Most people’s reaction to the shrill feedback of a microphone would be to stop it. Prurient, a.k.a. Dominick Fernow, isn’t like most people. Instead, he has taken that startling sound, one we all instinctually recoil from, and built a lexicon out of it, a symbolic mirror of how the conscious shrinks from what the sub-conscious throws at it. Live and on record, Fernow gets to this threshold quickly and puts listeners in an uncomfortable position, pushing them to query the core of his music from the very first moment, forcing an answer to the question, “Do I want to continue to listen to this? If I do, why?”
Musically and symbolically, there is very little subtlety in what Fernow does. The titles are blunt metaphors outlining sudden violence: the Arrowhead of the album title piercing first the “Sternum,” then the “Ribcage” and finally, the “Lungs.” The first consists of a pure feedback tone, its relentless thrust broken only by a tumbling drum kit. On the second, the laser of feedback slices its way through howling, static-choked scuzz. Lost somewhere in the mix is the voice of a man. The visceral stomp of the final track compacts these ideas into a dense four minutes, the tempo accelerated, the feedback and static bound up into a potent bundle, the drums throbbing out a pulse. The contrast between this final blow and the rest of the album suggests some kind of transformation. But from what and into what aren’t clear. No more specific narrative suggests itself.
At 30 minutes, Arrowhead is concise in its aggressiveness, and the high frequencies stay just below the pain threshold (provided that the volume is kept at a modest level). In a live setting, this approach can become close to unbearable. On record, however, it produces a nauseating thrill, the same sickening rush one has in the aftermath of that spinning rotor ride at carnivals where the floor drops out and you stick to the wall. A dull ache in your head, your stomach slightly queasy, the world titled off its equilibrium, and two questions, hanging in the air, remain: “Why did I do that?” and “Would I do it again?” Asking these questions releases hungry ghosts in the psyche – vulnerability, embarrassment, paranoia, fear – emotions that provoke the most introspection.
The in-the-moment experience of Fernow’s music is all physical; the aftershock is almost all intellectual, the specifics of the apparent transformation provided entirely by the listener, who is left standing not so much accused as self-implicated. The assault – and that’s the best word for something that is so aggressive and so calculated – is not outward but inward. “I want to die with you,” Fernow groans at one point (italics mine). Fernow shoving the mic down his throat is not the same as if he’s doing it to the listener, because as listeners we choose to subject ourselves to his gestures – it’s as if we do the shoving to ourselves. So Fernow’s act becomes, perversely, a compassionate one. He understands very well the discomfort his music produces, and he understands the urge to resist that recoil, to stare the pain down and see what it can show.