Contact is the third album by Margaret Chardiet, released on the 10th anniversary of her experimental noise project Pharmakon. This album follows 2014’s Bestial Burden, which was Chardiet’s intensely personal and gross exploration of the medically compromised human body—a visceral manifestation of being trapped, betrayed, and exhausted by your own body. On the final title track of Bestial Burden, Chardiet’s echoing vocals erupt into maniacal cackling interspersed with guttural proclamations: “I reach out to touch nothing / And I seek out to find nothing / And I lift my head up to nothing / And I realize, I don’t belong here,” she laughs, “I don’t belong here!”
It has been three years, and I have since wondered whether that final track was a total collapse into unreality or a cogent, sisyphean resolve to laugh into the void. Contact, a satisfying follow-up to Bestial Burden, suggests the latter, but does not stop there. Rather than backtracking on the previous album’s nihilistic tendencies, Contact fully embraces them while also offering a course of action, which ultimately leads to transcendence. But be warned, the path to transcendence is not for the faint of heart (or ears).
At 32 minutes long, this noise album is uniquely concise. Pharmakon does not have time for meandering passages—with marked urgency, her goal with this album is to make contact with the listener and force the listener’s involvement. Contact is a highly organized listening experience, inspired by four stages of trance: preparation, onset, climax, and resolution. While Bestial Burden ruminates, necessarily, on one’s inner turmoil, Contact proposes turning that energy outward. In her artist statement, an enlightening supplement to the album, Chardiet frantically reminds us that our existence is inconsequential. We are all rabid animals, and we are all going to die. But she offers a reprieve, calling for us to revel in the transience which unites us all and to make “CONTACT,” ultimately demanding “Empathy, EMPATHY, NOW!” Finding human empathy in the distinctly inhuman, metallic realm of industrial noise may seem counterintuitive, but the contact Chardiet describes is not mere handholding, and the trance-arch of this album is not fit for a yoga mat or a hypnotist’s chaise lounge. Rather Contact—and liberation—is violent.
A sedative drone carries this album, interspersed with earsplitting, grittier noise and jolting transitions. Pharmakon’s primary instrument and her greatest strength are her vocals, which reach an industrial timbre and bleed (as her throat has, literally, in the past) from guttural sounds into unmistakably female shrieks. Blaring sirens, convulsive screams and breathless moans on the opening track “Nakedness of Need” assault the listener from every direction with the effect of paralyzing g-force. That disorienting, simultaneously vast and suffocating atmosphere gives way to two minutes of unresolved whirring on “Sentient,” an industrial hum devoid of vocalization or human presence. The swelling hum slams into “Transmission,” and the atmosphere opens up with echoing vocals textured with a buffering drone likely to induce heart palpitations.
The final track “No Natural Order” recalls an atmospheric space similar to the opening track “Nakedness of Need,” however here the space is less nebulous and more controlled, with forceful clanking of metal and more clearly articulated vocals: we have reached our resolution. Still, with guttural screams Chardiet proclaims, “Despite all our scrambling rejections / We cannot transcend all of our instincts / We are just animals, lost in a confused dream / Where mankind is real and at the center of everything.” Our existence is without special significance, and it feels like we just might collapse into unreality. But then the tempo quickens. There is no divine law, so “escape! Revolt!” she shrieks, “No natural law pertains / Only empathy, untamed.” This resolution gives way to a lingering drone that for a moment makes the listener wonder if this is just tinnitus, then the album officially comes to a halt with a heavy industrial thud.
Intense but concise, at its core Contact offers catharsis. However I cannot use “catharsis” to describe this album without acknowledging its dialectical meaning in light of the etymology of “pharmakon.” “Pharmakon,” to give an abbreviated version, translates to both “poison” and “remedy.” In philosophical terms it describes the ascription of humanity’s ills and evils to a scapegoat, and humanity’s subsequent catharsis through the purging of the scapegoat. Within this framework the catharsis of this album goes beyond a simple purging of emotions and reflects back on the sinister, shadow aspect of humanity. Pharmakon deals in the grossest and most ambivalent facets of the human condition, and requires a willingness to participate in that confrontation. In turn Pharmakon invites the listener to transcend our “sleepwalking form,” hampered by arbitrary power constructs and humanity’s hierarchical conceptions of meaning, and find the space where we might truly be free.