Haley Fohr was only about 17 when she started recording under the name Circuit Des Yeux, but it was an old 17. Fohr had studied formal classical singing for almost 10 years, and had become fascinated by the raw emotional power of punk music. She had dropped out of Purdue University’s engineering program and moved back in with her parents, recording in a bedroom she shared with her sister on 4-track without an external mic. The results, documented on Symphone, were wrenching, rough and extremely lo-fi. Through her subsequent albums, 2010’s Sirenum and the EP Ode to Fidelity, she refined her recording technique but not the emotional content. Portrait, the third album by an artist still in her early 20s, vibrates with intense, exposed feeling.
Like Zola Jesus’ Nika Roza Danilova, Fohr has a strong, resonant voice, tipped with gorgeous vibrato in the mid-range and thinning to ghostly delicacy in the upper register. It is a stark, dramatic voice, easily capable of filling a song’s space, and she mostly allows it to dominate, filling in around it with simple, slow-paced arrangements in electric guitar and piano. The abrasiveness of the guitar combined with her gutty translucence can remind you of Scout Niblett. The guitar notes keeping waltz-time in “Twenty and Dry,” for instance, have the destructive edge of a power saw, while Fohr’s voice, circling around lyrics about “a shameful way to die” and “I have no memory of how I got here,” is freighted with pain. These cuts feel monumental rather than pretty, though sometimes, as on “3311,” Fohr layers her singing in harmonies, turning plain-spoken melodies into something dizzying and fine and transcendent.
Fohr pulls the vocals back, briefly, for the album’s mostly instrumental track, “The Crying Chair,” an eerie soundscape of bell-like tones, synthetic drone and heavily effected vocal sounds. It’s an interesting piece, veering off into a more electronic, noise-oriented direction than anything else on Portrait, indicating a more cerebral, composer-like approach to music. At the other end of the spectrum, Fohr showcases the cathartic, heavily amplified impact of her show in “I’m on Fire,” the sole live track. Here she spits and moans and banshee shrieks against a crashing clamor of guitars, sounding more like Jarboe at her scariest than any latter day diva. There’s something so primal, so self-immolating about this track that you forget, for a moment, how young Fohr is. That is, until she reminds you, chanting “Twenty-two…to be twenty-two…twenty-two…to be twenty-two.” If Fohr can light herself on fire like this now, at barely legal drinking age, imagine what she’ll be like at 30.