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Tanya Tagaq
Tongues Antonio Poscic , January 17th, 2022 09:35

Inuk singer-composer Tanya Tagaq turns history into a howl of rage on new Saul Williams and Gonjasufi produced album, Tongues

The art of Inuk singer and multidisciplinary artist Tanya Tagaq has always been inseparable from her heritage and origins in Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory. The Inuit culture and harsh natural and social realities of her homeland not only helped shape her distinct throat singing and musical style, but also stirred an activist undercurrent in her works. Early solo albums Sinaa and Auk/Blood and collaborations with the Kronos Quartet surfaced these concerns in solemn swirls of avant-folk that invited empathy for the struggles of the Inuit. But as is always the case with overlooked pain, it soon turned into frustration, then anger. This crescendo of emotions has been unfurling in Tagaq’s life within and outside music for the past decade.

Yet not even the impassioned EP Toothsayer – an accompaniment to the ‘Polar World’ exhibit presented at the National Maritime Museum in London in September 2018 – could have hinted at the sheer ferocity that fuels this new album, Tongues. Gone are the remaining trances of enchanting singsong and polite pleas for understanding. In their place now exists only burning rage and a full-blast attack against oppressors.

Opening the album with ‘In Me’, Tagaq snarls and growls and spits a daunting invocation based on passages from her 2018 book Split Tooth. “Eat your morals / eat your thoughts / your sinew / your pith / peel off your skin”. Her words are ablaze and all-consuming like those of a malignant spirit. They teeter on a thin edge between controlled extended technique and unrestrained improvisation, draping over a technoid pulse and pulverising bouts of noisy club constructs.

The intensity is stunning and continued across the remaining nine cuts, but shaped into divergent designs. On the title track ‘Tongues’, Tagaq’s throat intones a heavy breathing as she pushes back against a clattering heartbeat and chilling synth phrases. “They took our tongues,” she hisses with a mixture of dismay and ire through teeth, before turning defeatism into a war cry: “Innuvunga (I am an Inuk) / you can’t take that from us!” Later, ‘Colonizer’ arms itself with rock abrasion and goes on a rampage. It takes the form of an electronic hardcore punk scorcher, cradling bitter cries in head-meets-concrete rhythms before tossing them around the stereo image.

Produced by Saul Williams and Gonjasufi, the importance of their contributions to the album become readily apparent as ‘Teeth Agape’ rolls in. Here, Tagaq’s voice achieves a binaural quality while she whispers and shrieks, “I will sharpen my claws / bare my teeth” into the listener’s ear. Her voice is no longer a distant, static recording. She is in the room with you. She is fucking livid and you’re beginning to be, too. At this point, all walls are brought down. Acrimony hangs in the air like thick fog, unavoidable and ready to be understood, shared in, and empathised with.

Embedded in all of this fury, there is a brief glimpse of tenderness, but one that still comes with its own spikes and teeth bared. Following in the wake of the DJ Muggs-like, evergreen sounding production of ‘I Forgive Me’ and the spiral of strings descending into chaos on ‘Nuclear’, ‘Earth Monster’ feels almost sacred. A celebration of Tagaq’s daughter, it bears a growing uncertainty about the future amidst deep, contemplative expressions of love. While Max Tundra’s remix of ‘Colonizer’ ends the album – an abstract aural assault with grunts turned screaming textures – it is ‘Earth Monster’ that serves as an appropriate coda. It provides a moment of retreat before the fight begins anew: for her daughter, for her people, and for herself.