Savage Exile (12/1/17)
Azar Swan began in 2012 when the core members of Religious to Damn, Zohra Atash and Joshua Strawn, chose to reframe their collaboration. Religious to Damn relished in the strange results of collaborating with multiple, often virtuoso musicians to produce deceptively straightforward dream pop. Members of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, His Name is Alive and Time of Orchids made appearances alongside Tamaryn, and future members of Tombs and Pop. 1280 to create what The Village Voice called, “a mix of desert strum, hypnotic pulse, spirited-away synths, Lynchian weirdness, and Fleetwood Maximalism.” Azar Swan opted for a similarly eclectic collision, this time pared down to just Atash and Strawn, embracing their lifelong love of electronic music.
Azar Swan’s first two albums, 2013’s Dance Before The War and 2014’s And Blow Us a Kiss were exercises in finding out what might happen when hip hop’s increasingly industrial use of heavy drum samples and distorted synthesizers met with grandiose melodic tribalism and the get-up-and-dance of freestyle. But whereas experimental artists often belatedly decide to delve into “pop,” Azar Swan’s trajectory has gone in reverse, resembling artists like Talk Talk for which the pop records are a prelude to increasingly strange compositions and uncomfortably raw emotions. Atash says the forthcoming album Savage Exile “is a beautiful purging of anger.”
Savage Exile is as much of a reflection of the band’s personal experiences as their professional ones. On the professional side, as the band was finishing Dance Before the War, Strawn was releasing the first Vaura LP and Atash was touring with A Storm of Light performing parts that Jarboe had originally recorded. A remix by Coil’s Drew McDowall led to his appearance on the song “Mouth of the Sky.” Bookings alongside Cut Hands (former Whitehouse provocateur William Bennett) and Prurient were followed by 2015’s remix collaboration Variations featuring intense re-imaginings of “We Hunger” by Vatican Shadow and “For Last And Forever” by Cut Hands.
After hearing Zohra’s demos for a third album that projected an air of oppression by way of drone-based compositions, menacing sequences, and abstract vocal layering, Josh reached out to Kris Lapke, longtime studio wizard for Prurient and Hospital Productions (and original bassist of his post-punk project Vain Warr) to help realize the band’s new, more aggressive approach. Unlike previous Azar Swan records, which had been collaborative in the sense that both band members had usually contributed something substantial to each song, Savage Exile is more starkly divided between songs which Atash wrote, performed and recorded almost entirely herself and those where Strawn did the same.
On the side of personal experience, Atash couldn’t help but feel drained of ecstatic pop since her experience as a proud American from an Afghan refugee family was becoming increasingly hard to square with unfolding political events. A country that denied her basic humanity, an industry that talked big about listening to marginalized voices but still seemed most interested in fashion-oriented lifestyle production by the privileged. For Strawn, the record is “a responsive to a wide range of abusive behaviors, trying to navigate them. Processing one’s own rage. The realization that the world has no mechanisms in place to truly protect anyone.” Still, Savage Exile is introspective not politically didactic. The album is a journey rather than message, one made in the belief that truthful art made is still a dagger in the heart of pervasive evil.
The processing of rage became material in the act of creating the music. A shift from software to hardware instruments made for a more tangible relationship to sound, and literalized the attempt to give shape to an overwhelming emotion that isn’t easily controlled. Atash put her lifelong study of experimental vocal techniques into practice, at times eschewing lyrics altogether for a fullness of pure, emotive sound. “Instead of melody, I wanted to use things like the rhythm of speaking, animal noises as anchor and color for the songs. Nonlinear sounds, the rhythm of tyrants, of dimwits.” Like the electronics, the vocal performances are exercises in real time manipulation, Joan LaBarbara if she stumbled upon a suitcase of effects processors at a basement noise show.
Atash tells stories from viewpoints that vary from the omniscient observer to the deeply personal. “Shock” is the scream of birth, of being thrown into the world naked and dependent. “Territorial” is an abstract meditation on ownership and exclusion. “Twilight Anesthesia” is a collage of phrases heard in hospital operating rooms, a space where vulnerability and proximity to death are often at a maximum. In the case of “Lines In The Sand,” Zohra speaks in the voice of the kind of person who has grown ever more comfortable expressing their hate for people like her. It’s a purposeful exploitation of an ambiguous line between empathy and ridicule. “Jungle Law” is a harsh burst of heat, the sound of an epiphany most of us eventually have: that someone we trusted wasn’t worth trusting. The album’s closer “Heavy Water” repeats the simple refrain “It’s a lonely life,” in a tone that refuses to resolve that which can’t be resolved. Not resignation, just awareness.
The album’s title refers both to the exile of “savages” and the savagery of exiling. A meditation on never really belonging. It’s a dance about imagined spaces. The terrain of distance. The need to create a home when all the forces around you don’t seem to care if you’re homeless. When people don’t have a sanctuary, they create one in their mind.
Savage Exile is not intended to be an easy listen. It’s both comfort and wound, blood as balm and evidence.