Between 2014’s Bestial Burden and her new album, Contact, Pharmakon‘s Margaret Chardiet did something a little bit surprising: She played guitar on a punk record. That album, Cheena’s Spend the Night With…, is more immediate, more social, more fun than anything in the Pharmakon catalog. It presented a side of Chardiet’s musical personality on a record that, while still affiliated with the Sacred Bones label, seemed miles and miles away from the menace and horror of the dark ambient and industrial compositions that define her solo project. It was also, perhaps, a necessary break; Bestial Burden was recorded after Chardiet underwent a harrowing experience in which she was hospitalized and had an organ removed. That kind of ordeal just might be the sort of thing that could lead one to want to put aside the really dark stuff and play some catchy indie rock songs for a year or so, but it also allowed listeners the necessary recalibration before Pharmakon started up again. Her music requires a certain level of psychological and possibly physical preparation before diving in headfirst. It isn’t for the impulsive.
Contact, Pharmakon’s third full-length, is neither casual nor carefree. True to Pharmakon’s catalog so far—which appears to be following an alphabetical naming motif—Contact is dark and harrowing, an uneasy mixture of buzzes, drones, pounding percussion and primal screams. Yet for all its mechanized terror and punishing noise, however, Contact is—much like its predecessor—a very human album. Where Bestial Burden was born of an internal struggle, however, Contact is outward-focused, a dark meditation on the ugliness of human nature and the need for real connections to overcome our worst impulses. “When our mind uses the body in order to transcend and escape it! The moments of connection/communion/CONTACT, when the veil is for a brief but glorious moment lifted, and we are free,” Chardiet says in a statement. “Empathy! EMPATHY, NOW!”
It’s perhaps a little bit of a leap to imagine an album of abstract, nightmarish industrial drones as a call for understanding, though Chardiet never does so in a blatant fashion. Rather, the music becomes a proxy for the hell of our own making. “Nakedness of Need” evokes a feeling of desperation, Chardiet screeching and moaning some of her most piercing and guttural vocalizations amid an almost alarm-like backing. “Transmission,” meanwhile, moves closer to the pace of life itself, the steady EBM pulse mimicking the flash of a refreshing digital screen, her yelps echoing like the speech of a dictator. And closing highlight “No Natural Order” echoes the randomness, and by extension depravity, of existence itself. Chardiet’s vocals act as a counterpoint to the rhythmic backing, which itself shifts patterns and tempo throughout the course of its nearly seven-minute runtime. In the end, a series of unexpected orphan thumps, as if to reinforce the cruelty seemingly inherent in nature’s indifference.
Contact is a reflection of where we are now, or perhaps the road we took to get here. Empathy is in short supply, greed still drives public policy and divisions seem to prevent progress from being possible, or at the very least implementable at the speed it needs to be. Pharmakon holds up a mirror to our fucked-up selves, if to remind us that we’re all stuck in this uncomfortable globe-sized meat grinder together. It’s not always a pretty picture, but Chardiet renders these beastly truths in characteristically powerful forms. We may not get out of this pit of despair anytime soon, but the six dirges provided here are more than catharsis enough to get us to the next day.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.