EMA Past Life Martyred Saints Review

Released 2011.  

BBC Review

Passages of thrilling unfamiliar drone-folk stand out on this alluring debut LP.

Andrzej Lukowski 2011

With Sonic Youth teetering on the verge of disbandment and the 58-year-old Kim Gordon having earned the chance to put her feet up for a while, there’s an opening of sorts in the world of alt-rock for a bleached blonde icon of cool.

Could Erika M Anderson – aka EMA – be it? Excitingly, it may take a while to find that out, as beneath Anderson's immaculately tousled locks, hipsterishly wasted promo pictures and penchant for guitar hero poses there lurks a much more elusive figure than one at first expects.

For all the gales of feedback, throaty growling and Anderson’s propensity for outrageously insouciant lyrical soundbites ( "I’m just 22, I don’t mind dying," she snarls on California; "C’mon, look me in the eye, 20 kisses with a butterfly knife," she coos on Butterfly Knife) the music is far from the voguish noise rock racket one might expect. There is some of that, true, but the most memorable moments on debut album Past Live Martyred Saints tend to be the passages of thrilling unfamiliar drone-folk. Towering over the record is audacious seven-minute-long lead single Grey Ship, which begins as a woozily intriguing lo-fi acoustic plod then – via the mother of all bass drops – morphs into a titanic slowcore wall of sound, a majestic, looming edifice of layered vocals and exotic strains of distortion, its Norse folklore-touched lyrics heavy with yearning for and fear of home.

Nothing else on the album matches it for sheer scope and ambition; in some ways the record’s one weakness is a certain lack of clear direction. Is EMA the Grey Ship’s audacious captain? The attitude-laden beat poet of the billowy Califonia? The lascivious noisemonger of Milkman? Or the fragile, damaged singer songwriter who bares her soul – and alludes to a history of self-harm – on Butterfly Knife and the agonisingly intimate Marked? Song for song, it’s one of the most impressive collections of the year. As an album, a glorious rawness and disregard for verse-chorus-verse simplicity runs throughout, but it strains for cohesion. We still don’t really know who Erika M Anderson is, but puzzling her out should be a joy.

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