It’s incredible to find a debut album that is as accomplished as The Quanta Series. Granted not everyone works under Marina Abramovic and produces a Björk-lauded experimental opera before releasing their first album either. Clearly KÁRYYN’s CV is in order for producing top-quality experimental/art pop, and she delivers on this promise in spades. The Quanta Series, as the name implies, was originally a set of smaller releases, a couple songs each per installment, that was released over the past few years. For this collection, she added a couple new songs and sequenced things to play as a longform statement rather than a collection of singles, and given the relative rarity of her work prior to this release, it more than justifies itself.
Björk’s interest in KÁRYYN’s music makes sense the moment you hear her glitched and warped digitized vocals on the opening track. It may not be the immediate thought for comparison for these sounds—vaporwave a la Giant Claw and glitch pop a la Son Lux come to mind as more immediate contemporary touchstones—but becoming aware of Björk’s praise for KÁRYYN’s work more generally definitely makes a great deal of sense. After all, Bjork, along with Fiona Apple and Tori Amos, was undoubtedly the torchbearer for experimental pop following Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson, and recognizing this kind of talent in someone and promoting younger artists in the field is something she has always been good at. Thankfully, and wisely, KÁRYYN downplays this connection, mentioning it nowhere in press releases. The music stands for itself, unmarked by notes of influence or who she might want you to consider her work alongside. This is fitting and fair; the work is startlingly beautiful on its lonesome and doesn’t need the accomplished CV of its composer and main player behind it to impress.
The songs hover in cold air like fragments of glass frozen together and glinting in shrill light, each wave of sound mirrored to a glimmer of light on these rotating crystal figures. The glitchiness and effects-heavy nature of the music calls to mind industrial in that similar notion of roughing up common sound and a keener ear for sonic texturalism and timbre than directly focusing on melody; but unlike industrial, KÁRYYN’s music is focused on beauty, the painful and thorned kind of beauty, like witnessing a gorgeous and perfect ghost that can’t be brought back. Fitting, too, given that the origin’s of the album are in KÁRYYN contemplating the loss of two family members in the Syrian struggles over the past decade. That kind of weighty center, that of a diasporic family member contemplating the grief of loss of loved ones in war inflected by the dualing imperialisms of two superpowers struggling over a piece of land neither of them have right to, makes a painful core for the glossy, fragmented, glitched and beautiful compositions to revolve around.
The vocals are largely unintelligible, coming through in waves like the more accessible Zola Jesus material, and while often the ear is drawn to other things in the songs, KÁRYYN’s vocal lines and timbre alone tell a story keen enough without words. She sings with longing over these pieces, the kind of snarled up rage and disappointment and depression, effervescing with loss, that marks grief. These are vocal patterns as restrained and powerful as anything the Mountain Goats have ever done but with a different instrumental backing, hewing to the post-digital modernism that has marked contemporary art music for the past decade or two. Notes swarm and then depart, songs moving sometimes to a metronome and other times to the floating rubato of an artist playing more with the rhythm of breath and bloodbeat than a steady click. The musical choices feel always pitched toward desired emotional response rather than following a rigid and proscriptive song-logic; choruses and verses repeat when it would make the songs hurt more or the make the beauty more aching, not because songwriting and arranging logic would dictate it. The choices do not feel “artsy” in that cliched way either; the record doesn’t exist to impress you, but to express the fullness of grief, from laughter and love to rage and tears.
There is a gravity to these songs that is undeniable. It is the artistic testament of someone tied very deeply to a series of events that might otherwise be the backdrop to your day, scrolling images on CNN and occasional comments on the timeline. I am a cishet white man in America; I am not tied directly to the events in Syria, no matter how closely I might follow them, and as a result, my perspective on them will always be skewed somewhat. But if anyone has felt grief before, if you have loved someone and then lost them in a cruel stupid accident you can’t recover them from, you will recognize the core feelings at play on The Quanta Series. The fact that these family members were lost on the other side of the world to imperial wargames of two great powers becomes an impossible deepening of both the cruelty and sick humor of it, like a pitch black bad joke. The Quanta Series makes these kinds of abstract experimental/art pop moves have a clear and direct emotional tether, and in doing so makes legible to those outside of these kinds of sounds why fans and artists of this style cleave to them. The songs are blasted apart and reassembled wrong like the heart in grief, where nothing about common life makes sense anymore and you can’t tell whether you want to laugh, scream, cry, or kill yourself. It is also a master class in songwriting and performance, being a harrowing and heartfelt listen across every track. There are no weak points across its run time; each track sinks in the subtle knife a little further in that painful, necessary way.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.