The best film Elizabeth Bernholz, the Brighton, U.K.-based musician who records as Gazelle Twin, has seen recently is an obscure, low-budget Spanish horror film called Who Can Kill A Child? First released in 1976 but impossible to track down until its DVD release in 2007, it tells the story of an English couple vacationing on an island entirely populated by sinister children; it’s no great spoiler to reveal that the children turn out to be malevolent and murderous. Where Who Can Kill A Child? differs from the standard twisted-kids horror trope is in their motivation. Neither supernatural nor simply evil, the film presents their actions as vengeance enacted upon a group that’s harmed them; clips of children suffering during wartime are interspersed throughout the film. “It’s almost like an evolutionary process that the children have gone through,” explains Bernholz, “to realize adults are the enemy.”
Bernholz has lately been drawn to similar themes. She emerged in 2011 with The Entire City, which borrowed its title from Surrealist artist Max Ernst’s grattage oil painting of the same name. The hum and drone of Gazelle Twin’s synths provided an austere backdrop for the eerie beauty of her high register, a hangover from her days as a student of classical composition. Arriving among a wave of similarly icy synth-based acts, City marked Bernholz as an artist of distinctive potential.
Her new album Unflesh is almost unrecognizable from what came before. There is little beauty here. The title track is ruptured by a digitally twisted shriek, and the surrounding music gradually becomes more and more confrontational. Sickly synths lurch and wobble, digital sounds crackle, industrial beats relentlessly pound. Bernholz reduces her voice to dark mutters and blank intonations. Listening to it is like being riveted by a horror film and jolted by sudden scares.
But in this horror movie, the monster is Bernholz’s adolescent body. “The center point is about puberty — coming of age, developing your sexuality, transforming physically,” she explains. “This painful, violent process. You wish you could escape it, purge it, tear off your skin. My experience was completely horrific. Young people in general get a lot of grief — their emotions aren’t taken seriously, dismissed as hormonal. But when you think how powerful those experiences are at that age, and how much they stay with you, it’s a shame. We inflict so much on children. It’s this very private, personal thing, and it’s undignified what we make children do in [things like] PE lessons, stripping off in front of everyone.”
Bernholz’s teenage trauma is the inspiration for Unflesh‘s most visceral track, “Anti Body” — an obsessive number that twists and turns as though it’s trying to recoil from itself. But she also uses her musings on puberty as a jumping-off point to explore the full spectrum of everyday body horror: the idea of the physical being separate from the mind. It’s no surprise that Bernholz is a huge David Cronenberg fan: Like many of his works, the idea of Cartesian dualism is a source of terror throughout Unflesh.
“There’s a lot of autonomous power the body has that we don’t want to think about,” she says. Bernholz has plenty of experience. As a sickly child with a weak immune system, she was prone to hallucinatory fevers; as an adult, she suffers from panic attacks and anxiety. Both of these directly inform the songs on Unflesh, many of which explicitly draw on horror tropes and sounds: the scream that opens the title track; that shuddering half-gulp, half-gasp of “A1 Receptor.” It’s telling that the album’s rare moments of respite come when Bernholz turns her attention to discussing various forms of death: “Good Death” is an elegiac meditation on euthanasia; “Premonition,” a tender lullaby about miscarriage.
Bernholz associates her most vivid hallucinations with her illness, sharing with me a story of how her brain overrode her phobia of vomiting one winter, and brought visions of “white eels writhing around and oozing all over me” into her mind; it was subconsciously finding a way, she thinks, to repulse her in order to force her to throw up.
There’s a parallel here to her creative process, which Bernholz describes as a kind of psychotherapy of the body. She began the project intending to make an abstract, factual account of the physical form, but memories she’d blocked out began flooding back. “I was suddenly dealing with a lot of things that I went through as a young woman that I’d dealt with by shutting off,” she explains. “That absolutely changed everything — this is why I fixate on these things, this is why I feel that way. [It was] almost an archaeological process, going down the layers, getting right to those mental triggers, all this stuff going on we don’t necessarily listen to.”
This is where Unflesh derives its outward-facing power: despite everything, the primary emotion is less self-revulsion and more pissed-off purge. Behind the terror of a marauding physical force is anger at a society that fails to properly equip its young people to deal with it. Unflesh functions as an antidote to the unhealthy expectations foisted particularly on women. “It’s so embedded,” Bernholz says. “This minefield of body image, sexuality…our culture is very much about appearances and acquisitions.”
Unflesh has functioned for Bernholz as a sort of exorcism of teenage demons. It’s not for nothing that the album’s next single is called “Exorcise” — the homonym is deliberate, and its video will feature aerobics routines. Teasing apart the implications of exercise — as a physical exorcism of toxins as well as its associations with sadistic school lessons — peels back yet another layer of this extraordinary, unique album.