Emika is a hard one to pin down. Over the past few years, she has developed a sound that radiates around the perimeter of dub techno and pop, a combination that at times sounds like the post-millennial paranoia creeps of reborn trip-hop, fractured and dirty from being buried for over a decade. Originally hailing from Bristol, it’s like the latter music is in her veins, and it wouldn’t shock me to find out that many of these sonic similarities were unconsciously driven. Yet, even if her mixology does stylistically seem to regurgitate nakedly dark ideas while piggybacking on newer ones, Emika embraces her compound aesthetic completely and her debut album should be championed at the very least for being damned near inaccessible in its foregrounding of atonality, foley-like effects, and beats that shun both the radio and the dancefloor.
A classically trained musician who cites Mahler and Rachmaninoff as influences, Emika has a C.V. that matches her music’s positioning at the periphery of larger scenius. She briefly interned at Ninja Tune, which would go on to release Emika, and was on the ground floor for dubstep in Bristol, attending some of the first club nights by Pinch. Then, she hopped a plane to Berlin to work for Native Instruments and explored the club scene there, eventually recording field recordings at Berghain and Panorama Bar for the Ostgut Ton compilation Funf. Here, there, and in between, she’s been featured on tracks by Pinch, Kryptic Minds, Tommy FourSeven, Paul Frick, and MyMy.
Her self-titled debut is an intensely dark affair. In it, snares snap, cymbals shiver, synths curdle, and bass hums groan and grunt like some mechanical nightmare. And then there’s Emika—sometimes caught in the flux, her voice processed through all manner of filters like a cipher speaking through the filaments, and sometimes just adrift beside it. More often than not, Emika sounds more dispossessed than possessed. Her vocal range throughout is limited. She’s moody and drowsy, like she’s been drugged and trying to escape some demonic club before the GHB takes over.
Emika’s flat affect is paralleled by the dry hum of subterranean bass shudders. At times, such as on “Professional Loving”, which equates the act of coupling by two disinterested partners to prostitution, those low-end sounds are juxtaposed nicely against a creaky piano. Elsewhere, like on opener “3 Hours”, the vibration is the melody, making the intense detailing surrounding Emika’s clinical voice the real locus of attention.
The latter song rivals Rihanna’s “S&M” for off-putting metaphors and Emika’s holdout for love (“Three words / If you say ‘em, I’m stayin’” she says as she dashes off the airport) sounds like it comes from an even more hopeless place than Rihanna’s other anthem. This is not about BDSM as ownership of one’s scars. It’s far more desperate and disempowered than that. “Hit me when you wanna and I’ll take the blame / Hit me and I guarantee you’ll feel the same / Hit me if you think that it will help the pain / Hit me hit me hit me hit me anyway”, Emika says in an alarmingly indifferent tone.
But even when Emika seems to be infantilized, such as when she asks “Will you play nice?” over an ominous nursery piano line on “Common Exchange”, you sense that her coyness is a survival mechanism for a wounded girl in a corrupted world. There are no heroes here. All Emika’s potential mates sound even more damaged than she. Cognitive distortion is all over Emika and can at times be sublime. “Double Edge” is detached and disoriented like an early James Blake joint, the glitched out Morricone tremolos quavering in and out as Emika’s barren voice pierces through a bleeping beep. Melody only appears as a ghostly hologram.
Overall though, Emika’s tracks feel like they work better in small doses. In fact, 5 of the songs were originally released on 12” singles. There are points on the album meant to pierce that don’t hit hard enough and moments of unease which seem swamped down by the overproduction muck. Emika’s dubstep influence comes from the post-apocalyptic brand of dubstep that launched the genre, which may be too atmospheric and cacophonous to make the type of pop that the song structures call for, while the beats are just trip-hop’s beat slightly wonkified. The album’s major merit is that it should sit comfortably with no one. It’s an outlier at the periphery, trapped in the circuitry’s orbit, tired and worn out from trying to claw its way either out or in.