Without knowing Tanya Tagaq’s backstory, one listen to the frighteningly inventive ‘Retribution’ would lead you to conclude that this Canadian creative visionary has spent her entire life listening to scat jazz singing or the entire Diamanda Galás back catalogue, in particular the muscular blues album Galás recorded with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
Tagaq’s voice comes from a much more elemental place: she herself is of Inuit origin, came through Canada’s often overlooked and decidedly brutal Residential Schools System – definitely something of a blot on the pristine white of Canada’s flag and wholesome reputation – and has seen at incredibly close quarters the plight of the Inuit people. If she's angry, it's not without good reason. Her use of collaborators drawn from Inuit and Tuvan traditions is entirely fitting, and one that adds a haunting sense of historical gravity to proceedings.
Tagaq’s voice is one capable of moving from gravelly, sibilant, guttural, hiccuping, near-hysterical gestures through to tender near-silence and child-like wonderment; it is the concept of voice-as-instrument writ large but formed out of an under-appreciated and disappearing tradition of throat singing; utterly, inescapably captivating, endlessly twisting and turning, taking the listener to unexpected places in a way that metaphorically feels like Alice in hot pursuit of the White Rabbit. The barely-there cover of Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’ that quietly closes the album is delivered as a fragile ballad, a thwarted, resigned moment that totally messes with your concept of what that song is all about thanks to Tagaq’s idiosyncratic vision. The sleight-of-hand here is that this is ‘Retribution’s central theme, and yet it only becomes apparent right at the very end: this entire project is about the rape of the planet and our moral values, the brutal mistreatment of women and ethnic cleansing disguised as cultural assimilation.
Musically, ‘Retribution’ is every bit as stylistically indeterminate and unpredictable as the route that Tagaq’s voice follows. Scratchy, inchoate electronics, heavy, almost-metal power gestures and subtle violin all conspire at different points to make this a beguiling artistic protest of an album, and singularly one of the most considered and thought-provoking records of 2016.
Words: Mat Smith / @mjasmith
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