EMA - Exile in the Outer Ring

by Joseph Majsterski Rating:7 Release Date:2017-08-25

Erika Michelle Anderson, aka EMA, refuses to stay in her lane on her third album, Exile in the Outer Ring. The set bounces back and forth between quiet and meditative, harsh and discordant, and nearly radio-ready pop at times.

Opening track '7 Years' sounds like it was ripped straight from an early Cocteau Twins album, all wavering layers of warped synths and pads, gently strumming guitars, and ghostly vocals. But it's contrasted sharply by the very next song, 'Breathalyzer', a pounding, grinding, screeching tune that never seems to end. The interesting thing is that the vocals are mostly the same here, but take on more of a desperate tenor in places, giving a claustrophobic, madhouse feel to the song. Then 'I Wanna Destroy' becomes the fusion of those two songs, edgier than the first song, but more palatable than the second.

'Blood and Chalk' is a short tune, but it starts out utterly naked, with just Anderson's voice crooning fragilely with minimal accompaniment. About halfway through, a big wall of noise and distortion surges forward to support her, as though to say she's not alone. Amazingly, they manage to not be an atonal mess, and recede shortly, leaving more backing instruments to help the song power to its conclusion. For some reason, this is the song that sticks with me more than anything else to be found here. Despite its brevity, it ends up sounding very epic and significant.

'Down and Out' features little string punches and a bouncy little rhythm, and between them and Anderson's sweet voice, the song comes across like it's supposed to be "the single", at least until the unsettling feedback shows up midway into the track and adds a sheen of clammy unease to the whole affair.

'Fire Water Air LSD', other than being a great song title, is one of the most industrial tracks on the set, in a sort of Nine Inch Nails meets Jane Jensen kind of way. Huge pulses of throbbing synth bass flow along as the vocals stumble drunkenly all over the place, getting smacked around by banging, crashing beats. The song definitely feels like a trip on the edge of going bad, and leads what is perhaps the harshest section of the album. It's followed immediately with 'Aryan Nation', which has some of the same elements, but doesn't quite work, and despite its aspirations, comes off as rather bland. '33 Nihilistic and Female' is somewhat better, but the track title is a bit gimmicky, and while technically sound, the tune is slightly less inspired than the early efforts at noise pop. The vocals are Marilyn Mansonesque, kind of screamy and near the breaking point. The song does quiet down near the end, letting a somber piano take the lead.

And that somberness flows into the next song, 'Receive Love', which goes back to being very gentle and mournful after all the bashing about in the previous three tracks. 'Always Bleeds' revives the Cocteau Twins guitars, but dispenses with them quickly in favor of more strident instrumentation that eventually blurs into another swell of a feedback before easing off and letting Anderson's voice carry the song home. Finally, 'Where the Darkness Begins' is essentially a spoken word track with minimal instrumental backing, with a style that points directly back to Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral: creepy introspection with a dash of fear.

This album feels pretty ambitious, but succeeds at touching on multiple genres without coming off as incoherent. EMA seems to be hitting her stride, developing her own voice and dodging the pitfall of becoming overwrought self-parody. It's not quite industrial, not quite pop, and throws in seasoning from all over the place to establish its own identity. Adventurous ears will enjoy it.

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