Barbarism

Katie Alice Greer

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Barbarism Review

by Fred Thomas

Throughout the majority of her time as vocalist and frontperson for D.C. art punk band Priests, Katie Alice Greer was also working on far more experimental solo material. When her solo tracks, one-off collaborations with other artists, or EP releases cropped up occasionally, they often took the form of harsh, overblown electronics or slow-moving noise, a wildly different approach than the relatively straightforward, guitar-heavy bombast of her main band. When Priests dissolved in late 2019, Greer relocated from D.C. to L.A. right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on solo work that would expand on the experimental spirit that incubated on those earlier releases. Completely self-produced, self-recorded, written and performed in full by Greer, debut album Barbarism finds some of her weirdest production ideas sharing space with some of her most undeniably catchy hooks in a way that allows both to come through at full force. Frantic drum loops and distorted electronics begin the album on "Fits/My Love Can't Be" before Greer's voice cuts in with lyrics about surveillance technology. The overpowering instrumentation mirrors the song's dystopian imagery, with growing layers of blurry guitar, harsh frequencies, more rhythmic elements, and ultimately unexpectedly smooth backing vocals joining the uneasy wash of noise. Much of Barbarism works in similar clashes of industrial clanging and melodies that sound beamed in directly from Greer's internal world. "Fake Nostalgia" superimposes rainy-day dream pop over a series of increasingly metallic rhythms, like Elliott Smith playing with Throbbing Gristle in a bad dream. "Dreamt I Talk to Horses" also creates a difficult arrangement of softer sentiments and jarring sounds, with Greer employing aggressive vocal processing and spring-loaded electronics to deliver one of the album's catchiest tracks.

As Barbarism progresses, almost every new turn is an unexpected one. Lush synthesizers appear out of nowhere, dissonant melodies melt into lo-fi drum samples, gunshots sound, and Greer's voice narrates from several different locations at once. Even with the record's inherent chaos, it's a tightly controlled expression of tumult, ridiculousness, self-reflection, and insular joy. The way the bleary, slow-moving instrumental of "Captivated" tiptoes around Greer's shivering vocals relies on the maximalized approach of every song that came before it to create a relative minimalism, sounding eerily calm compared to the rest of the album but still on fire by pop standards. Greer's production often intentionally folds Barbarism in on itself in this way, directing the listener's attention with the same command as Björk, DJ Shadow, or Laurie Anderson, while creating sounds all her own. The experimentalism and disregard for boundaries that began to surface just slightly in Priests' 2019 swan song The Seduction of Kansas becomes the central force that moves Barbarism forward. Greer's vision of barbed future pop isn't easy to immediately understand, but Barbarism is as thrilling as it is challenging, and a rare example of art truly existing on its own terms despite how difficult it might be for an audience to digest.

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