Pharmakon is Margaret Chardiet, a native New Yorker who sprang onto the local underground experimental scene at the tender age of seventeen. That, however, is the only tender thing about this noise project. A founding member of the Red Light District Collective in Far Rockaway, she has always been a fundamental figurehead in this subculture. Her voice is her main instrument as she catapults it between visceral screams and haunting melodies, all of which lay under heavy layers of reverb to create a demonic wasteland of brutal, bruising sound. The goal is always the same: that is, to explore what it means to be human at its most bare, uncomfortable truth.
She has recently released Devour, the fourth Pharmakon album for Brooklyn imprint Sacred Bones. The previous three releases explore humanity more inwardly, an exploration of Chardiet herself: The first Sacred Bones release, Abandon, examined intrapersonal violence. She penned Bestial Burden while recovering from major surgery, grappling with ominous reality that our bodies can betray us at any moment, “the human as an isolated consciousness stuck inside a rotting vessel.” The next release, Contact, flipped the focus, examining the ways our minds can transcend our physical forms.
Devour focuses on humanity’s tendency to self-destruct, as evidenced by the album art itself, an image of Chardiet consuming a plaster cast of her own face. However, she pulls back the lens to look at the world more broadly, the ways in which an increasingly uncertain and violent world harms its inhabitants mentally and physically. Employing this imagery of self-cannibalization, she goes so far as to suggest self-destruction as the only antidote to the chaos, articulated best on “Self-Regulating System,” on which she haunts us with lyrics like: “Caught in a cycle of cause and effect / maybe self-destruction is a viable self-regulating system.” Each of the five tracks represents a stage of grief, all “associated with this cyclical chamber of self-destruction and the chaos surrounding us that leads us to devour ourselves in an attempt to balance out the agony,” a statement released in anticipation of the album read.
That being said, Chardiet never intended the album to be consumed as piecemeal tracks, instead wishing it to be heard as two sides, A and B. Each side was recorded as a continuous vocal take from start to finish, meant to emulate the urgency of her live performances. Layered with dense electronics, funkier hooks, and her trademark animalistic vocals, she succeeds.
All in all, this is a satisfying listen, though not an easy one. You will come out the other side shaken and bruised. It says a lot about the state of the world that the last three albums I’ve reviewed, this one included, explore the myriad ways this constant chaos has negatively impacted our wellbeing, from the softest modern Americana to the harshest industrial noise. At this point, all we can do is sit back and listen.