, October 21st, 2014 13:58
The human body lets you down in so many ways, from minor itch to mortal illness. At times like these, it can seem like another entity, a malevolent force with a will of its own - far from separate, though; a part of you that you can never escape from. For centuries, philosophers and artists have grappled with the mind-body problem, but the more of an impact it has on you, the more irreconcilable it seems.
On Unflesh, Gazelle Twin - aka Elizabeth Bernholz - doesn't see dualism as an academic exercise or a philosophical plaything. Instead, it's born of bloody experience as she claws and digs her way to its gory, physical core. Puberty, anxiety, miscarriage, illness and euthanasia are all present, and Bernholz's treatment of them ranges from a shuddering disgust to vengeful catharsis to something approaching tender acceptance.
To do this, she's switched up her sonic palette entirely. Anyone who discovered the Brighton musician via her 2011 debut, The Entire City, is in for a shock - possibly literally, as the industrial rumble that opens Unflesh is ruptured by a sudden, sustained scream. Gone are the solemnly brooding Knife-like synthscapes and the ethereal soprano. In their place are sickly synths, wobbling queasily around the mix; relentlessly shuddering beats hammering at your skull from the inside; crunching electronic distortion and sinister skittering rhythms. On 'Guts', Bernholz distorts her voice first to alien chirping and then to pitched-down croaks; elsewhere, she mutters her alienation twitchily and disquietingly clearly. On The Entire City, Bernholz used her voice as almost pure sound, its lyrics indecipherable as she communicated feeling without language; here, there is no hiding from the violent imagery and insistent mantras.
The 25-second interlude 'A1 Receptor' builds up to a sudden, alarming gulp; it's designed to represent a panic attack, and it sounds like a particularly terrifying scene from a horror film. It's unsurprising that Bernholz is a horror aficionado who counts David Cronenberg - another artist fascinated by Cartesian dualism and body metamorphoses - as a key inspiration, and she plays up the fear factor considerably. In the video for album highlight 'Anti Body' and - even more disquietingly - on stage, she performs with her face hidden under a crude, eyeless balaclava, seemingly fashioned from a stocking, a credible horror monster. It's fitting, given that the enemy throughout Unflesh is within her. "It's coming at me, it's coming at me," she mumbles blankly on the title track, as though transfixed. The malfunctioning machines mirror dysfunctional flesh; this is an album that seems to be intent on recoiling from itself.
How to find a resolution becomes, then, the album's central question, and Unflesh offers a few potential routes out of the trap body horror. Ironic, given how many of Bernholz's traumatic emotions about puberty are tied into grim school locker room memories, is its surprisingly effective use as an exercise soundtrack. Three tracks in, a rhythm like a racing heartbeat and peremptory barking sounds help 'Exorcise' build from its skeletal intro to full-on electronic pounding that seems to speed up as though on a treadmill: exorcising psychic demons, exercising toxins from the body.
Midway through its running time, Unflesh enters a curiously peaceful stretch: the gorgeous, lullabic melody underpinning 'Premonition' and Bernholz' foregrounding of her higher register on 'Child' provide two of the album's rare respites from the frantic intensity that otherwise dominates. Together with the muted 'Good Death', it seems notable that these moments coincide with Bernholz's meditations on various forms of death: euthanasia, miscarriage. But although Unflesh moots the possibility of peace via bodilessness, its ultimate answer brings the album full circle. 'Still Life' ends where it began, with a scream of primal catharsis - except instead of a sudden rupture, this time it feels like the sound Bernholz has built herself up for. It's a closure, of sorts.