The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

The Lead Review

Aurora Mitchell On Pharmakon's Contact
Aurora Mitchell , March 30th, 2017 11:39

In Margaret Chardiet's third album with her noise project Pharmakon, Aurora Mitchell finds a record of parallel dread and comfort, and a study of both bodily autonomy and bodily failure through noise

Add your comment »

Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.

Sharp inhales of breath increase in pace, the distance between them narrowing, until it’s difficult to distinguish between each suffocating pant. Soon a breathless choir manifests, the cloud of noises merging into one. Listening closely, you can pick out different pitches working in sync, enhancing the nauseating panic until the cloud dissipates suddenly… and normal breathing resumes.

For anyone who has ever experienced a panic attack, ‘Vacuum’, the opening track on Pharmakon’s last album, is a writhing, uncomfortably relatable listen. During that minute and a half, your chest tightens and awareness of your breathing becomes laser focused - recreating that all-too-familiar feeling through the power of sound.

The body, and its limitations, has been a recurring subject throughout Margaret Chardiet’s work – her art makes listeners pinch, zoom in and zoom out on the perception of their bodies and its capabilities, vocalising frustrations of the powerlessness we often have over our own physical form. A lot of that anger and intensity comes from her own personal experience: in 2013, she underwent emergency surgery after doctors unveiled a collapsing organ as the source of her unbearable pain. The following year she explained how that fed into her music for an interview with Wondering Sound, “That idea of the body failing - where I’m pushing myself to a degree where I’m out of breath,” she says, continuing, “when I don’t reach that, I feel disappointed.”

Each sonic world that Chardiet creates is intense, emotionally exhausting, and – quite frankly – terrifying. Chardiet’s first two full-lengths, Abandon and Bestial Burden, focused on a rejection of the body, picking it apart and laying it bare through blood curdling screams, power electronics and underlying bursts of noise. Her latest album, Contact, is by no means any different in this respect. However, it changes the focus of the lens and turns it to explore other people’s interactions with that rejection. The artwork depicts several moist hands placed all over Chardiet’s face, loosely grabbing at her closed eyes and slotting in between her lips; there’s an eerie peacefulness to her facial expression as fingers overwhelm her skin and knot themselves through strands of her hair. With Contact, there’s a sense that she’s starting to become more at peace with how our physical form can fail us. The artwork’s depiction of Chardiet’s covered mouth naturally leads to thinking about bodily and intellectual autonomy – and to whom society affords that luxury.

The mouth also happens to be the part of the body from where the most striking component of Chardiet’s music emanates: going through one of the most painful ordeals of her life, those screams were something she was trying to stifle. In a sense, this is nothing new – women have often been socialised to be quiet about our pain, to struggle and carry on, even in life-threatening circumstances. And Chardiet’s musical work as Pharmakon is crucial as a counteraction to this: while hearing her scream until the point of exhaustion should be terrifying, it’s more comforting as a female listener; a reminder that women being loud in ways that are deemed “scary” or “intimidating” is both incredibly powerful and important.

‘Nakedness of Need’, the album’s opener, begins with rusty industrial loops before Chardiet’s strained voice mumbles, slowly breaking into full throttle screams. The initial hesitancy inherent in her vocal plays with a more restrained side to the terror unleashed on Abandon and Bestial Burden. Growling noise crawls like car tires stumbling over gravel as she gasps for breath in between screams. The paranoia intensifies as the following track, ‘Sentient’, operates at an uncomfortable low hum. Like an aeroplane picking up speed before taking off from the runway, sounds layering as they heighten in pitch until the sonic ascend makes you dizzy.

While not intentionally so, this album and its exploration of the body intersects with a time in which American women like Chardiet are having their bodily autonomy called into question. As the government threatens and plots to limit women’s reproductive health rights by defunding Planned Parenthood, the pained screams of Pharmakon take on a different and timely context. The tense, uncertain atmosphere that threads Contact together becomes a mirror of the fear that many Americans are currently experiencing. The fear that choices are being made about their bodies by people who look nothing like them and have never experienced their pain.

Fear also manifests itself in a different way on Contact. Talking to The Quietus recently, Chardiet spoke about having what she called “death attacks,” moments in which mortality feels close, in reach and tangible, rather than a distant conceptual truth. As her voice ripples fiercely through the thundering ‘Transmission’, the low-level panic that descends in those moments ties knots in your stomach; the foreboding sense of tension forces the body into a state of rigidity as distorted walls of noise grumble with trademark dissonance. The album is at its gnarliest on penultimate track ‘Somatic’, which gradually builds without the presence of Chardiet’s voice, encouraging a more of a subtle brand of terror than the waking from a nightmare in the middle of the night during vibe that emanates when her voice is present.

Contact, however, does not reside solely in a place of dread and terror. There’s a deeply comforting edge to Chardiet’s sharp, agonising screams – letting each howl grace your ears as you close your eyes and focus on healing inner demons. Noise and industrial music are often thought of as harsh or even shocking genres, often punishing especially in a live environment, but they are also a portal to catharsis – for both artist and audience. As an album, Contact is raw, coming from a place deep within, and that can’t help but rub off on any listener: an invitation to confront your own raw emotions and channel them through the music – and one that cannot be refused.

As Pharmakon, Chardiet’s bold approach has earned her a set of dedicated listeners who eagerly, if with some trepidation, await the different twists and turns she takes with her method of making music. Contact is a continuation of the thumping, emotionally wounding sound that has drawn listeners in over the last decade on her first two albums and solidifies, in context, those elements as a sound that is entirely and remarkably her own.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.

Mar 30, 2017 5:22pm

re Safe As Milk - you guys ran an article dicking all over atp the last time this happened - open for comments n all.
I notice the news is being pushed down the page as quick as possible today

Reply to this Admin

Karl Smith
Mar 31, 2017 7:55am

In reply to D:


That's how news works. The "newest" stuff goes at the top. Thanks for your insightful comment on this article, though.

Reply to this Admin

Mar 31, 2017 11:50am

In reply to Karl Smith:

My comment on the article?
Pharmakon's material and live show is basically a slightly-better-than-average take on the dozens of noise acts that were knocking around 15-20 years ago.
Her heavy exposure in 'noise-literate' music publications shows that we have an awkward conflict between a progressive positive-bias in articles on women in music vs the music itself which is clearly retrograde.

Reply to this Admin

Christian Eede
Mar 31, 2017 12:48pm

In reply to D:

Hey, I'm News Editor, so further to Karl's comment, I'll echo that as more news comes in and is ready to go up, older stories go further down the page - it's just how web design works really.

As for the comments being off on the page, they're turned off on all news stories now, and also on a lot of features too. This has been the case for a while - hard to wonder why when reading comments like yours about Pharmakon though, eh?

Reply to this Admin

Mar 31, 2017 3:43pm

In reply to Christian Eede:

Thanks for the response.
I guess my comment was more to question the lack of prominence to the cancellation of an event for which your readers will have a strong vested interest (especially compared to your coverage last year).
That said, explanation noted and nothing more to say on the matter.

I'm at a loss as to why you'd take offense to my comment on the article. I'm pretty timid in my criticism of both the artist and the piece.

Reply to this Admin

Apr 1, 2017 9:16am

In reply to D:

if your opinions are basically the one millionth fucking tedious iteration of 'people are only being nice about this because a gurl made it' that literally every single female musician working in prominently male domains gets over and over and over again, you could probably stand to be quite a bit more timid tbh

also, the ATP piece you're referencing didn't come out on the same day as the cancellation, as you appear to be demanding, because this isn't a click harvest website

Reply to this Admin

Apr 1, 2017 5:00pm

In reply to Noel:

Yes that was exactly my opinion
I suggest you develop some basic comprehension skills before lecturing others

Reply to this Admin