The music of Osaka-born purveyor of punk Phew has never been conventional. It is, in essence, anti-convention.
From her late 1970s creative output with Aunt Sally, a band that spliced rock with psychedelic flavors in a hail and wash of avant-punk, to later collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto and German producer Conny Plank, it has never been a question of convention, only of sounds — how they clash, how they cooperate.
Arriving two years after her previous album “Voice Hardcore,” a new collection of music in the form of “Vertigo KO” comes out Sept. 4. Among other things, the forthcoming album reflects Phew’s punk roots with a cover of “The Void” by British post-punk outfit The Raincoats.
Though the 1979 original shines with strings, energetic yelped vocals and sunny guitar-and-bass interpolation, Phew’s cover is dark and panic-stricken: an agitated drum machine scuttles forward, a high-pitched ostinato flashing randomly, low hums and drone coagulate in the air, all while her vocal lurches and leaps as it chooses. It feels — and sounds — uneasy, unsettling: Phew’s take on what the void might really be like.
Possibly, the creation and inclusion of this cover was set in motion by Phew’s collaboration with Ana da Silva, a founding member of The Raincoats; the pair released their team-up album “Island” in 2018, and again came together in June for “ahhh,” a one-off track and direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I imagined what the first thing I would say when I met someone I wanted to meet in a cafe, in a record store, in a park or on the street,” Phew said of the release. “Perhaps it’s ‘ahhh.’”
“Vertigo KO” begins in earnest with a crystalized chasm of sound in “The Very Ears of Morning,” gleaming drones and insectoid ambience like a series of celestial alarm clocks. It’s a fitting opener that finds its inversion in “The Very Ears of Dusk,” which grinds with gleaming static and far-off calls from indistinct voices.
Phew’s distinctive voice work features throughout. It’s an instrument in itself, most conventionally with “The Void,” but most recognizably and vitally on “Let’s Dance Let’s Go.” She talks — endlessly, fuzzy, monotone, meandering on a backdrop of her own voice that gradually layers into something like a swarm of bees, breaking by the end into a strident choir.
It’s this balance of pliable and very harsh that makes “Vertigo KO” a dramatic, engaging listen. Though called “an unconscious sound sketch” by the artist herself, and though partly comprising material recorded during the making of previous albums “Light Sleep” (2017) and “Voice Hardcore” (2018), it feels very much a made-to-measure release in itself. Its minimalism, its sporadic drum machines and fatalistic synthesized noises, mark another successful step in the experimental artist’s fairly recent subtle change in direction since her 2015 album “A New World.”
Album closer, the short but sweet “Hearts and Flowers,” is heavy with existential angst in its drone and harsh noise instrumental aesthetic: A soundscape like something you’d imagine the onset of night to sound like on a planet far from our own. Mingling with the intense sharpness of the instrumental here is softness in the wordless, well-wishing vocals uttered by Phew herself — human warmth in a storm of concrete and computers. It mirrors, maybe, what she calls the “hidden message” of the album: “What a terrible world we live in, but let’s survive.”
“Vertigo KO” is out via Disciples on Sept. 4. The limited edition 2-CD version also includes “Vertical Jamming,” a three-track cassette and digital release of Phew’s longform drone work that sold out when it was first released back in May.
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