If there was any justice in this world (At this point try and resist the temptation to burst into a full Lemar vocal) EMA would be bigger than GaGa. As there is rarely any (justice) that we can all agree upon, especially in matters pertaining to culture, that remains an unlikely situation. Whilst the Lady's work is not exactly my bag I do get her appeal. She has been a shot in the arm for the stagnating world of commercially driven, increasingly manufactured, mainstream music. The front line of pop would have a far more banal portfolio without her. She has pushed boundaries, continuously reinvented borrowed themes and never stops changing her sometimes ludicrous image. She is what pop needs; someone to divide families, have your parents argue over whilst tutting into their tea and someone who can fill column inches like no other self publicist around. She's read the book, seen the movie and now she's reshaping it her way. Like her or loath her she's good for music.
EMA is just as good, if not better, for music. She is the Vivienne Westwood to GaGa's TopShop. Heston Blumenthal to GaGa's man from Birdseye. She is pop's couture, and whilst Lady Gaga may not be everyone's idea of high street, she's certainly a lot closer to the mass market end of the spectrum. Therein lays the conundrum experienced in the musical arena. It takes an awful lot of money, momentum, marketing, management and luck to get from designer boutique to global household brand. However, whilst in some respects it would be great to see EMA getting all the air play GaGa has generated it would also be counterproductive. Music needs its inspirational creators to experiment and explore, to challenge excepted norms and traditional concepts. They feed the roots of the industry, passing on ideas and techniques which then begin to manifest themselves as diluted versions of the original. Broadly complimentary critical acclaim may raise the profile and exposure of EMA but it'll still be along while, if ever, before you here her on your local day time radio station.
Erica M Anderson is not new to the music scene. She has not dropped to Earth, Bowie esc, from some distant planet to teach us new tricks, far from it Ms Anderson, as Sissy Spacek before her, is from the badlands of South Dakota. She cut her teeth as one part of favourably received, now diseased, drone folk band Gowns. 'Past Life Martyred Saints' represents her debut solo album proper and marks a clear, and surprisingly spectacular, departure from her previous incarnation. The 'Digital media artist and guitar destroyer' shows a remarkably deft and mature touch in her solo guise. All manner of references can be heard throughout the 9 track set. She is a formidable talent, one that inevitably leads you to draw comparisons with Polly Jean, Siouxsie Sioux, Karen O and even at times Natasha Khan. Her use of instrumentation and arrangement is inspired, an industrial hybrid borne out of Orwellian menace and leftfield razor sharp indie guitar with an urban undercurrent and sassy persona.
Past Life Martyred Saints starts on a high; there's no need to save some best bits, there is no filler. Last year's first single from the album, 'The Grey Ship', kicks us off in suitably sinister style. The song of two clear parts, split at the key change by some awesome synth notes, is a majestic builder crafted from minimal beginnings into a rousing, stirring mele of percussive punctuation's and grinding guitar riffs that under score Erika's more melodic, harmonious and conversational vocal. Beginning like the Yeah Yeah Yeah's 'Gold Lion', and ending like a early day PJ explosive piece complete with a fiddle to rival that of Warren Ellis, it sets the bar for the remainder of the album. Second song, second single, 'California' is formed from a different pallet altogether. A raw, shredded, emotive track of brutal intestinal twisting intensity, ripping at your insides without anaesthetic..............
"You're still my favourite Past Life Martyred Saint.
Gimme me the places, I'll give you the names.
Wasted away alone on the plains,
What's it like to be small-town and gay?
Fuck it baby I know you'll never change."
The third single release from the album, 'Milkman', is a fabulous amalgam of feedback, fuzz, distortion, church organ and a squall of near white noise. It'll set your teeth on edge towards the end so those of a delicate nature should skip forward. What follows, albeit fleetingly, is a complete sea change on track #5, 'Coda' . The near a cappella multi layered vocal is all over in a minute. It contains the shared themes of drug dependency, emptiness.......and vomiting, with the song it precedes, 'Marked'. Here we are 'treated' to more pent up emotion and inner turmoil, expressing the demons of a troubled soul.
The album's final third starts with the delayed vocal harmonies of 'Breakfast'. Initially beginning as a gentle lullaby it finishes with a flourish that bares some relationship to Sinaed's 'Feel So Different'. A brilliant psychosis returns for the penultimate track, 'Butterfly Knife'. The cathartic outpourings recount youthful idolisation, self harming and inner torment. Jagged guitars and fuzzy synths whir in loops of terrifying intensity before the track breaks down to a skeletal arrangement that is equally as disturbing as it is beautiful. Arguably the most conventional composition, 'Red Star', closes out Past Life Martyred Saints. Rather like its composer it's an enigma. It's a slow smouldering build that ultimately reaches epic proportions but bares little relationship to all that's gone before it.
If you wanted an easy listening experience this is not it. EMA's music is challenging and provocative at times. It grabs your attention and owns you for the duration, there's no switching off, down time or day dreaming. I know we're barely at the half way stage but Past Life Martyred Saints will definitely be in a lot of the end of year lists for top ten albums, it really is that good. Erika M Anderson has made a bold leap forward with this album, one that deserves all the positive recognition it receives.