Every now and then I come across an artist that is so far out there that I don’t even know what to make of their music. I hear it for the first time and I am immediately put off by the unfamiliarity. But if I let my first impressions get the best of me, I would never have found some of my absolute favourite music. When I first heard the voice of Tanya Tagaq, I had that same reaction. I threw on an album, didn’t know what I was hearing, and shelved it for a while. Then Retribution came out. I gave it one listen. I gave it another. Again and again until I was starting to get a feel for this avant-garde music rooted in Inuit throat-singing. Now I understand that when I listen to Tanya Tagaq, I am listening to a work of pure passion and raw, unprocessed emotion that shakes me to my core.
Retribution begins ominously, with ethereal voices floating over howling wind and a slow, single drum beating. It seems to be welcoming the listener in, but at the same time warning that all is not quite right. As “Ajaaja” winds into the title track, Retribution begins to show its true colours. As this long, slowly-building song draws closer to its climax, we hear Tanya Tagaq’s signature throat-singing growing frantic. Dissonance and tension escalate as her dynamic voice that can conjure about a thousand different sounds is joined by scratching violins and distorted guitar, the drums following her irregularity with precision. The fundamental rage and frustration found on “Retribution” roars to the surface frequently on this record, and while that tension does subside, it always seems to be lurking around the corner.
There is a clear environmental theme that stretches over the course of Retribution. Beyond the moments of spoken poetry with a strong environmentalist message, the whole record feels like the angry, unchained voice of nature threatening to retaliate against those that have disrespected it. Tanya Tagaq is able to tap into her guttural throat-singing in a way that makes her seem possessed, like she is channeling an energy far older than her. “Summoning”, perhaps my favourite track on the album, is a chaotic journey that in a way reminds me of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”.
The closest thing you’ll get to an easily accessible song on Retribution is “Centre”, featuring Shad. Even this hip-hop oriented song is dark, with a backdrop of Tanya Tagaq crying out to one of the few definitive beats on the record. The album closes with a slowed-down version of Nirvana’s “Rape Me”, which has a way of bringing the listener back to our current world after an intense journey, but doesn’t quite release you from the aggressive tone of Retribution. It manages to drive the call for justice and caution home while allowing the listener to return to themselves.
Retribution is certainly not an easy listen, but it is rewarding if you are willing to give it time. Tanya Tagaq is truly unique, blending many influences into a brand new sound that you won’t soon find elsewhere. If you want to find out more about the record, she has uploaded commentary on every track of the album on Spotify. I have heard that her live shows are a must-see, and she just happens to be on a tour that will take her to the States, Europe, and a show in my home town of Ottawa at the National Arts Centre on November 26. I certainly know I’ll be there.