Pharmakon doesn't make music for the faint of heart. It's discordant, punishing stuff, built from mangled structures and distorted melodies. Songs by the Brooklyn industrial artist are sometimes punctuated by unsettling screams or chest-rattling booms. "Overwhelming" is one way to describe it; "terrifying" is another—I even included her 2013 song "Crawling on Bruised Knees" in my recent extra-scary playlist for Halloween.
The menacing throb of Pharmakon can be so overwhelming, in fact, that it's easy to forget that the music is created solely by one fragile human being, made of skin, bones and blood. That human, Margaret Chardiet, learned—firsthand—just how delicate these mortal flesh vessels are when she underwent emergency surgery last year. Chardiet had developed an internal cyst that caused one of her organs to collapse. She had both the cyst and the organ removed, leaving her bedridden for several weeks as she recovered from the procedure.
A health scare of this magnitude can be horrifying enough, but in the aftermath, Chardiet was forced to put her performances as Pharmakon on hold for several weeks.
"It made me have to cancel a lot of things I had planned," she says. "I was about to leave on this insane, almost two-month-long European tour four days after it happened. And when it first happened, I said to the doctor, I'm supposed to go on tour in four days,' and he was, like, That's absolutely not going to happen.' It was really hard, because I was so excited—that was supposed to be my first real European tour. And it was just completely shattered."
As scary and dispiriting as the ordeal was, Chardiet found a kind of artistic inspiration in the experience. Just weeks after being hospitalized, she began working on what would become Bestial Burden. The seven-track album, released in October via Sacred Bones, is a dark and ominous exploration of physical and psychological trauma created by a body's own war against itself, complete with some short transitional tracks built around breathing and coughing.
Yet, Bestial Burden is compositionally more accessible than its predecessor, 2013's Abandon. Chardiet still heavily employs dissonance and screaming in her compositions, but they take on some unexpectedly beautiful forms—if not traditionally so. "Body Betrays Itself" buzzes with low-end synth drones and discordant stabs of chords that wouldn't be out of place on the soundtrack to The Shining. The title track is one of the quieter moments on the record, if perhaps the most terrifying, with high-frequency noises shrieking like hospital equipment and Chardiet delivering a delay-heavy spoken-word lyric with the refrain, "I don't belong here."
For Chardiet, the album serves as a kind of catharsis, but one that requires her to go back to some uncomfortable places.
"That was a way of dealing with, understanding it coping with it," she says. "I was starting to try to develop a lot of the songs. I was able to go on the second half of the tour, and... that was a really tense process. Like playing a show and then realizing, Oh, you popped a stitch and it's bleeding. I couldn't physically lift my gear onto the stage and still needed help. But it was a way to work through it, and it was cathartic.
"A lot of times the way I think about art is in the sense that it's a reflection of your consciousness," she continues. "What's going on in your mind and your ideas that you've cultivated. You can sort of look back and hear them out. Catharsis is the right word, but I think people oversimplify it. It's not that direct. It's not entirely good for me to be sort of dwelling on it, night after night."
When Chardiet does tap into those nightmarish feelings onstage, the result can be even more intense than the album. A Pharmakon live show is somewhere between a traditional rock show and performance art. She doesn't buzz through a set list so much as invite the audience into a primal-scream therapy session as filtered through the textures of industrial pioneers like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. In 2013, Chardiet performed a jawdropping set at The Void in City Heights that found her head-butting someone's chest and wrapping up several audience members in a microphone cable.
Pharmakon plays Feb. 12 at The Hideout
Chardiet says that not everyone responds positively to her performance style, but as long as the reaction is honest, she's happy.
"I think that the most important thing to me is that I'm present in the moment," she says. "If it's real, and it's palpable for me in that moment, then it's the same for the other people in the room. I don't want to be an entertainer in the sense of just doing something onstage, regardless of where I am or the audience. I want to have more of a connection to the people that are there. I want to transform the space into something else."
By tapping into the experience that led to the creation of Bestial Burden, Chardiet is not only adding an extra layer of intensity for the audience, but for herself, as well. But getting that all outonstage does help her breathe a little easier off stage.
"It's not easy," she says. "It's physically and emotionally demanding.
"But the fact that it can exist in that space means that it's not weighing me down the rest of the time."