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Album Review
Past Life Martyred Saints

Past Life Martyred Saints
by EMA

Souterrain Transmissions

Review Date
1 June, 2011
Reviewed by
Vincent Michaelsen

After surviving the implosion of her previous band - Gowns - early last year, Erika M. Anderson has been quick to her feet, releasing her first solo effort, EMA, and at the moment it’s hard to see how she could put a foot wrong. Gowns seemed like an uncontrollable beast - fueled by a couple’s fierce love and creativity, yet unable to completely materialize on the impact of their live shows - and Anderson has been quick to cash in on what the group had fostered, bringing into fruition an album well worth the attention it has already garnered.

Anderson has spoken of not wanting to expose herself lyrically in the past - both on a personal level and in representing others - with her own subconscious feelings. This however, is what really makes EMA so chillingly impressive. Bearing the scars of personal experience both literal and not, Past Life Martyred Saints is a commanding album in many ways if not solely for its visceral brutality. In ‘Marked’, Anderson croaks as if at her very lowest, “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark”. It’s a hard-hitting line, bordering on masochism that exemplifies the feeling of this album. ‘Butterfly Knife’ is similarly overt, as it describes the tale of a suicide. There’s a sort of theatrical structure to this track that intensifies the matter. Initially it’s the aggressive and frustrated vocals that set the tone, but this falls away with the vocal lines: “They thought you’d never do it, but I knew someday…”. Suddenly the frustration is gone, the act is committed, and the true sadness of the song sets in.

This unique song structure has its own defining moments on the album. Rather than the usual verse/chorus/bridge and so on, EMA uses structure to support what’s needed for the song. In a similar vein to influences like Patti Smith, the vocals largely command pace and structure and not vice versa. In ‘California’, Anderson’s vocals move between open ranting and solid melodies without restraint or cue, the music holding steady with its basic organ chord progression - almost the entirety of the track. It’s this uncontrolled, stream-of-conscious aspect to the vocals that make EMA so convincing.

With songs of all shapes and sizes on the album, the track listing contains a somewhat motley crew. While a seriously good album as a whole, not every track is a hit. The one minute a-cappella ‘Coda’ - despite the names reference - is a cheery prelude to following track ‘Marked’, and while ‘Coda’ would be lost without the latter, ‘Marked’ would not have quite the same effect on its own either. The album’s oldest tracks, ‘Butterfly knife’ and ‘Marked’, are markedly different to the more pop centered hits ‘Milkman’ and ‘California’. And this is what it’s all about really. Records with a whole lot of hits do make good records, but really good records need to evolve - shift between the highs and the lows - all the while taking the listener along for the ride. And this is exactly what makes Past Life Martyred Saints the genuine article.


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