If punk was like a comet, a sizeable object smashing all before it, then post-punk was the comet’s tail, in that it lasted longer, contained a variety of fresh and unusual elements and still intrigues observers. Indeed, if post-punk lacked an obvious identifiable impact, its musicians have continued to fascinate, whereas punk, for the most part, has remained a lumpy rock.
It’s over 40 years since the first post-punk records appeared, but its practitioners have refused to stand still, sometimes pausing the music-making to come back reinvigorated but more often gradually nudging in new directions, or occasionally making a deep dive into unexpected genres. Phew made her first record as part of Aunt Sally, a Japanese post-punk outfit before setting off on a solo career that saw her work with a who’s who of avant-garde musicians. Her first solo single was made with Ryuichi Sakamoto, and her debut album was recorded with Conny Plank and Can’s Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit. Phew has continued to forge interesting collaborations since, but has used technological advances to operate as a truly solo artist. Being able to record, mix and edit without recourse to engineers or studios has given Phew the freedom to thoroughly explore her sound, so in the past few years she has released a sequence of ambient and drone works, in the most intense burst of her entire career.
Vertigo KO is a collection of pieces that were recorded for this recent flurry of albums, but left off for one reason or another, plus some new work. Fortunately, it feels like a cohesive work rather than a bunch of odds ‘n’ sods and as such doubles as both a safety net and an accessible introduction for Phew’s new prolificity. There are drone works here, voice-based pieces and a cover of The Raincoats’ song “The Void” – a choice that makes perfect sense as Phew collaborated with Raincoats guitarist Ana Da Silva on the album Island in 2018 and this song was performed to promote its release.
The opening tracks of each side are the most drone-like, and act as companion pieces with similar titles; they ease the listener in with a calming ambience that gradually builds up; this is equally beneficial for those with the CD or digital editions, as “The Very Ears Of Dusk” acts as a soothing break between two far more intense pieces. “All That Vertigo” was one of the freshly-recorded tracks and indicates that Phew is heading away from drone to a much more glitchy direction, reflecting her worldview; in a messed-up world, you can’t express all your feelings through ambience; there is going to be an element of confusion, of anger, of wanting to disrupt. It bodes well for Phew’s next release, although maybe not for humankind.
Perhaps the best introduction to Phew is the track that made a previous appearance on the Japanese CD edition of 2018’s Voice Hardcore but deserved wider exposure. Breezing in on “O Superman” style ahs, “Let’s Dance Let’s Go” is all about Phew’s voice, chopped, twisted, layered in all directions. It’s a remarkable work, with a choir of Phews forming a droney backdrop to several Phews talking over each other, splintering off into little vocal eddies before a howling Phew unleashes her thoughtful fury. Imagine if Björk had approached her a capella album Medúlla with an even more experimental urge and you’ll have some idea of what Phew does. After 40-plus years making music, her continued invention and increased output, both with and without collaborators, demonstrate that age is no obstacle to creativity. (Jeremy Bye)