“For me if this record could do anything, it would be to bridge a divide. To say, hey, yes, Middle America I see you, I believe your economic woes and drug problems are real, but also, don't let your patriotism and your anger be exploited by con men, don't let your values be eroded by spite.” — EMA
EMA began with the urge to self-exile. After the success of Past Life Martyred Saints and 2014’s prophetic The Future’s Void, EMA retreated to a basement in Portland, Oregon – a generic apartment complex in a non-trendy neighborhood, with beige carpeting and cheap slat blinds.
She returns with a portrait of a world both familiar and alien: The Outer Ring, a pitch-black world of half-empty subdivisions, American flags hung over basement windows, big-box stores and strip malls and rage. In a year dominated by working-class alienation, EMA — a Midwesterner who has never lost her thousand-yard stare — has delivered an album that renders American poverty and resentment with frightening realism and deep empathy.
The Outer Ring is the suburban world of people who’ve been pushed out of city centers by stagnating wages and rising expense, forced up against rural communities swallowed by sprawl. It’s far more diverse than traditional images of “the suburbs” – vape shops and living-room hair salons exist next to Mexican grocery stores and Dollar General. But it’s also more deeply marked by poverty and tension, and by the anger that comes from having your story and your struggles erased from the narrative.
Songs like “I Wanna Destroy” (which shares a title with her 2015 MoMA PS1 exhibition) and “Down & Out” flicker between self-loathing and nihilism — an anger born of pain from being neglected by those in power, but no less alarming when we realize that “the kids from the void” might burn the world down.
The voices we hear in these songs — druggy, surly societal outcasts; Byronic blue-collar nihilists bringing down fire — speak to a rebellion that’s typically reserved for men. Think Bruce Springsteen’s similarly bleak outlaw portraits in Nebraska, or the quintessentially American (and quintessentially dudely) voices of Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski.
“During the process of this record I realized that I was ‘socialized male’ in my teen years,” says EMA. “I hung out with groups of dirtbag boys, listened to their music. I understand them, even though I was never fully a part of them. ‘Rebellious teenage dirtbag boy’ is such an outsized force in America especially... his insecurities have hijacked the nation, and his penchant for ‘joke racism’ has turned really fucking ugly. Yet I also have empathy for this person.”
Exile in the Outer Ring claims that same dirtbag alienation for women — “a woman who swallowed a scumbag teen boy whole,” as EMA puts it. “He's still inside her but in the end she's the actual spine of steel, nihilist with the gaze, wiser survivor.”
Navigating the rough terrain of femininity is not new for EMA. The Future’s Void read as a prescient statement on surveillance, but it also detailed EMA’s fears about being publicly female — a potential subject for online abuse and media trivialization, all too easily reduced to just another girl with a past and proclivities. She toured less, turned down interviews, and hid her face on the album cover, taking control by refusing to play into the trope of the blonde trainwreck.
For Exile, EMA returns to the question of how to be female without being devoured (“between a babe, and a crone, there is a queen, but I refuse to perform that,” we’re told on “Fire Water Air LSD”) while casting an eye on how male violence shapes the world. In these songs, the abuser who tells his victim she “made him crazy” in “7 Years” is not all that different from the famous white supremacist standing outside his casino in “Aryan Nation,” and both have more power than they deserve.
The album’s sound defies traditional “Americana.” An auteur in her own right, EMA has tapped Jacob Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra to co-produce an album that reflects her full range, while also returning, in many respects, to her roots – namely, noise-folk outfit Gowns, and their 2007 album Red State.
The album veers from spoken word (“Where the Darkness Began”) to straight-ahead thrash (“33 Nihilistic and Female”), with detours through everything from psychedelia to raw acoustic balladry along the way. Static becomes percussion on “7 Years;” “Down and Out” soundtracks economic despair with oddly poppy synth strings. The seven-minute track “Breathalyzer” (a seven-minute noise epic in the Gowns tradition) extends modular synth solos over a simple, almost chant-like melody, until the tale of one woman’s heroic dose in the backseat of a Camry turns into an exercise in suspense.
All of these threads come together in the anthemic “Aryan Nation.” Feminist alienation becomes working-class alienation, just as one person’s abuser becomes the systemic abuse of a nation. It’s an expansive vision that brings together concerns from every corner of our present moment — and themes that have recurred throughout EMA’s career, from the brutality of late capitalism to the collapsing boundaries between private and public — into one dark portrait of what it means to be American in 2017.
“I’m actually pro-Outer Ring,” says EMA. “It feels more vibrant to me right now than most city centers. It’s got more diversity and lower overhead. It’s where the freaks and the artists and the culture are going to end up, and it could be beautiful if it doesn’t destroy itself first.”
EMA never loses sight of the possibility of healing. If Exile spends a lot of time addressing rage, it also asks what growing up submerged in all this violence does to one’s ability to connect with others (“Receive Love”) or whether it’s even possible to run away from pain (“Always Bleeds,” a song originally written with Gowns). The result is a deeply personal, confrontational, but ultimately redemptive album from a quintessentially American artist at the peak of her form.
The Blow’s new album, Brand New Abyss, is a lightning rod. A wild assembly of frequencies produced out of a thrust of electroacoustic punk energy, the album is a search for a new sound of rebellion in an environment where the aesthetic of punk has been commodified into submission along with most everything else. Brand New Abyss was written and produced by the Blow (Melissa Dyne and Khaela Maricich) using a production rig that the duo painstakingly developed over the past four years; a mothership of patched-together modular synthesizers, ancient samplers and audio production gear. Like wizards in a craggy laboratory, they worked in seclusion, teaching themselves to control the raw material of sound using basic elements of electronic synthesis. Their aim was to be able to channel frequency into new shapes that would be useful to them, like tools to break through the algorithmic limits they were growing bored of. Says Dyne, “After having worked heavily with a samples in the past we got to a place where we wanted to treat electronic sound more acoustically, like something more alive. We wanted to make waves that we could ride and play around in- newer waves.”
Brand New Abyss was produced in response to, and in spite of, a series of atmospheric upheavals. Early in the composing process two large scale construction sites sprang up outside the windows of the band’s downtown Brooklyn apartment, like dueling high-volume hell-mouths, to which the duo responded at times by joining the noise battle and blasting out their own new beats, and other times by packing up their rig and reinstalling it elsewhere. They often found themselves working in odd locations, like off season vacation towns and 80’s timeshare condominium colonies, and the songs on the album reflect these environmental contrasts, spanning from intense rap bangers to open-hearted crystalline confessionals. Working from remote locations, wherever space to work was available, was disorienting; isolated from community and not seeing themselves reflected in their surroundings, the band had to ritually reestablish a sense of who they were and what was the point. In each new place they rearranged the furniture and then rearranged the air, making spheres of sound to surround themselves like halos of protection, providing them themselves a feeling of home and a radiating purpose wherever they went.
When the greater atmosphere dramatically shifted last year The Blow was strangely prepared, already living inside a portable vibe sphere, having practiced for years the art of alchemically transforming gnarly feelings into something nicer. The new single “Get Up,” debuting on NPR All Songs Considered, was similarly prescient. Begun in Brooklyn as a parking lot was being demolished out the band’s windows, the song took on an extra charge in recent months. Maricich says of the song, “‘Get Up’ started with a crazy sound that Melissa made on the modular synth, and the chorus just popped out of my mouth like something I’d been needing to be able to say for a long time without knowing it. It was like how you write a love song so easily when your heart is being crushed- with this it’s the feeling of my whole spirit being crushed by extreme capitalism, like everything I used to love got demolished and replaced by a glossy new bank. Then in recent months it was like, yeah, having an intense rap about how it’s all just too much right now feels pretty right.”
The songs on Brand New Abyss were for the most part tracked in The Blow’s downtown Brooklyn apartment, next to the construction sites, in the early months of 2017. All songs were written, performed and produced by The Blow, and engineered and mixed by Melissa Dyne. To cheer themselves along in the process of producing the album, the duo created the project WOMANPRODUCER, a multi-platform archive highlighting the history and present of female and gender nonconforming sonic innovators (hosted at womanproducer.com and @womanproducer everywhere else). Last fall they held a series of performances and talks in New York City bringing together producers from across a broad range of genres and eras, with the participants Zola Jesus, Neko Case, Pauline Oliveros, Suzi Analogue and Deradoorian, among many others. The Blow composed Brand New Abyss as a companion to their 2013 release The Blow, which was featured on both of the New York Times’ Best Songs of 2013 lists, as well as selected as top album of the year by Bob Boilen of NPR’s All Songs Considered. They will be co-headling an extensive US tour this fall with fellow new style punk EMA.
Jibz Cameron is a performance/video artist and actor living in Los Angeles. Her work as alter ego Dynasty Handbag has been presented at such institutions as MOCALA, PS1, Joe's Pub, The Kitchen, REDCAT, The Broad Museum, Hammer Museum, New Museum of Contemporary Art New York, among others. She has been heralded by the New York Times as “the funniest and most pitch perfect performance seen in years” and “outrageously smart, grotesque and innovative” by The New Yorker. She has written and produced 6 evening length performance pieces and countless short works that have been performed in clubs and venues internationally. She has produced numerous video works and 2 albums of original music. In addition to her work as Dynasty Handbag she has also been seen acting in films, theater and television (internet web series no one has seen). She also works as a professor of performance and comedy related subjects at Cal-Arts and NYU. Cameron also produces and hosts Weirdo Night, a popular monthly alternative comedy and performance event. Jibz recently moved from New York to Los Angeles and is in development with Electric Dynamite on a television series about a performance artist that moves from New York to Los Angeles.