Pharmakon - Bestial Burden

I tend to be pretty open-minded when it comes to my musical consumption, but the one genre I’ve never really been able to get into is noise. The closest I’ve ever really come is Merzbow’s collaborations with Boris. When I try listening his solo recordings, though, I feel like I’m missing something; I have a hard time distinguishing one track from the next. But there was something about Decibel magazine’s recent Noise issue made me feel like I needed to revisit the genre, specifically the works of Margaret Chardiet, better known as Pharmakon, whose second album Bestial Burden was recently released by Sacred Bones, a decidedly non-noise label I’m most familiar with as the home of arty synth-pop chanteuse Zola Jesus. And while I still don’t know if I would say that I ‘get’ noise as a genre, I absolutely fucking love this Pharmakon record. 

Unfortunately, it’s also an album I’m finding it difficult to write about. I mean, it’s a noise record—most of the usual descriptors don't apply. So what is it about Pharmakon that makes Bestial Burden so enjoyable? For me, I think it comes down to the fact that Chardiet’s particular brand of noise has multiple points of entry for me as a listener that I never found in artists like Merzbow, Bastard Noise or Surachai. The biggest one is the heavy industrial influence in the music, and I don’t mean what’s considered ‘industrial’ these days; there’s something about the shape and structure that owes more to the early Wax Trax! sides I was listening to in high school than it does a harsh noise record. A lot of that is due to the drum machine, which alone makes the music far more accessible. Vocals are also used to great effect, from the black metal screeches of “Intent or Instinct” to the truly unsettling repetitions of the phrase ‘I don’t belong here’ and twisted laughter of “Bestial Burden.” None of this makes the album a particularly easy listen, but it does help put Bestial Burden on more familiar ground, which in turn invites multiple listens.

The second point of entry has to do with the album’s subject matter. As every review of the record has mentioned, the record was inspired by a medical emergency; last year, just before she was supposed to embark on her first European tour, her doctor found a cyst so large it could have killed her. The experience permeates Bestial Burden, from the artwork (which also seem to owe a debt to the first two Carcass records, especially the interior art) to the song titles (“Body Betrays Itself,” “Autoimmune”), to some of the song structures; the album opens with ninety seconds of hyperventilation that could be a panic attack, and “Primitive Struggle” is essentially two and a half minutes of someone vomiting over a sparse electronic drumbeat. They aren’t pleasant sounds, but much like the way gurlesque poets (not to get too obtuse here) use exaggerated, grotesque descriptions of the body in their work as a way to create intimacy through repulsion, Chardiet uses them to a very basic fear of illness and dying to create that same kind of intimacy (and I suppose it’s possible that I’m overthinking this, but go read Ariana Reines’s The Cow or Lara Glenum’s The Hounds of No and then come back to this album—the parallels are striking).

Regardless of the reasons, Bestial Burden is an engagingly complex record that rewards multiple listens. Whether you’re a fan of noise or (like me before hearing this album) not, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Right now I’d even go so far as to say that it’s my album of the year.

You can purchase Bestial Burden on CD or vinyl from Sacred Bones Records