The Edge of a Meltdown
A knife’s edge is not the easiest place to walk along. Far too many an artist has slipped to one side or the other, or even bisected themselves on the razor’s edge. To find an act that tiptoes the lines between genres is one thing, but stumbling on a band like EMA is something different entirely. EMA exists on the business end of a sharpened blade, constantly tiptoeing the balance between an explosion and containment. Their latest work Exile in the Outer Ring might be the best example of their balancing act — an album that constantly threatens unspeakable violence but pulls back every second it creeps to close to a full meltdown, wracked with teasing buildups and no release, but in the case of EMA, withholding has never felt this good.
Starting with the opening track, “7 Years,” it becomes immediately clear that this will not be your standard EMA experience. The track opens with a repeating tape static, like the looping of an ocean wave washing ashore from a distance which then translates into strangely soft washed out guitars. The whole track seems as though it would feel much more at home on something by Cocteau Twins or even Beach House rather than a band known for their aggressive take on noise rock. Luckily for listeners looking for a little more violence, they don’t have to wait long as “Breathalyzer” might be the most upsetting song that EMA has ever put out (potentially barring loose track, “Active Shooter”) The song opens with a murderous synth rattle, similar to something you might find on a HEALTH or Space Jesus album. The lyrics “he wanted me to blow the breathalyzer out on his truck” are specific enough to bring up haunting memories for listeners, and it only worsens as the vocals become more distorted and washed out as lead singer Erika Michelle Anderson touches on topics of sexual violence while voices echo back their laments in hushed swirling whispers like a bad trip.
The album continues on this path of destruction with tracks like “Fire Water Air LSD,” which references Guns ‘n Roses’ classic song “Welcome to the Jungle” with a repetition of the phrase, “My Serpentine” before launching into a threatening spoken word section followed by whining distorted guitars that again tiptoe the balance between noise rock and psych rock as the album does so well. Later on the album again shifts to the soft side with “Receive Love,” which comes as a sweet reprieve from the endlessly building tension that the rest of the album had subjected its’ listeners to. The track has some whining electric guitars in the far background, reminding the listener that madness is never far off even in the peaceful times. But, for the most part, the song is a lovely acoustic track that features Anderson’s softest and sweetest vocals to date. The soft spoken word elements of the album coalesce on the closing track, “Where the Darkness Began,” which is an atmospheric exercise in spoken word, featuring the startlingly soft speaking voice of Anderson reading a poem that poses the question of whether the darkness in the world is from without or within.
Balance and composure are some of the most admirable traits that can be found in a person. Luckily for lovers of noise rock, they are traits also found in Exile in the Outer Ring, which will go down as the most comprehensive piece of work from EMA to date. Should EMA continue on this path, they’ll be well on their way to becoming a true staple of the genre, but until then anyone interested in exploring the harsher ends of music would do well to start here.