Imagine the rebellious younger sister of art rock girl-band Warpaint, and you’ve got an idea of the sound of EMA’s debut album Past Life Martyred Saints. The solo project of Erika M. Anderson, former guitarist/singer for Gowns, borrows Warpaint’s ethereal harmonies, but adds a sharper edge.
Anderson’s lyrics are defiant yet thoughtful. On “California,” one of the highlights of the album, she gives the middle finger to California, bitterly commenting, “Now you’ve corrupted us all with your sexuality… What does failure taste like? To me it tastes like dirt.” The final moments of “Anteroom” build to a haunting finish, repeating “I’ll come back to you in another life.”
Past Life Martyred Saints intensity originates from its contrast of cacophonies and stripped down harmonies. On the more stripped down songs like “Coda,” the rawness of Anderson’s voice is able to truly shine. “These drugs are making me so sad, and I can’t stop taking them,” she laments.
The highs and lows of the album echo the highs and lows of young love. The abrupt screeching of “Marked” eventually gives way to a sweeter finish, leading into the calm “Breakfast.” Though Anderson sings, “You’re just like a breeze to me,” the overall mood of Past Life Martyred Saints is far more sinister. The album is full of allusions to bruises, scars, burns, and other wounds: When Anderson sings about “red stars” and “bruised scars,” the airiness of her voice, contrasted with such harsh subject matter, sends a shiver up your spine.
The droning guitar sound is easy to get lost in, especially on songs like “Red Star.” On this standout track, Anderson’s vocals are perfectly supported by the backing instruments. If EMA were compared to the Velvet Underground (which wouldn’t be unheard of,) then “Red Star” is Anderson’s “Heroin.” Such lofty comparisons might be scoffed at, but for a debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints sets high standards for EMA’s future.