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Tagaq, Tanya - Retribution

Format: CD
Year: 2016
Origin: Iqaluktuutiaq (Cambridge Bay), Victoria Island, Nunavut
Genre: First Nations, rock, throat, electronic
Value of Original Title: 
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Release Type: Albums


Track Name
Centre ft. Shad
Rape Me


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Our mother grows angry
Retribution will be swift
We squander her soil and suck out her sweet black blood to burn it
We turn money into God and salivate over opportunities to crumple and crinkle our souls for that paper, that gold
Money has spent us
Left us in smog
Locks is dark, room is bright, screams empty to us
Left investing time, hollow philosophies
To placate the fear of our bodies returning back into our mother
Demand awakening
The path we have taken has rotted
Ignite, stand upright, conduct yourself like lightning because
The retribution will be swift

Throat-singer Tanya Tagaq could be Canada’s unlikeliest crossover act. At a time when Canada is reckoning with the historic mistreatment of its indigenous population, her new LP demands retribution.

Before Tanya Tagaq is about to perform, she takes a few moments to speak to her audience. There’s the usual business of thanking everyone for coming out and introducing her band, though she also likes to talk about what’s on her mind—sometimes for a good 10 minutes before we hear a note of music. In the context of what follows, the preamble feels less like an introduction than a farewell, like the sort of address you hear from astronauts before they’re launched into space, or an escape artist who’s about to pull off an elaborate, death-defying stunt. That’s because Tagaq goes to places in her music that few others dare to tread. And when she’s in the throes of her violent, carnal, gesticulating concerts—which feel more like séances than performances—you’re not sure if that sweet, cheerful woman who was just bantering with the crowd will make it back alive.

Tagaq hails from the Arctic territory of Nunavut in northern Canada, raised in a remote island town called Cambridge Bay that’s inaccessible by road. Her Inuk mother introduced her to their culture’s tradition of throat-singing, which is less a musical artform than a community pastime where two women square off face-to-face in friendly competition, producing heaving, gnarled, guttural sounds in responsive rhythmic patterns. But through Tagaq, this interactive activity has become a vehicle for primal, personal, political expression. Onstage, Tagaq doesn’t so much sing as plug herself into the Earth, transforming herself into a mood-ring manifestation of a ravaged planet squealing in pain with each oil-drill jab and earth-scorching heat wave. Atop her band’s swelling, screeching soundscapes, Tagaq’s sleeping-giant purrs mutate into death metal-worthy growls—and when she snaps out of her trance an hour later, it feels like you’ve just borne witness to Godspeed You Black Exorcist.

Tagaq belongs to a lineage of iconoclastic vocalists that includes Yoko Ono and Diamanda Galás—artists notorious for pushing both musical and physical limits in their work. And her extreme approach has engendered collaborations with the likes of Björk, Kronos Quartet, Mike Patton, and Fucked Up. But Tagaq’s new album arrives at a moment when she’s on the verge of becoming Canada’s unlikeliest crossover act. Her previous record, Animism, won the Polaris Music Prize in 2014, leading to several high-profile festival appearances and TED Talks; she can even currently be heard on mainstream Canadian radio singing back-up on the latest single from Toronto alt-rockers July Talk. But most crucially, the restless, raging Retribution emerges at a time when Canada is reckoning with its historic, government-sanctioned mistreatment of the country’s indigenous population—a long-simmering, long-suppressed topic that’s now become an explosive flashpoint in the national conversation, much as systemic, anti-black racism has in the U.S.

In Canada, the operative word right now is “reconciliation,” the process by which the government hopes to make amends with the indigenous community for the awful legacy of Canada’s residential-school system. From the mid-19th century till 1996, the system separated indigenous children from their families and forced them into church-led classrooms as a means to assimilate them into white, Christian, Canadian society. And the coercion, sadly, went beyond the curriculum—students were subjected to horrific, unchecked abuse at the hands of their supposed educators, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 6,000 children over the years. For Tagaq—an alumnus of the system—reconciliation has been a slow, ineffective, bureaucratic process. As the title of her new record makes clear, she wants retribution. And not just for Canada’s under-the-rug history of cultural genocide, but for the current plights of her people: the epidemic number of indigenous women who are abducted, raped, and murdered in Canada each year, and the environmental havoc wreaked by the country’s tar sand-sucking oil industry.

As a singer who deals mostly in wordless expression, Tagaq’s most pointed political statements have been broadcast through extramusical means: her fearlessly profane interviews, her hyperactive Twitter feed, and her jaw-dropping Polaris-gala performance, where she used her national stage to project the names of 1,200 missing or murdered indigenous women. And to top it off, she used her acceptance speech to flip off PETA for its opposition to seal hunting, on which Tagaq’s isolated community depends for sustenance.

But on Retribution, the messaging is baked right into the music. Much like those aforementioned pre-show speeches, Retribution provides instant exposition in the form of its title track, where, over a panting vocal pulse, Tagaq offers a spoken-word treatise: “Our mother grows angry/Retribution will be swift/We squander her soil and suck out her sweet, black blood to burn it.” But Tagaq isn’t preaching to the choir. She’s stirring the beast, alternating her voice between a panicked yelp and an esophagus-shredding grunt, while piercing violins horsewhip the band into a furious gallop.

Like Animism, Tagaq recorded Retribution with the core duo of violinist Jesse Zubot and percussionist Jean Martin, whose free-form sound-scraping blurs the lines between folk, classical, klezmer, post-rock, musique concrete, and slasher-flick soundtrack. The new album trades in queasy atmospherics for a more robust rhythmic attack, with Tagaq feeding off the band’s energy as much as vice versa. “Aorta” explodes with a disorienting swirl of seagull squeals, foghorn-like drones, and vocals that sound like they’re being sung backwards. But the song’s brawny groove indulges the fantasy of hearing Tagaq unleash her gnashed-teeth roar in a hard-rock context. And there’s even a straight-up, boom-bap throwback in “Centre,” on which guest MC Shad’s circular rhymes ruminate on humanity’s infinitesimal place in the universe at large, while Tagaq’s melodic counter-vocal celebrates our own microscopic, menstrual origins by coining her own genre: “wombcore.”

By more readily embracing rock and rap forms, Retribution stands to lure a wider audience into Tagaq’s unsettled sound world—but only to ensnare it like prey as she goes in for the kill. “Cold” is the most harrowing science-class lecture you’ll ever hear: Tagaq recites the effects of global warming on the Arctic, before ominously declaring, “Human civilization as we know it will no longer exist… because Gaia likes it cold.” The song’s stalking groove then goads her into a symphony of screams that renders melting ice as burning flesh. And where Retribution’s more muscular moments are countered by amorphous, aggro-ambient pieces like “Nacreous” and “Sulfur,” the centerpiece track “Summoning” bridges the extremes. Over the course of nine tumultuous minutes, the song unfolds like a found-sound radio opera, with Toronto’s 50-strong Element Choir gradually taunting and prodding a terrified Tagaq as if she were being offered up for ceremonial sacrifice.

Retribution is very much a mirror image of Aninism: Where the latter record opened with a reverential, orchestro-folk cover of the Pixies’ “Caribou” and closed with the disturbing, nightmarish moans of “Fracking,” Retribution’s turbulent journey settles onto familiar turf with a cover of another alt-rock classic. Tagaq’s “Caribou” was a cheeky, celebratory act of cultural reclamation from someone raised hunting the namesake animal (not to mention someone who can out-scream Black Francis). Here, her eerily calm cover of Nirvana’s “Rape Me” transforms Kurt Cobain’s narrative role-play into unflinching autobiography, with its disturbing allusions to the multiple sexual assaults Tagaq was subjected to as a child.

But when Tagaq sings, “I’m not the only one,” she’s speaking for more than just fellow survivors. “Rape Me” marks the moment where the intersectional relationship among Retribution’s primary concerns—feminism, environmentalism, indigenous rights—is laid bare, with a hushed Tagaq staking out the liminal space between feeling defeated and feeling defiant. And by the end, the song’s incessant drum beat sounds more like a death rattle—a tick-tock reminder that retribution is not some distant prophecy, but a looming inevitability.
-Stuart Berman, pitchfork


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