Everyone has a few records that make them genuinely afraid. Maybe you were seven years old and heard “Ghost Riders In The Sky” and suddenly the abstract concept of death clicked for the first time. Maybe it was the lead singer of Throbbing Gristle reciting descriptions of human suffering over droney electronic static. Maybe you ingested something at a club once, and the lurching rumble of DVS1’s “Falling” instilled a deep sense of being utterly alone, even in the middle of a packed dance floor.
Music that touches an uncomfortable or vulnerable place is also endlessly fascinating, and the songs that make the world feel as if it could crumple into itself at any moment are also ones that we revisit, transfixed by their grip over us. Katie Gately’s debut mini LP on Public Information is absolutely one of these terrifying records, if only because it mutates what once could have been called pop music into a lurching, mangled golem of its former self. It’s an album that evokes the panic of hearing scrambled screams through a cell phone where something horrible is happening, a debut that barrels out of the gate with so much brazen assuredness and so many layers that it’s easy to forget that it’s Gately’s first release, and that she’s been creating music for under a year.
If you’re looking for dissonance, look no further than the appropriately apocalyptic “Last Day” – where Gately’s vocals spiral around an unsettling percussion pattern that sounds like a heavy metal pipe being dragged slowly along concrete floors. Her voice is that of a classically trained singer, which is why it feels all the more eviscerating when she tears and distorts her own chants. Beautiful while also being the stuff of bolt-awake-gasping nightmares.
Perhaps comparisons to Andy Stott’s collaboration with his youth-era piano teacher Alison Skidmore are unavoidable – after all, both Stott and Gately show a natural talent for deftly manipulating vocals into foreboding house textures. But even beyond that, both artists have a keen awareness that their productions are compelling because they’re on the verge of falling apart – in an interview last October, Stott describes how much he likes the Luxury Problems cover art because “the lady’s doing such a controlled dive, and it could quite easily go wrong. It represents the fine line between the point of control and being a mess.”
Gately understands this concept perfectly, and her knack for plucking the most disconcerting sound effects possible out of the subliminal unconsciousness are used deftly in tracks like “Stings”, within which a hissing radiator hum can be heard crackling around the Los Angeles native’s voice, while pinprick percussion tinkles around the track. For every moment of quiet vocal exhalation, there’s a dissonant thrum just around the corner, waiting to sink its hooks into you.
But “Dead Referee” is where Gately really unhinges her power. It’s a tough track to talk about, because on one hand, it’s quite funny. It feels like “The Courts” by Jam City slowed to a sludgy drawl; shot-clock buzzers sounding, squeaks and dribbling noises scattered across the track. At the same time, there’s a moment at about 2:38 that sounds more like the aural embodiment of pure death than any black metal I’ve heard in my life. It’s the sound of sheared-off limbs, heads encased in intestines, the useless pre-death “why me?” that everyone probably wonders. Terrifying stuff, especially on a good sound system, and perhaps what I find genuinely perplexing about this record is how it can twist a sports-themed track into something genuinely troubling.
“Left Half” finds Gately repeating the dubiously romantic mantra “I’m gonna sew your face to my heart” while a hissing fog of ambience rises up around the words, slowly obscuring their meaning, but it’s really “Dead Referee” that gets to the crux of everything achieved on this record – scary, gorgeous, and a pastiche of pop and noise sounds completely unlike anything this writer has heard. Hands down, Gately has created one of the most unique listening experiences of the year. In a press release, her debut is championed as “Pop Musik for troubled times”, but that’s just skimming the surface: it’s a listen that makes utter annihilation sound like a pretty decent way to go.
2. Last Day
4. Dead Referee
5. Left Half