Since their inception in 2002, experimental art rock band Xiu Xiu has never been known to shy away from dark subject matter. On the contrary, the outfit has made a name for themselves as seasoned dealers in the extraordinarily bleak, the sad, and the strange.
Ignore Grief, the band’s latest full-length endeavor, makes a bid for position as one of their darkest projects to date. Jet black lyrical content, ranging from child abuse to cult-like religious fanaticism, meets threatening soundscapes that wouldn’t sound out of place in an avant-garde horror film; indeed, the music videos from this album cycle seem to indicate such films as an influence.
The band clarifies on the album’s Bandcamp page that their intent is not “to superficially shock the listener,” but rather to “be empathetic towards, to disobey and to reorganize horror.” Horror is undoubtedly the right word here. The experience of listening to the record is like having your childhood home turned into a haunted house populated by people you don’t know but who feel strangely familiar, people whose trauma seeps into your conscience through all your senses.
“The Real Chaos Cha Cha Cha” is a crushing opener that quickly establishes the album’s sound and themes in an unforgiving welcome to an unforgiving record. The loud, harsh industrial production is contrasted by Angela Seo’s quiet, restrained, yet emotional spoken word vocals. This combination is effective both here and on subsequent tracks like “Esquerita, Little Richard” and “Border Factory.” The line “What a God-awful wonder is man” serves well to sum up the ethos of the album as a whole; mankind is responsible for causing mankind to suffer, but so to is it responsible for channeling that suffering into the cathartic, vindicating art we see here.
Another lyrical highlight from the batch of songs that Seo takes the lead on appears on the lead single “Maybae Baeby.” The song takes the point of view of a young child hiding from an abusive parent and having a conversation with the tarantula that crawls under the bed with her. This fantastical setup leads to the impactful lines “If he finds me / And sees the tarantula too… / Will he hesitate? / If you scare him away / I will get a tarantula tattoo,” making this one of the moments on the album I find myself thinking back to the most.
The tracks on which Jamie Stewart takes the lead feature slightly more organic instrumentation, combining elements of modern classical and experimental music to an effect that is more unsettling as opposed to the other tracks’ panicked urgency. If Seo’s tracks embody the feeling of being chased, then Stewart’s embody the gut-wrenching feeling of the moment before the monster catches you.
The song “Pahrump” is a standout example of the effective combination of Stewart’s highly expressive vocals and the dissonant strings, horns, and synths that make up the instrumental palette at its best. Other songs in this vain, like the disorienting “Tarsier, Tarsier, Tarsier, Tarsier” and the haunting closer “For M.” balance out the record’s industrial cuts nicely, though they can feel a little less directed and concise than the latter at times.
Aside from a few moments that are less original than I would prefer (some very telegraphed midi keyboard smashing on a couple tracks, for instance), the album maintains a captivating freshness that held my attention throughout multiple listens. Production, vocal performances, and lyricism coalesce to form a palpable atmosphere of terror and distress. Xiu Xiu walks a fine line, here and throughout their entire discography, between gawking at misery and finding a way to make something beautiful and compelling out of the worst the world has to offer. Despite the heaviness of the topics the band is dealing with on Ignore Grief, they have once again succeeded in pulling off this delicate balancing act.