Gretchen Heinel has already been exploring the sensory and tactile realms of the human body and their relationship to the more obscure facets of the mind and emotions through her work in photography, filmmaking, and hook suspension. Now, she adds sound and music to her arsenal of tools on this journey with her debut as Fragile Body; written and produced amid “the plague years,” Unwell sees her not only searching for but also celebrating the essential source of human imperfection, addressing issues of insecurity, fear, and desire, and declaring resoundingly that “Blessed are the unwell.”
Classically trained, Heinel utilizes her voice as a conduit for these themes – not just lyrically, but through the use of her voice as an instrument as lushly layered harmonies and strange subvocal oscillations mesh with analog synthesized drones. One gets the sense on tracks like the opening “Descent,” the hazily distorted “Vagus,” or the closing “Rebirth” that the music itself is not just a doom-laden atmosphere upon which words and emotions are presented, but are in fact the ululations of some lumbering beast aching to be heard and recognized. There is an uncanny and ritualistic vibrance to a song like “Be Not Afraid” as resonant synths and percussion steadily traverse into urgency and grandeur, Henel’s operatic howls and echoes of “Control” hinting at an evocative procession that is matched by the hypnotic and metallic “End of the Line,” but even more so by the title track, in which powerful and martial 7/8 rhythms underscore a sweeping ambience of voice and synth.
The accompanying artwork was created with photographer, model, and tattoo artist Rant Casey, providing a visual depiction of the sonic and psychic milieu and granting Unwell an even more immersive scope. Although Fragile Body is perhaps less abrasive in tone from similar artists like Pharmakon or Lingua Ignota, this is not to say it is more accessible by any means; on the contrary, Unwell ensnares the listener with the uncomfortable truth about human frailty, inviting us to revel in the singularity such imperfection grants each of us.