Pharmakon, Bestial Burden

Sasha Geffen

Pharmakon, Bestial Burden [Sacred Bones]

It’s easy to forget that music is something that happens to the body. It’s easy to forget about sound waves hitting the eardrum, about all the layers of translation the body has to do in order to register music as a continuous experience. When it swallows you, music can feel like it’s coming from something bigger than the body, too; turn it up loud enough and it’ll knock you right out of the meat you call home. Pharmakon’s new album Bestial Burden never lets you forget the body as the site of music’s function, and of the function of all consciousness. Written while Margaret Chardiet was recovering from a serious illness, the record lingers painfully on the most fragile points of the human machine.

It starts with breathing, the labored kind that doubles over on itself, threatening to collapse. Halfway through, Bestial Burden’s fourth song builds around the sound of someone coughing—not a polite clearing of the throat, but deep, wet coughs that stick and scrape on their way out. It’s viscerally difficult to listen to, the kind of sound that prompts sympathy gags and phantom soreness. But work past the ugly immediacy of these body sound suites, and you’ll find the most bold and gripping work Chardiet has assembled as Pharmakon.

Last year’s Abandon weighed heavy on rasps and screams, but Chardiet used those vocal thorns towards a slower-burning, hypnotic drone. Bestial Burden doesn’t want to hypnotize you. It doesn’t let you forget the throb of your blood for a second. On the eight-and-a-half-minute “Intent or Instinct”, percussion rains down rusty and thick as Chardiet and her synths howl in orbit around each other.

The vocabulary of Pharmakon’s screams has grown since her last album. There are moments on Bestial Burden where Chardiet sounds like she’s gurgling blood with the force of her growling. It’s not so much volume she’s reaching for but texture, like she’s trying to convert the feeling of a raw throat into music, trying to translate the sensation of running a swollen tongue along the teeth mealy with vomit. She scratches out all the roughest edges of her voice, piling dissonant layers onto this deeply internal music.

With titles like “Autoimmune” and “Body Betrays Itself”, Chardiet offers points of access into her tangled noise. The body is where the mind is allowed to happen, but what happens when the body rebels? What do you do when the thing that’s supposed to contain you starts attacking you? Disease is the most intimate betrayal, and one that’s hard to explore through music. Bestial Burden exploits some of the most basic human impulses, like feeling empathy for someone who’s audibly sick, but doesn’t get so literal as to risk clumsiness. Its strongest moments tend to be its most abstract, like the vicious “Autoimmune”, where Chardiet yelps to the brink of choking as drums pound relentlessly around her.

On Bestial Burden‘s closing title track, Chardiet parses a chain of lyrics that peaks with the words, “I don’t belong here.” “I don’t belong here,” she sneers. She repeats the statement over and over until her voice collapses into layers of maniacal laughter. Noise music often harnesses the human danger response, but few albums so powerfully tap into the desperation you feel when the danger comes from inside your own body. When you don’t belong in your skin, where can you possibly go?

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