The melancholic synth pop of Sepehr Mashiahof (aka The Bedroom Witch) glides through your speakers like the colourful rainbow imprints on your eyes when you stare at the sky for too long on a drizzly day. As a transgender Iranian-American living in the neon loneliness of Los Angeles, she has the uneasiness of an immigrant and the restlessness of the modern urbanite making her way in the world’s richest country. She’s also a talented composer and serious student of the synthesiser on the evidence of her latest album. A Place of Hurt is a beautiful record situated somewhere between the art pop of the 1980s and the sensual electro beats of the early 2000s.
Lead single and opener, ‘My Only’, harks back to the legendary Pet Shop Boys debut from 1986 for inspiration and showcases Mashiahof’s unique voice, no doubt aided by her former gender. Imagine a baritone lament with Sade’s unique charisma and the croon of Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside set to the multi-layered palette of sparkling keyboard sequences and mellifluous synth embroidery. It’s a reminder that dance music can spare you five minutes for a silent cry on your own when your sentimental impulses need an outlet. The 1980s percussion fills that are so prevalent in the early songs of Madonna and her co-songwriter, Shep Pettibone, sharpen the beats here with tuneful effervescence, like vintage pinball machines. Boom-dum-ding-bing.
Why is Scream Blast repeat reviewing a synth pop artist? you may ask. ‘Nothing Left Inside Me’ should provide you with the answer. Here, Mashiahof produces a dissonant synth pattern that sends an adrenaline thrill down your spine like the first time you walk into a dark room full of dancing goths. You’ll detect the hard bass of 808 State underneath The Human League pop structure and sorrowful vocals. Listen how Mashiahof’s voice ghosts through the mix in full command of the instrumentation. Dig deeper into the arrangement and you’ll notice a dual harmony vocal that could grace the best of the Staley-Cantrell albums of Alice in Chains. The hypnotic percussions and swirling synths distract you from the author’s words because they’re so compelling. Colourful timbres of scarlet and orange mix with yellow and red in extended sequences while Mashiahof projects her vocal cords in a deep croon of sorrow and hope. This is sophisticated pop music.
If there’s one criticism of A Place to Hurt, it’s the way Mashiahof sticks to a comfortable head voice on almost every song. There’s nothing jarring about this, nor is her singing technique deficient. If anything, it’s distinctive, but the way the words stretch beyond their normal endurance on the likes of ‘In the City’ and ‘Wait a Week’ conjure images of a morbid interpretation of the vogue pose. You wouldn’t want Dave Gahan to employ this technique on every song of a Depeche Mode album, and the same applies here.
The most remarkable achievement of the song writing is the way the musical layers converge in vertiginous rotations while the voice guides the narrative. Most artists in this genre scale back the channels of instrumentation to allow the vocals to dominate – not here. ‘Venus’ pulsates like the early recordings of Swedish duo, The Knife, with an expert combination of thick bass squelches and high-register synth screeches. Clearly, Mashiahof spent most of the last decade studying the cadences of electronic music and learning to extrapolate melodies from her bedroom synthesisers. The audio production allows all instruments to breathe and express their full potential.
Of course, you can tell from the song titles which ones will be darker and more introspective. ‘I Cause You Pain’ and ‘Procession’ end the album on a note of self-reproach. The former starts like ‘A Forest’ by The Cure until the echo vocals and the OMD synth melodies flutter through the speakers. By contrast, a haunting multi-harmony vocal and woodwind keyboard sample set the foundations for the latter. It’s the only time you hear a clear Kate Bush/Dead Can Dance influence on the music, and it’s magical.
It’s easy to write this album off as a piece of transgender indulgence for the New York Liberals and London Marxists of this world, but that would be a disservice to the dark brilliance and suave sophistication of its creator. A Place of Hurt offers you refuge from a society that wants to judge you and put you in a metaphorical box. Are you foolish enough to reject it?
Release Date: 04/11/2022
Standout tracks: My Only; Nothing Left Inside Me; Venus
Suggested Further Listening: Pet Shop Boys – Please (1986), Ladytron – Light & Magic (2002), The Knife – Silent Shout (2006)