>>> How the hell do you even review a Tanya Tagaq album?

While there's nothing quite like seeing the Inuk avant-garde musician perform live, Retribution comes closest to capturing the experience


How the hell do you even review a Tanya Tagaq album? And what’s the opposite of easy listening?

The avant-garde Inuk throat singer’s music is an immersive aural experience that’s challenging to describe with words. That experience, both in concert and on record, goes beyond language, as do many of the songs themselves, constructed around Tagaq’s largely non-verbal, improvised vocalizations, which include grunting, wailing, rhythmic huffing and puffing, growling and shrieking, all set to Jesse Zubot’s soundscapes (he also masterfully produced and mixed the record) and Jean Martin’s expressive drumming.

Tagaq seems to draw sounds, feeling and expression from deep inside her body. Some have called it “wombcore.” 

She comes in fast and ferociously on her fourth album. After opener Ajaaja, featuring vocals by Inuuja Gillis Balden and Ruben Komangapik, comes Retribution’s title track, whose Oil Sands-evoking spoken word intro – “My mother grows angry, retribution will be swift / We squander her soil and suck out her sweet black blood and burn it”– gives way to moaning and groaning, high singing, intoning and animalistic growling, all set to steady but playful drumming by Martin. Surely one of the most intense performances ever caught on record, the composition grows louder and bigger with the addition of trombone, synths, guitar and violin as it crests toward the eight-minute mark.

Nacreous and Aorta go guttural right from the start, the former accompanied by Christine Duncan’s improvising Element Choir (who appear throughout the album, most eerily on Summoning) and Tuvan throat singer Radik Tyülyüsh. It’s hard to believe the sounds on offer are entirely made by human voices.

Perfectly placed Centre offers some respite from the intensity. The relatively laid-back, groovy but rhythmically shifting track has Toronto-based rapper Shad front and centre, and Tagaq adding a soulful, melodic chorus. Its lyrics speak to the album’s themes of planetary and human destruction, but musically it feels out of place. However, an utterly fragile and forlorn cover of Nirvana’s Rape Me, which concludes the album, fits right in.

Tagaq’s major theme is that aforementioned destruction, in relation to the despoiling of traditional lands, of children, of women. She used her Polaris Prize win for Animism in 2014 as a platform to highlight the missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry, with victims’ names scrolled behind her during her electrifying performance. Despite rarely uttering words, Tagaq is one of the most political Canadians musicians working today.

And so the violence and nightmarish sounds of, say, Summoning, the most demonic of the 10-song batch, is perfectly justified. In fact, it’s necessary. Its creepy found sounds and ominous marching choir can’t even prepare you for Tagaq’s performance, sonically akin to being hunted and chased almost to the death… while giving birth. It rattles you deeply. It haunts you. And hopefully makes you think.

While there is nothing quite like seeing Tanya Tagaq perform live, Retribution comes closest to capturing it. 

Top track: Retribution

Tanya Tagaq plays Trinity St. Paul’s Centre on November 25.

carlag@nowtoronto.com | @carlagillis

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