Photo by Alice Z Jones
The New Jersey-born, Berlin-based experimentalist Dis Fig’s debut album, PURGE, begins with a battle cry. “Drum Fife Bugle” twists the traditional instrumentation of a military band around seasick plumes of noise, clipped gasps, and revving electronics. The melodies themselves are sprightly, but what surrounds it is terrifying. “It’s kind of a war call,” the artist, born Felicia Chen, explains via email. “Prepping you to face the battle within yourself. Arming you for the purge.”
This is a central conceit of PURGE, due March 15 on the New York label PTP: that through the scrapes and static you can flush out the ugly and upsetting things that live within you, unexplored. Chen says that she generally doesn’t tend to bottle up emotions, but that with this music, she tried to reach deep within herself and access feelings that for one reason or another remained untapped. Living in Germany, she says, she felt removed from some of the problems going on back stateside, on both a personal and societal level.“I formed a habit of pushing them aside and avoiding them,” she says. “Because they weren’t relevant in my day-to-day life, and it was easier that way. What happens then is these feelings become harder and harder to access, even when you want to reach them. It’s that internal defense mechanism that activates without consultation of your will or realization.”So making the record was an attempt to excise some of the stress and pain that her body was holding onto—to release it all in one big go. What that means, musically, is by and large pretty ugly. PURGE is the sound of industrial runoff, of sludgy instrumentation bubbling and swirling—sometimes literally, as in the case of the sickening splashes that fill “Watering.” Melodies creep through the ooze, but by and large, the record’s nine tracks consist mostly of bleak electronics. “I feel like something that’s super melodic and ‘perfectly’ written already feeds you an easily digestible story—lays it all out for you,” Chen says. “Whereas something that’s less decipherable allows more room for different feelings, which actually tells more of the full story.”
The full story, at least as Chen is willing to tell it via email, is fairly vague; she relays it more in terms of emotions than straight-up facts. While making the record, she says, she made a moodboard as a way of channeling the many disparate thoughts and feelings that were all colliding within her. She says she kept coming back to an image of a face “red hot with anger, clenching teeth, furrowed brows, and vivid tears streaming down its face.” The image expressed emotion unburdened by the expectation of how you’re supposed to comport yourself in the midst of intense feelings. Sometimes you just have to let it out.Some of the most striking moments on PURGE echo that image in obvious ways. The lead single, “Unleash,” is a ballad of static and screaming; Chen’s voice is distorted to hell. But there are other sides to the purge too, like “WHY,” which she’s debuting here today. The instrumental is still harsh and droney, but Chen sings gently, cushioned by some ghostly reverb echoing out into the darkness. Her words can be hard to make out, but she sounds centered and self-possessed, a suggestion that there is peace to be found amid the pain.The songs on PURGE represent some of Chen’s first experiments with her own vocals on tracks. She’s best known as a DJ, mixing unforgiving electronic sets, and many of the tracks that she’s released so far have been instrumentals. It feels fitting, conceptually.. “Using my voice allows me to physically inject my being into the music,” she says. “This kind of purge was an emotional one, but it’s effect is absolutely physical as well. There’s a few tracks that don’t have lyrics, because the vocals were a first take of what just came out when I hit the record button.”The gesture of including her voice was also, she says, a way of inviting other people in—of putting a human face on all that abstract emotion, of giving people something to identify with. .“I feel like empathy is best triggered by some sort of physicality of other human beings,” she says. “And I feel like being able to hear my voice—they won’t ever fully understand what I’m going through, but they will be able to understand for themselves what that feeling is, and it might trigger something similar within.”Harrowing as they can be, PURGE’s compositional twists and turns are harsh enough to offer you the same thing that they offered Dis Fig herself—relief from the bad shit you’re holding inside. Listen to “WHY” up above, and let go. It’ll help.Dis Fig's PURGE is out March 15 on PTP. It's available for preorder now.