Pharmakon – Devour

There’s been much written about both the quality of vinyl and the lack thereof. I’m not interested in wading into the fidelity wars, but I do want to cite a recent “What’s In My Bag” segment with Shepard Fairey. He argues that physical media – or at least, the general format and listening practices of physical media – can create a more engaging listening experience since there’s action required throughout the listening process (putting the needle on the turntable, flipping sides, putting on the second LP, etc.).

For similar reasons, I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued when I received the promo for Devour, as it included “Side A” and “Side B” tracks bisecting the album along with a separate file for each individual song. The accompanying EPK explained that “the best way to experience listening to this album is as two continuous sides to showcase the live nature of the recording and the seamless transitions between songs.”

Undoubtedly, Pharmakon is the kind of project where this structure would make sense. Margaret Chardiet has consistently churned out perturbing, all-encompassing releases marrying the adjacent worlds of dark ambient, drone, and death industrial/power electronics, including Contact (2017), Bestial Burden (2014), and Abandon (2013). I personally own these latter two releases on vinyl and can fully attest to the engulfing, terrifying effect of listening to each album as two, uninterrupted sides of punishing noise. Not only does this fantastic streak continue with Devour, but the fact this is Chardiet’s first album recorded live in-studio noticeably elevates the auditory impact of her music.

The move to a live recording makes Devour feel more intimate than previous Pharmakon releases, though no less devastating. Admittedly, some of Chardiet’s past compositions are a bit grander in scope than the tracks on her latest outing, as if she was being consumed by an enormous, malevolent machine. However, the slightly more skeletal approach creates a much more unsettling listening experience. Aided by heavier vocal effects, Chardiet now feels like a banshee shepherding your deceased soul through the winding, bewildering hallways of purgatory.

Though there are highlights on each track, Chardiet makes a seamless listen both possible and arguably more enjoyable. There are noticeable transitions for each individual track, but they flow so naturally into each other and build on the general momentum of the record. Her modulated, obscured vocals cry out from churning industrial blasts, striking a fine balance between a mechanical and mystical atmosphere. At just over 36 minutes, its effortless to let the entire album ride without feeling unengaged or entirely comfortable with the hellscapes Chardiet conjures.

There are indeed highlights on each track, though. “Homeostasis” opens with repetitive, pulsating waves of industrial noise, accented by sharper metallic blasts and Chardiet’s incredibly distorted shrieks. She rarely settles for a single vocal style on her compositions, and sure enough, hushed whispers like a weakened prisoner float out from the murk during the track’s conclusion.

“Spit It Out” trades in the repetitive patterns for a building swirl of noise, eventually interrupted by a searing blast of feedback that persist throughout the back half of the song. The vibe on “Self-Regulating System” is that of a factory in lockdown. What sound like malfunctioning machines and urgent alarms blare over Chardiet’s cries for help, making for one of the more anxiety-inducing tracks on the album.

“Deprivation” is a quintessential harsh noise track with light touches of Chardiet’s songwriting style, namely the addition of belligerent yells to match the intensity of the music. Finally, “Pristine Panic / Cheek by Jowl” brings the chaotic journey to its finale, with an equally noisy and industrial spectacle instead accompanied by deadpan spoken word. It’s an appropriately bizarre and abrasive musical concoction to close out an album full of such moments.

Everything about Pharmakon is reviling, which is precisely why it’s so fascinating. From her sonically ugly and challenging music to her disturbing and borderline nauseating album imagery, Chardiet’s approach to experimental music is completely devoid of fear. Though her music is clearly not for everyone, there’s no denying the sheer amount of creativity and vision Chardiet pours into every track she builds. Devour is no exception, and anyone interested in exploring the darkest depths of industrial music should make Pharmakon’s back catalog mandatory listening. If you’re completely unfamiliar with death industrial and power electronics, prepare to leave with a changed perspective of what music can be.

Devour is available Aug. 30 via Sacred Bones Records.

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