'It starts with a scream. Not just any scream, but one that sounds like it's shredding all the muscle tissue in the vocal cords of Margaret Chardiet, the 22-year-old New Yorker who records as Pharmakon. It's more a warning than an introduction, a line drawn in the sand that forces you to either cross and face the consequences or turn away and go about your pleasant day. Chardiet outlined her backstory in a recent Rising feature; the daughter of punk parents, highly active on the DIY scene in New York, uninterested in cultivating any kind of online presence. She says Abandon is about "fiercely holding on to what's true and unapologetically abandoning what's not." Getting to the heart of Chardiet's truth is an ugly process, full of pain and suffering and confrontation spilling outward, forming an unwavering commitment to her art that's both commendable and distressing at the same time.
This release for Sacred Bones is the most high-profile Pharmakon output to date, following a series of hard-to-find CD-Rs and cassettes. The music hovers around the noise and power electronics genres, taking cues from Throbbing Gristle, various phases of Swans, and Whitehouse among others. Like those bands, Chardiet isn't interested in music as a passive listening experience. Instead, Abandon is a brick hurtling through the windshield of a moving car, a purposefully antagonistic act that forces you to fully focus on the moment. Pharmakon's most frightening moments rarely involve a complete noise blackout. This is a carefully worked set of lethargically paced songs, sometimes passing from a chilly machine hum to dull thuds of metallic percussion ("Ache"), sometimes taking pitch-shifted vocal passages and layering them over drones that sound like bombs tumbling out of the sky ("Crawling on Bruised Knees").
There’s a thread of body horror loosely strung through Chardiet's work. A prior release included a track named "Mound of Flesh, Cavern of Fluids"; this record depicts Chardiet covered in maggots on the cover and includes "Crawling on Bruised Knees"; one of her older tracks, "Xia Xinfeng", is named after a woman who literally kissed her lover to death by passing him a capsule of rat poison when their lips met. Similarly, the music carries a strong sense of disease and decay, of things nearing a point of total breakdown. The fascination with bodily atrophy makes sense here, anchored to work so physically draining for both listener and performer. Abandon isn't at all about creating distance or putting up boundaries. Chardiet often forces audience members to look her directly in the eyes during live shows, sucking participants down into her despair in an unnervingly direct manner.
The arc Abandon takes feels deliberately mapped out, heading from an overpowering form of aggression at the start and gradually sinking into more studied material later on. "Pitted" borrows some of the clarity Swans found circa Children of God, where noise started to feel like a dead end and tracks like "New Mind" represented a solemn trudge out of the mire. Chardiet's vocal bears a similar authoritarian tone to the one Michael Gira possesses; when she sings, you shut up and listen. It's helped by the fact that her multi-octave voice can rise and plummet so effectively, something driven home by "Pitted", where no amount of harsh electronics can compete with the full-tilt power of her vocal. It's the one slip of the mask here, the one moment where a form of deathlike beauty is stirred into the swill, momentarily hinting at a place somewhere outside of Pharmakon's defiant battle mode.
In a recent Wire interview with Wolf Eyes, the band's John Olson discussed the gradual cessation of musicians working in all-out noise, resulting in more meditative electronic artists such as Oneohtrix Point Never and Emeralds. Olson likened the move to a shift from external to internal impulses, a retreat from the outright purge of Wolf Eyes into something more inward-looking. Chardiet's work as Pharmakon spills all its guts out onto the floor and leaves them hanging for close inspection, but this isn't entirely a return to external outpouring. As noted in the aforementioned interview, there are times in the Pharmakon live show where she's "disappearing into her own head." Those moments are apparent here, too, making it feel like Chardiet oscillates between being lost to the world and thoroughly bruised by it. Getting forcibly pinned down in her personal cycle of attack and retreat is a dark, visceral, utterly compelling thrill.'