The first thing I noted about Brooklyn-based producer Pharmakos’s fourth LP, Destroy The System, was its strangely bucolic cover art. A shack, or bunker, located on the shore of a forest lake, seemingly isolated from the rest of the industrialized society. This is hardly the image that is called to mind when one thinks of the contained, concrete chaos that an artist from one of the world’s foremost cultural centers must navigate each day. However, such a scene does set the proper mood for the conversation that Pharmakos’s singular sonic-author Cole Garner Hill is attempting to provoke. A conversation about loneliness and isolation, both the cruel barriers it thrown up to prevent many from fully participating in our society, as well as the tranquillity that separation affords those who have no choice but to embrace it.
Central to the idea of isolation explored by Cole on Destroy The System, is the way in which it can be imposed on people, particularly those with mental illness or other mental or physical ailments. Conditions that keep them out of the workforce, as well as public life. A perceived failure to conform to expected norms of behavior, temperament, and even physical appearance, will either place you entirely outside of the consideration for gainful employment, or make seeking employment so difficult that you become de facto unemployed. Even those working with a mental or physical ailment find themselves living a life of precarity. If you can survive under these conditions long enough, you’re liable to start wondering how you got to be so lucky. Why it was you, who was so fortunate to have been dealt a hand of all jokers at birth, or who suffered a devastating blow from the wrecking ball of fate. Maybe, the first chance you get, you take what money you have and move out where no one can find you. If society treats you as disposable, then you might say, “Fine, who needs society!?!” So you attempt to punish the world by depriving it of your presence. You may think it’s an act of defiance, but it’s actually what society is hoping you’ll do any way. If you can’t conform, the expectation is that you’ll eventually just disappear.
There is however some solace to be found in this kind of magic trick, this social disappearing act. The opening and title track Destroy The System, with its tubular sounding percussion and meandering melody, is evocative of contemplative tools like prayer bowls and other aids of meditation, and sets itself far afield of the anxious, mutilating energy of modern life. The serenity of this moment is fleeting though. The following track “Press Release” is turbulent and cold with its wide, flat, agitating grooves, mimicking the feeling of being constantly submerged, like you are tied to the wheel of an old-fashioned paddle steamer as it makes its way up a muddy river. The album recovers some of its reverie after that point with the aid of the My Life in the Bush of Ghosts harkening “The Messenger Awaits” and the similar Eno-esque “Ghost,” but even as the tubular motifs reassert themselves on the wet and cavernous, crystalline shine of “A Scream In The Darkness,” the album never recovers the sense of sanctuary that it began with. This is to its credit though. You can’t avoid the conditions of your alienation with pretty sounds and bright lights in life, and Destroy The System similarly denies you such placating affordances.
The fact that Cole can maintain the tensions of absolute despair and that percolates under, and at times even supports, a mood of tranquil resignation is why I think this album works as a contemplative exercise on the conditions that trap us in feedback loops of detachment and withdrawal. There can, I think, be some peace of mind that can be scrounged up by reckoning with the terms of your situation in an unvarnished way. However, whether you’re on the inside, slowly being pushed aside while you claw for survival, or on the outside, looking on with disdain, there is no soothing the bitter, ragged pain of knowing that your predicament is the by-product of a society that viewed you as a misshapen puzzle piece that it systematically disregarded in order to present a picture of itself as a pretty, cohesive whole.