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Azar Swan: Breaking Open a Beautiful Machine

credit: Angelle-Leigh Breaux
credit: Angelle-Leigh Breaux

Zohra Atash has been listening to plane crashes. When her longtime bandmate and collaborator Joshua Strawn tells me this, Atash immediately jumps in to provide context. “This isn’t some carnage porn shit,” she hastily explains. “I’m horrified by it all.” Instead, she’s listening for how the pilots deal with mechanical failure. “Boeing planes are a checklist factory. Pilots are trained to methodically go through everything, even in the face of death,” she says. It’s that moment Atash is fascinated by, the transition from rationality to the often irrational acceptance of death. Atash is looking to the wreckage of a beautiful machine not for pain, but for humanity.

That same wreckage adorns the album cover of Atash and Strawn’s newest album as Azar Swan. Savage Exile, the duo’s third full-length, is a startling departure from their previous records. Since 2013’s Dance Before the War, Azar Swan have specialized in gothic synth-pop that, while inspired by the sounds of industrial and world music, was always accessible, sensual, and most importantly fun. Atash would sing ornate melodies with the pinched nasal timbre of a 1980s pop star over arrangements both moody and muscular. Their 2015 release And Blow Us a Kiss is a gorgeously arranged terrarium of trunk bumping hip-hop beats (Strawn mentions Kanye West in our conversation without prompt) and icy synthesizers.

If And Blow Us a Kiss is Azar Swan’s Late Registration, then Savage Exile finds them skipping right to Yeezus, breaking down their sound to its ugliest and most essential parts. Songs build and painfully dart away from release, leaving tension hanging in the air. It’s a deeply uncomfortable listen, a far cry away from the goth-night playlist material of, for example, “Over,” the eighth track from Dance Before the War.

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While this particular metamorphosis is new, it isn’t the first time that Atash and Strawn have taken their music in a drastically new direction. The two first began working together as part of Religious to Damn, an equally all-black-attire affair that emerged in New York’s Weird Records scene in the late 2000s. While their contemporaries were playing coldwave and fiddling with elaborate analog synthesizers, Religious to Damn played strictly with live instrumentation. “We had a ‘no-synths allowed’ rule,” says Atash. This required them to maintain an increasingly elaborate lineup that quickly became unsustainable in the tight spaces they’d end up performing in. “I’d have a cello bow poking into my side while I was trying make sure no one bumped into the harmonium,” she continues, visibly exasperated when recalling the experience. Instead of chasing down musicians that could match her vision, Atash shrunk the lineup down to herself and Strawn and shifted into the software driven sound of Azar Swan.

In addition to being a pragmatic decision, this change also helped them stand out from their contemporaries. “Everyone else was making these long, formless pieces,” Atash explains. “At the time, we were like ‘fuck bedroom electronics,’ we wanted to sound like Phil Collins.”

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Even while they were fine tuning their pop hooks, Azar Swan were separately working on much stranger and darker material. “We had been working on the music for Savage Exile since before And Blow Me a Kiss,” says Atash. Despite being in the plans for years, much of Savage Exile was never intended for Azar Swan at all. While living in New Orleans, Strawn (who also fronts experimental metal act Vaura) began working on solo material inspired by the catalog of Galakthorrö, a German electronic label. The results were minimal, distorted, and abandoned Azar Swan’s syncopation for a jackhammering, bass-driven sound.

Meanwhile, Zohra had been making music on her own, starting demos on Garageband mobile. This method inspired her to treat her demos like visual collages, which in turn led to a more fragmented and uneasy sound. “She’d send these files over with 50 different stems, except almost none of them were playing at once,” says Strawn with a mix of admiration and bemusement. “Everything was scattered all over the mix.”

It wasn’t until Atash shared her demos with Strawn that he realized his own experiments were of a kind with her new direction. While the duo had previously worked primarily as an expression of Atash’s creative direction, on Savage Exile they wrote as equals.

Unlike the contrarian impulse that drove them to streamlined structure, the creation of Savage Exile relied on both Azar Swan’s intuition and their meticulous editing. Atash would revise songs endlessly, slowly molding them into the exact form she wanted. “The early version of ‘Territorial’ was much more conventional, but we gradually made it more abstract,” Atash explains. One song, “Lines In The Sand,” apparently went through 70 different drafts before it ended up on the record. However, it took them much longer to find a through-line that would tie their newly unrestricted creativity together. “We aren’t the kind of band to put a big idea on the bulletin board,” says Strawn. “Our process is much more about whittling things down.”

This time, however, forces outside of Azar Swan helped with the whittling. Just as their music was getting progressively more anxious, the rest of the world was sliding into chaos. After narrowly escaping a fire in her apartment building, Atash began working on a song addressing the experience. “I was trying to capture the understanding that I was about to die,” says Atash. “But while we writing it, a friend of ours passed away in the Ghost Ship fire,” Strawn interjects. “So we had to scrap the song.”

More and more, it began to feel like the band’s music was acting as a canary in the coal mine. While testing the material on a European tour in 2015, a Putin acolyte grabbed Atash by the face to lecture her about the shape of her skull. Even though the material on Savage Exile predated the current zeitgeist, Atash and Strawn were both writing with the awareness that something dark was coming over the horizon. It wasn’t just the outside world going to shit either. Faced with roadblocks in the music industry and increasing stress in their personal lives, Azar Swan translated their anxieties into their music. “We were both going through dark times,” says Atash. “I had to talk Joshua through his first panic attack.”

“All those cliches about artists going through a breakdown, or making a record as therapy, feel a lot more true now,” Strawn adds, nodding in agreement.

Savage Exile serves as Azar Swan’s own black box. Recorded and written as they dealt with personal and political tragedy, it contains a raw expression of Azar Swan’s reckoning with their anxieties, moment by moment, fear by fear. It’s an expression of emotion first and foremost, a way to step outside of the real and speak truth without being limited by sense.

In an article she wrote for Talkhouse, Atash recalls smoking cigarettes to make her voice more like Lydia Lunch’s. Though Atash still smokes, she hardly needs nicotine to add an edge. On Savage Exile, she made an explicit effort to open up her singing to a host of unconventional choices, sometimes manipulating the pitch of her voice digitally, other times launching into unrecognizable characters, like one she refers to as a “guidance counselor from Oklahoma.” The hard work paid off — Lunch herself gave her seal of approval. “She [Lunch] said, ‘I can tell that you’re inspired by me, but you don’t sound like me,'” Atash says.

When it came time for Azar Swan to perform Savage Exile live, both Strawn and Atash split vocal duties. On one end of the stage, Strawn hunkered over a table full of knobs and punctuated the music with full throated barks. In the other corner, Atash gripped two microphones, and despite claiming to be “more Larry David than Tina Turner,” gave a forceful performance as raw and arresting as any soul singer.

As she sang, her voice clipped and fizzled with distortion. It was difficult to tell if her voice was going into the red intentionally, as there were a few other technical errors that planted a seed of doubt. Regardless of intent, the effect was perfect for the skin-scrawling music that enveloped her. At the end of “Shock,” her voice became enmeshed with a sea of noise, her face washed away into static by the band’s videography (supplied by none other than Sannhet’s AJ Annunziata). Briefly, all of Savage Exile‘s fear and anxiety invaded the physical world and manifested as a human voice, screaming in the face of death from the belly of a broken machine.

Savage Exile was released on December 1st via aufnahme + wiedergabe. Follow the band on Facebook here and Bandcamp here.

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