Photo: Masayuki Shioda / Courtesy of Mute Records

Experimentalist Phew Pushes Forward by Crawling Deep Inside on ‘New Decade’

Phew’s voice on New Decade is an instrument often disconnected from lyrics. Its job is supplemental to the amorphous tones she invokes from electronics.

New Decade
Mute Records
22 October 2021

While experimental vocalist/musician Phew has a recording and performing career spanning over 40 years, it’s only been since 2015 that she’s been at her most prolific, expressive, and exploratory. Past efforts found her more concerned with rhythm and song structure, collaborating with the likes folks from Jaki Liebezeit to Jim O’Rourke for projects that haven’t always dated well. But starting with 2016’s Jamming, a record comprising two nearly 30-minute tracks, her music began taking on more ghostly shapes as pulse gave way to drone and shadow.

Like other recent releases, Jamming was recorded at Phew’s home and consisted of eerie, repetitive synth-pulses and drum machine monotony. Her voice, the instrument she’s wielded like a scythe or stroked like a kitten, seemed to be nowhere in earshot, something she made up for with the following year’s vocal-only Voice Hardcore. Overlapping, stretching, and folding vocal track over vocal track, this LP had common ground with the experimental work of Beatriz Ferreyra.

Following releases in collaboration with Raincoats’ Ana de Silva and another more electronics-based release, 2017’s Light Sleep, New Decade mixes the vocal-black holes of Voice Hardcore with the electronic shape-shifting of Jamming for a record that appears to stretch time. “Feedback Tuning”, for example, includes an ever-present bass pulse, electronic percolations, and a distant, ringing guitar chime as her voice bobs in and out of the stew.

“Doing Nothing” takes half of its six minutes to move beyond a keyboard drone. It adds a rhythm track, Phew’s voice makes brief appearances, but then she adds short, abrasive jolts of fuzzed-out static that feel like splashes of cold water. “Days Nights” places repeated echoed calls in the background while another vocal track sing-speaks clipped phrases, one voice seemingly warning the other of some shrouded danger.

Like Julianna Barwick or Meredith Monk, Phew’s voice is an instrument often disconnected from lyrics. Increasingly, its job is supplemental, joining, hiding in, or commenting on the amorphous tones she invokes from electronics. New Decade may be the perfect distillation of this sonic alliance Phew created, existing as it does outside of any trends or genre tags. As a result, Phew continues to push forward by crawling deep inside.

RATING 7 / 10