With her previous full-length studio album, Bestial Burden, experimental musician Margaret Chardiet, known by her musical moniker of Pharmakon, established a greater urgency to her industrial noise stylings. Having recently undergone sudden surgery, the artist’s third record drew inspiration from her illness, and the extent to which she sees humans as slaves to our own bodies, with our fate ultimately being decided by our anatomy and its ability to maintain its functions over a long period of time. This concept gave Pharmakon’s usual stomach-churning album covers a new meaning, with the album art for Bestial Burden exhibiting a dissected female body, with her organs displayed in an oddly attractive manner. The newest release from the Pharmakon project, Contact, is a natural successor to Bestial Burden, with this record relating to the newfound obsession with transcendence that Chardiet has developed following the feelings of disconnect she felt between her physical body and mind whilst under the knife. Musically speaking, Contact continues Chardiet’s marrying of industrial music, noise music, power electronics and even a hint of death metal, packaged within a definitive compositional formula that sees the musician put a greater emphasis on song structure than many contemporary artists working within a similar idiom, with Chardiet paying far greater attention to honing a clearly defined sound and articulating it in a very specific fashion. Indeed, with freedom being perhaps the salient fundamental tenet of noise music, choosing to meticulously prearrange compositions is an audacious artistic choice, and it is one that has piqued my interest in Pharmakon’s material for the last few years. However, on Contact, as I have found to be the case with previous Pharmakon projects, it is typically the structuring of these pieces that proves to be their Achilles’ heel, often being ineffective in conveying Chardiet’s artistic statements beyond their gruesome and biting aesthetic.
Whilst the concept of entirely premeditated noise compositions is an interesting one on paper, Pharmakon’s material has yet to serve as a compelling demonstration of such an approach, with the appeal of Chardiet’s pieces being largely hinged on their abrasive and grim appearance, whilst there is little of note beneath the surface. When it comes to Pharmakon’s aesthetic, however, the musician certainly crafts a striking veneer of mangled body parts and decomposing corpses. No Natural Order, one of the tracks teased approaching the release of Contact, is a prime example of the power of Pharmakon’s gritty and destructive exterior. The cut opens with a sample of what sounds like the clangours of a warehouse — taking the industrial label to a literal extent — which continue throughout the cut’s runtime, atop which Chardiet piles layers of sluggish explosions of electronic rumbling and booming percussion. To top everything off, the musician comes through with her distinct style of erratic, disturbing shrieks, to the point of sounding in pain. Indeed, Chardiet approaches distorted vocals without any refined technique, instead simply screaming her lungs out, with her cracking voice often being genuinely grating on the ears, which is certainly a forceful addition to the Pharmakon aesthetic, as the vocalist sounds like the troubled woman she attempts to convey through her music. Chardiet’s sensual but pained moans on the album’s opening track, Nakedness of Need, are another fitting example of the way in which the artist’s superficial qualities mirror the cogent meaning behind her musical endeavours.
Undoubtedly, Contact cannot be denied its efficient continuation of the caustic, repugnant aesthetic associated with the Pharmakon label, but whether or not it’s successful below its gross surface is another matter and, unfortunately, this record sees the continuation of the project’s worst habits. The blueprint applied to all of the compositions on Contact is, in essence, no different from that which comprised the material on previous Pharmakon albums, and varies little between songs on this new record too. This clear-cut formula boils down to teasing the listener with tense layers of power electronics that, when at its climax, seeks to drag out this feeling of suspense for as long as possible before simply fizzling out into nothingness. Such a compositional model engenders two major problems with the flow and cohesion of a record like Contact. The first issue is that none of these pieces offer much in terms of satisfying structuring, which is ironic given the extent to which Chardiet’s approach to composing is centred around premeditated arrangements. Even the aforementioned songs, that are successful in conveying Pharmakon’s modus operandi, exhibit little in the way of a fulfilling song structure, and this criticism is perhaps even more true for these cuts, given the extent to which they seem to be focussed on advancing the horrid details of the record. Taking Nakedness of Need as an example, the piece is founded on intermittent bursts of bassy fuzz set against blaring, pulsating siren sounds, with the tension of the cut building up like many other Pharmakon tracks, simply adding layers of more electronics, whilst Chardiet’s vocal performances get crazier and crazier. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with such a linear structure in theory, the length of time it takes for the suspense to build on Nakedness of Need hinders the extent to which this anticipation exerts a powerful effect on the listener. Other songs on Contact, such as the previously stated No Natural Order, barely develop at all during their runtime, instead relying on the psychological depravity of the track’s aesthetic to occupy the listener throughout the majority of its duration, with the exception of a brief bridge section, composed of glitchy, electronic jitters. As such, there is typically little to speak of amongst the tracks on Contact that genuinely engages the listener beyond the superficial gruesomeness of the album.
The second prominent issue to which I was previously referring is the recurrent lack of an authentic or generally rewarding pay-off for the amount of tension these compositions build, with the end result typically being that the song will eventually peter out after the noise reaches its boiling point. Transmission, for instance, spends its entire duration developing its throbbing bass and quivering electronic leads, only for these to gradually slow down and taper off to the end of the cut without any gratifying climax being reached. The same can be said of the longest track on Contact, Sleepwalking Form, perhaps to an even more disappointing extent, with the pounding percussion and soaring electronic howls simply fading out at the song’s conclusion, leaving only the atmospheric, shaky electronic trills left in the mix, before they too come to an abrupt halt. Ultimately, the wanting structuring of these compositions unfortunately impacts the extent to which Chardiet is able to convey her hefty apprehensions to the listener, in that their lethargic development and lack of a satisfying pay-off softens the blow of what could be some highly emotionally taxing songs.
All in all, it seems that the gory, death metal-inspired aesthetic of Pharmakon’s industrial noise stylings provides a large bulk of what the project has to offer, with the tracks on Contact, like previous releases from the artist, being rather shallow below the surface, conveying few engaging compositional ideas, despite Chardiet’s interesting approach to crafting noisy art pieces. Credit where credit’s due, Pharmakon’s rancid veneer is executed rather effectively, to the extent that I completely understand why the project is one of the most popular acts in the contemporary harsh noise scene, as this aesthetic, despite being so disgusting, is presented in an impressively accessible fashion. Nonetheless, as someone who would love to hear a fully realised release from Pharmakon, Contact regrettably reiterates many of the recurring, fundamental problems with the project’s material, leaving me once again underwhelmed with the way in which Chardiet seeks to bring her ideas to fruition, with the lacklustre song structures conveying a sense of incompletion for many of these cuts. What’s more, given that this album only just exceeds half an hour in length, it seems that more time could have been taken to advance some of these pieces as fluently as possible, whilst also conceiving rewarding pay-offs for the amount of tension built across much of the record. Ultimately, Contact shows that Pharmakon has yet to assemble a strong structure to house its nasty aesthetic.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10