of uncertainty. It’s not a journey of awareness so much as dogged determination. It will quite possibly scare the hell out of you. It’s a maze that you’re lost in, you and Daijing both. She’s present as far more than an omniscient narrator, rather, this is her Hell. We’re just guests.
The album’s opening seconds on “Clean 一月” are metallic, pure discordance and fear. Then the vocals enter, akin to a forlorn mantra, distant in their operatic power. Indeed, Daijing has also written modern operas, and shards of this are detectable in the muted singing of Jade 玉观音, particularly within the closest the album comes to a human core, on “Dust 五月”.
Especially on headphones, the music is all-encompassing, smothering like darkness in some subterranean cavern. You’re pulled beneath – and, occasionally, above – the waves. Sounds throughout the album are loaded wall to wall, from what sounds akin to distant ship horns at the closing of “Dictee 三月” to what resembles a swarm of wrathful, deadly insects at the opening of “Metal 八月”.
“Let 七月” flirts with desperate, glacial keystrokes and a whirring electronic background; it’s the project’s most peaceful-seeming moment. And yet, it teems with fleeting life and sounds, swirling into a whirlpool of horror, which perfectly accompanies Daijing’s haunting words: “Do not go far away,” she warns, as something resembling howls emerge in the background. It gives way to “Metal 八月”, which is immediately more alien and mechanical in its presentation. The song barrels toward a propulsive sense of danger, operatic singing crushed beneath a whirring riff that sounds akin to being stuck in some massive, unfathomable generator or air duct. You’re hunting the Xenomorph on Nostromo. You’re fucked.
Daijing nearly seems to view the music itself as a trap, when she speaks of the ocean being a bath she can’t escape, it’s a neat metaphor for the experience of listening itself. It’s constricting, like crawling through a cave that’s becoming narrower and narrower, but there’s no other direction out. It throbs, bristles and pulsates. It’s aggressively unnerving. It’s also unlike anything else you’re likely to hear this year.
Every moment of Jade 玉观音 has been carefully thought out and constructed, painstakingly aimed in its fatalistic aims: it only desires to leave you ever more vulnerable, ever more at risk. As things eventually, exhaustively come to a close (or, rather, a halt) on “Moema, forever 九月”, and Daijing insistently utters, “I forget her… face,” and, “I forget her… smell,” mercilessly back and forth, the weight of the loss is incalculable. It all begins to slip now; you’re losing yourself in this solitude, whether through insanity or perhaps the sinister coils of loneliness. Jade 玉观音 has slid right along with you. It’s your only company now. You’ve begun to slip. You’ve begun to slip.