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SRSQ - Unreality Music Album Reviews

On her solo debut following the death of her Them Are Us Too partner, Kennedy Ashlyn navigates grief by sorting through echoes of 4AD’s essential early days and haunted goth textures.

Cash Askew was one of the 36 people killed in the catastrophic 2016 fire at Oakland’s Ghost Ship. The 22-year-old guitarist was half of the duo Them Are Us Too, alongside singer Kennedy Ashlyn. A year earlier, Them Are Us Too released their debut, Remain, showcasing an impressive sense of the moody, shimmering texture of 1980s goth and dream pop. Earlier this year, Dais issued Amends, a collection of Them Are Us Too’s final recordings that Kennedy described as “a collaborative effort between TAUT and some of Cash’s dearest friends and family, culminating in a final ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye.’” Listening to those six songs was bittersweet: They were more robust and rhythmic than their predecessors, though the promising new direction only made their sense of finality more tragic.

But two years after what Ashlyn called “the worst thing to happen in my life,” she has moved ahead alone with SRSQ (pronounced “seer-skew”). For her, the title of the project’s debut, Unreality, “speaks to trying to process what a surreal world feels like in the wake of such a reality.” During “The Martyr,” she sings of dream worlds and hell’s depths in a fluttering, high register over uneasy synths and a beat reminiscent of early Beach House. Grief creeps into the frame: “I’m sickened by the terrible reminder.”

If Them Are Us Too were headed toward more forceful, straightforward songs at the end, Ashlyn takes SRSQ in the opposite direction. This is anti-gravity music, emptiness surrounding synth beds and brittle drum machines; save for the perpetual build of “Permission,” Unreality conjures a foggy ambience through which Ashlyn’s high-wire exhortations weave. It all evokes the essential early days of 4AD—specifically, Cocteau Twins and goth-minded kin of their time—and the long-running Pacific Northwest label Projekt, which still specializes in this type of ethereal darkwave.

The way Unreality plunders the past is, at times, remarkable. The galloping chorus of “Cherish,” in particular, possesses an uncanny resemblance to the vocal cadence of Cocteau’s Elizabeth Fraser. But Ashlyn imbues such influences with a personal touch. As she slides into the wordless chorus of “The Martyr,” her voice wavers, creating a texture so intricate you want to reach out and feel it; on “No Reason,” she layers incantatory spoken-word over synth detritus and her own high-register vocal acrobatics. Music like this is often described as “otherworldly,” but there’s a lovely human imperfection to the way Ashlyn sings.

Despite the move forward, an undercurrent of grief and longing runs through Unreality. “Are you hearing my songs?” she asks over the pounding rhythm of “Mixed Tide.” During the perpetually shifting “Only One,” Ashlyn admits, “It crushes me every day/I’m just barely holding on.” But even as Ashlyn processes the trauma on tape, the new beginnings represented by Unreality offer a measure of hope in the honoring of memory. Near the end of the skyscraping “Procession,” Ashlyn looks for peace amid the dulling pain and offers up a veritable mission statement for this document of loss and struggle: “It’s an impossible hurt/But you’ll never, ever leave my heart.”

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