Phew has already staked a claim for one of 2018’s best with her latest release, Voice Hardcore, an album formed entirely of her own distorted vocalisations, but it was within a very different set of restrictions that she composed one of 2017’s finest albums, the analogue synthesiser-based Light Sleep.
The analogue electronic sounds inevitably draw comparisons with acts like Suicide, Laisons Dangereuses and the more electronic extremes of krautrock, as well (of course) with Phew’s own early ’80s work with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Conny Plank and members of Can. It’s also clear that she has a more sophisticated relationship with the technology now, manipulating waves and pulses with subtlety and assurance as she chants her eerie mantras over the chuntering rhythms of antique drum machines.
There is a kind of mirror structure to the album, with the opening New World and the closing Antenna both featuring drums that kick and splutter intermittently over a drone that gradually builds and fills out. In the former, it is accompanied by a pulsating synth bass that propels it forward, while the latter takes the form of a more ambient coda. The second and penultimate tracks, CQ Tokyo and Echo, also mirror each other, with insistent, Suicide-like rhythms underscoring Phew’s vocal incantations, hysterical and panicked on the former, dry and emotionless on the latter.
There’s an intimate sense of the bedroom recording to Light Sleep, but at the same time, it’s an undeniably expansive record. Throughout the record, Phew crafts a series of unforgiving yet entrancing alien landscapes from what seems to be a mountain of synthesisers, drum machines and effects. The emphasis on analogue equipment gives the otherwise icy music a kind of warmth, while the range of sonic textures she coaxes from her boxes of magical tricks is hypnotic and full of wonder.