There’s a vulnerability to even the noisiest of Marlo Eggplant’s work that places it in a different sphere to your common or garden noise mucker. A relatively simple set up – reverb, distortion, voice, contact mics and the occasional plucked thingamajigs – nevertheless offers a palette dynamic enough to build compositions in which light and shade, density and space, fragility and strength are held in a precarious balance. 2010’s Internal External builds dense waves of white noise that are always on the verge of obscuring plangent vocal calls and delicate instrument sounds gasping through the murk. A dub-like use of reverb on cuts such as Industry vs Inferiority adds hazy, juddering clouds to the machine roars, creating a disorienting sensory whirl. On Cumulus, from 2015’s Jutted, emptiness manifests itself as an almost physical presence. A plaintive zither echoes as if in the middle of a vast cavern, and abrasive fidgets lurk and glower in the foreground. Teeter, from the same album, sees Eggplant – aka musician and researcher Marlo de Lara – layering clangs that reverberate like spooky grandfather clocks in a deserted condo. Towards the end, distorted rustles and guttural murmurs swamp the recording, supernatural phenomena caught accidentally on tape. Both releases display an almost architectural sense of sound-making, one that enables de Lara to bring a spatial sense to her compositions – but, more importantly, to explore a rich seam of ideas around belonging, exile and selfhood, of bodies in culture and the pressures to which they are subjected.
Callosity explores these pressures to an almost painful degree. The title refers the struggles of being in the world in our moment of catastrophe and the strategies required for de Lara as an expatriate, non-white woman to survive the misogynist, racist ideology currently ascendant. ‘Callosity’ is another word for ‘callus’, and that image of skin toughened by repeated friction is not only a fitting metaphor for survival in hostile times, but a perfect image for the spiky melancholy of pieces such as Lines, where simple plucked strings are forced into distorted reverb by repeated poundings, or Distillation, in which the thick layers of hiss and echo act as a protective cocoon for the tranquil loops and tape squawks skittering underneath. Yet throughout Callosity, vulnerability is always present. For every abstract blast, there’s a human breath or melodic fragment, reminding us that underneath the scar tissue are soft skin cells in the process of healing. Thus, Par’s blizzard-like scourges give way to a benign lattice of guitar, zither and pitched-down voice. And on Songed, de Lara’s multi-tracked and processed vocals coo in unison, the bassy grumble and pensive croon evoking both that hardened skin and the delicacy beneath. To survive, we need to be tough and tender. Without strength, we’re crushed – but if we’re not careful, we risk losing those qualities that we valued in the first place. If, ultimately, Callosity is a call for solidarity, to resist the oncoming storm, it is also a reminder to cherish who we are and what we hold dear.