Album Review: Pharmakon – Abandon

[Sacred Bones; 2013]

Pharmakon’s Abandon opens with a scream. It’s bloodcurdling and brutal and naked in a way even most noise musicians wouldn’t dare, but the scream is somehow transformed as its processed and compressed down to a suspended screech before some shuddering machine textures start to unfurl and the listener is suddenly submerged. It’s Pharmakon in a nutshell. Margaret Chardiet wants to confront the listener with the rawest of emotions, but that confrontation is transformative in a way that somehow becomes inclusive. Chardiet describes her music as an exorcism, but it’s apparent she understands how to to communicate that experience of therapeutic emotional release to the audience. They’re right there with her instead of just being immolated by throbbing mechanical fire.

Listening to Abandon is very much like listening to someone work violently through their demons. Chardiet’s vocals come mostly in the form of terrorized, sickened screams, unabated and pain-filled. But there’s a vulnerability and honesty to them as if they could crumble into sobs and tears at any moment. It feels less like performance and postulation and more like Chardiet clawing desperately for her only means of expression. It’s kind of stunning and earnest and heartbreaking and it allows a strange connection with the listener, instead of building up walls and distancing itself.

Chardiet’s songwriter and producer abilities are top notch too. Her sense of build is immaculate, using the contrast of her voice with a sparser backdrop on “Milkweed / It Hangs Heavy” to create mountains of tension. A lot of Abandon might qualify as dark ambient with its focus on industrial atmosphere and it’s subtle rhythmic inclinations nudge it toward experimental strains of techno as well. Even her growls and screams are treated with a merciful amount of delay while a lot of the barbed-wire drones circle in ominous patterns farther out of reach. “Ache” builds into a seismic, executioner rhythm while Chardiet screeches above before giving way to a beautifully swirling cauldron of reverberating voices and softly whining drones.

“Pitted” manages some forward momentum with its slammed-door tribal march and pulsing synth buzz. Chardiet’s ghostly and melodic — and downright gorgeous — vocals stretch skyward giving the track a kind of mutilated Dead Can Dance feel. “Crawling On Bruised Knees” follows with a repeated cavernous boom before settling around a fucked John Carpenter-esque synth sequence. Chardiet’s vocals arrive modulated and hardened. It’s the final push to the surface and the record getting back to its feet after being bruised and battered over the previous three tracks.

Prior to Abandon’s release, Chardiet explained the album was meant to tackle loss and “complete psychic abandon.” It’s a record that actively tries to work through those themes and all the damaged emotions that come with them in the rawest, most direct way imaginable. But there’s an arc to the record that ends with triumph and hope as well. Or as Chardiet put it “crawling out of the pit.” Abandon is one of the most cathartic, brutalizing, and beautiful experimental releases this or any year.