Káryyn makes avant-garde electronic music with a deeply affecting soul. On her debut album, the Syrian-Armenian American artist channels her family history and personal experiences in a stunningly transcendent exploration of time, love, and human consciousness.
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The video to Káryyn’s single ‘ALEPPO’ starts with the following quote: “What exists in my mind, the place and the community, the home, is no longer there. The remembering truth and the happening truth, what’s the difference?” Layers of Káryyn’s ethereal, beautifully transcendent voice are set against home-movies shot in the artist’s second home of Syria. The Syrian American experimental composer, who has been called everything from a “visual composer” to a “sonic architect”, is avant-garde in the true meaning of the word: pushing the art form forward. But as she looks out into the future, she also evocatively channels a deep sense of personal history and generational trauma. Her great-grandfather was beheaded in the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century, and her family moved to Aleppo to rebuild their lives. “Sometimes I feel like my singing voice is coming from them,” she said in an interview.
The palpable roots behind Káryyn’s futuristic music make it particularly powerful, as in ‘AMBETS GORAL’, a hypnotic cover of a traditional Armenian folk song. This extends to her own, more recent experiences which permeate the core of the record – she started writing the album in 2011, when she was mourning the loss of two family members who died in Aleppo. The album starts off with some of Káryyn’s strongest and most memorable tracks. “Just crack open/ Let my wounds/ Bleed,” she cries on the opening track, ‘EVER’, and later repeats the phrase “and it bleeds” as the thumping beat picks up. It almost resembles a pop song, and yet it’s also the longest track on the album, while the lyrics, as in all of her songs, are elusive and ambiguous.
On tracks like ‘YAJNA’, it’s tempting to compare Káryyn to Björk, an artist to which she has been compared multiple times, and who has even praised her avant-garde opera ‘Of Light’. There’s the versatile voice, the way she elongates certain syllables, her inventive production style. But doing so would also be slightly unfair. It doesn’t take many listens to recognize that there’s something undoubtedly unique – and indeed, quite different – about Káryyn’s approach. For example, the way she explores the relationship between human consciousness and artificial intelligence (she even implements AI during the production process). The human and the computer often seem to fuse unnervingly – on ‘YAJNA’, we hear the sound of a computer processor starting up as Káryyn sings about the heart in an oddly inorganic way. Stand-out track ‘BINARY’ is another great example in which this theme is applied to a love song: Káryyn uses her voice in a wonderfully melodic yet strangely rhythmical fashion, especially as the song progresses to its entrancing heights. “So love me in binary/ Love me between the numbers/ The heart’s a seed to be buried/Soul transcends time,” she sings on the song’s unusually direct chorus.
What makes Káryyn’s experimental music unique is not just its enchanting beauty or the subjects it explores, but the fact that it has a deep soul. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the album’s most instrumentally minimal and sparse moments, most notably the affecting ‘PURGATORY’, which, like ‘ALEPPO’, is best experienced alongside its music video. The shorter and more ambient ‘Un-c2-See’ and ‘CYTOKINESES’ achieve a similar atmosphere that’s just as stunning, but unfortunately don’t pack the same emotional punch and thus pale in comparison. On tracks like ‘CYTOKINESES’ and ‘TODAY, I READ YOUR LIFE STORY 11:11’, though, that same approach is more effective. This progressive change in sound throughout the album feels intentional, as if the sonic images Káryyn paints become hazier and more abstract as time fades into the distance. Which makes the final track, ‘SEGMENT & THE LINE’, an even better closer – with its untiring rhythm and melodic clarity, it feels like seeing the light again.