Phew’s harrowing synth-and-voice experiments on Vertical KO channel the dread of living in our world

For more than four decades, Hiromi Moritani has been making music by her own rules. She’s largely known for th

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For more than four decades, Hiromi Moritani has been making music by her own rules. She’s largely known for the short-lived art-rock band Aunt Sally, which she started as a teenager in late-70s Osaka, and for her 1981 self-titled solo album under the name Phew. Since then she’s continually honed her craft as Phew, expanding beyond her postpunk beginnings into straight-ahead rock, otherworldly pop songs, and avant-garde experimental pieces built around her voice. Though she’s collaborated with a handful of artists throughout the decades, including Bill Laswell, the Raincoats’ Ana da Silva, and turntable experimentalist Otomo Yoshihide, her solo endeavors have consistently been her most enthralling and intriguing. With the new Vertical KO (Disciples), Phew skews darker, presenting a collection of seven harrowing synth-and-voice tracks that Moritani says comes with an underlying message: “What a terrible world we live in, but let’s survive.” That simultaneous sense of dread and persistence is clear on album opener “The Very Ears of Morning,” whose diaphanous ambience flutters gracefully before tumbling into alien noises. The peculiar uneasiness of that song is magnified on “Let’s Dance Let’s Go,” an enveloping whirlwind of disorienting manipulated vocals that, contrary to its title, is the least danceable track on the album. On Moritani’s cover of the Raincoats’ “The Void,” she stiffens the jaggedness of the original with a humming drone, while a constant tumbling drum-machine beat lends it an anxious jitter. Most potent is “All That Vertigo,” which starts off subtle but eventually wraps the listener in whirring sirens, haunting vocal coos, and a suffocating wall of noise that feels like being hit with a huge gust of wind. Vertical KO is a visceral and evocative listen: you come out of it feeling worn out and beaten. But the album also lives up to Moritani’s message—once you make it through with your emotions intact, the world seems a bit less daunting.   v
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