[REVIEW] P.H.F. – Purest Hell

In David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 slasher film It Follows, a close-knit group of teenagers faces down a supernatural and unstoppable foe. It stalks the group relentlessly, tirelessly; it doesn’t sleep or eat. After one encounter with the creature, one of the characters recuperates in the hospital, musing about their fate and reading Dostoevsky: “The most terrible agony may be in knowing… that your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person… the worst thing is that it is certain.” 

On Purest Hell, Joe Locke, who performs as P.H.F., arrives at a similar conclusion. On the song “Nothing At All,” he snarls, “Sooner or later we must all suffer the same/Loser or major, you will all just die the same way.” His voice is distorted through a chorus filter and pitched up, which emphasizes the nasal quality of his delivery; he sounds like a robot chipmunk fronting The Stooges. 

But the easy melody and the central placement of the vocal in the mix means that this is one of the easiest lines to sing along to on the whole album, cutting a laser beam through the song’s sludgy, grimy guitars and overdriven bass. It’s a microcosm of the record – Purest Hell is dichotomous, punishing and cleansing in equal measure, like getting blasted in a sandstorm. It’s a record that’s often at its most abrasive and alienating when Locke is singing his biggest melodies, and one that finds purity and peace in the loudest, heaviest soundscapes.

The record was written after the death of Locke’s friend and collaborator Reuben Samuel Winter. Perhaps as a result, the album feels darker, grimier, angrier than P.H.F.’s past work. The vocals are more processed and usually mixed low, meaning that many lyrics are indecipherable. Metal has been one of P.H.F.’s professed influences for some time, but Purest Hell combines those aesthetics with hyperpop and pop-punk and no-wave. The resultant collage is chaotic and intense; it’s occasionally indecipherable but always uncompromising.

“Treat Me” opens with a deep, reverberating sawtooth bass, the kind that would blow up the speakers in a club, accompanied by dinky treble synths and wimpy percussion; the contrast between the intensity of the bass and the cartoonish plasticity of the other sounds creates a rhythmic void in the middle of the song. The chorus is one of the album’s biggest, and its phrasing feels sexual – “Treat me just like that/Keep me coming back” – but in the verses, he sings, “I know you hate everything about me/It’s written on your face/So walk away.” The song’s structure and writing steers pop music’s pleasure principle toward self-harm and emotional emptiness.

The void in the center of “Treat Me” opens up on “Skincare” – it’s almost calming, with gently arpeggiating synth chimes and burbling percussion. Locke’s vocals feel aquatic, coated in phasers and reverb, multitracked up and down octaves, harmonizing with himself. There’s so much reverb and echo that each syllable swallows the next, a column of voices all obscuring themselves. It suggests a massive open space, like a desert or a mountaintop – places that would be difficult for humans to live. Through the sonic fog, a few words peek through: “Hopefully I’ll lose my grip/Maybe it will be today.” But that tension release never comes. If the song’s title invokes the myriad ways that we try to look after ourselves, the experience of listening to it is more like the creeping feeling of doom that such rituals are supposed to keep at bay. 

That sense of dread curdling at the edges animates the record’s first half. The poppier moments, like “Treat Me”, resist fully committing to their hooks – they approach pleasure but resist its simplicity. That reticence means that the layers of grime and distortion take on a menacing aura, like they’re actively keeping the listener out. You wonder what’s lurking beneath the surface; you hope you won’t find out.

Then lead single “Sabbath Shirt,” featuring the artist Fantasyluv, rips the record open. It’s one of the most unpredictable songs, seeming to phase through nearly all of the album’s sonic ideas in a two-minute blast of sound. It first layers a glitchy videogame synth over hyperspeed breakbeats, while Locke’s voice threatens to slip off of a singsong melody. His lyrics ping-pong between self-reproach and grief: “I shouldn’t bite my nails/I should just always say no… I put your Sabbath shirt on/And play your favorite song.”

Then, when he can’t articulate any more, he bursts into metal screams, accompanied by raging guitars and cartoonish sproinging sound effects. Here, Fantasyluv takes over the main melody, singing, “Tired of apologizing for the space I take/If you can’t see that I’m iconic, get the fuck out of my way.” The rapid shifts between modes and moods, and the song’s breakneck pace, make it feel like it’s always seconds away from collapsing.

But the metal break clears into a swell of synths that’s unexpectedly beautiful and oddly peaceful – it has the awestruck energy of a church choir or one of SOPHIE’s eerie paulstretched sound odysseys, a single chord pulled apart into taffy. It washes away the song’s whiplashing feelings, finally providing the release that’s been threatened over the album’s entire first half.

It’s not like “Sabbath Shirt” leads Locke into a lighter mindset. The rest of Purest Hell is just as intense, and if anything, the album only gets grimier from here. But its sudden swerve towards transcendence does mark a turning point. The first half of the album seems to navigate through grief in a disembodied way, narrating and demonstrating the kinds of coping mechanisms that you might turn to when you’re struggling just to make sense of the world. Maybe you get into skincare, maybe you have emotionless sex, maybe you lose faith in yourself. There’s an undercurrent of nihilistic, self-deprecating humor here – “Skincare” ends with a voice (possibly Locke’s) sneering, “It’s a song about… me, really. It’s all about me!” This line is punctuated by bitter laughter. It’s funny, but it makes you wince; you aim for pleasure, and pleasure just makes you think of pain.

The album’s second half leans directly into pain, avoiding the straightforward pop writing that characterizes the first half. The big hook on “Nothing At All” – you know, the one about the inevitability of death – only arrives in the final minute, separated from the even grimier first section by a brief silence and the sound of a mechanical drill. “Semi Truck,” another collaboration with Fantasyluv, is a spacy ballad that opens with nearly 30 seconds of industrial noise. When a recognizable melody kicks in, it still sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of a nuclear plant; the grinding synths push so hard against the vocals that they start phasing in and out of focus, like they’re corroding into noise. 

“No1 Tries” and “Plague Dogs,” the album’s heaviest tracks, are back-to-back here. “No1 Tries,” a collaboration with the experimental artist Rew, leans the furthest into metal aesthetics; its punishing, heavy guitars battle against screamed vocals, pushing the whole mix into the red. “Plague Dogs” is purely instrumental, swerving between brutal, austere techno and churning industrial rock. The sound of screeching metal – the material, not the vocal technique – echoes in the background, while a sample of what might be barking dogs is pitched down and rendered alien. It sounds inhuman and cold to the touch.

But these songs also have an unexpected calm to them. “No1 Tries” breaks from its throat-shredding verses into a surprisingly delicate refrain, all arpeggiated guitars and gentle, chiming glockenspiels. While the vocals remain indecipherable beneath the layers of filters, the texture of the voice here is softer, almost a whisper. The sudden shift feels even more impactful after the skyscraping rage of the verses. 

“Plague Dogs,” meanwhile, achieves a sense of peace precisely because there aren’t any vocals on it. All over Purest Hell, Locke treats the voice with ruthless ferocity, filtering and pitch-shifting and reverbing and multitracking and distorting. When he’s not processing his voice into mush, he’s screaming his lyrics; when he’s not screaming, he buries his voice so it’s difficult to make out what he’s saying. The effect is incredibly alienating, because it communicates anguish without illuminating it. But by omitting vocals, “Plague Dogs” manages to achieve a sort of pleasure in its fierce soundscape – it’s easy to give yourself over to its streamlined dance beats and its thrashing guitars, to close your eyes and get lost in its metallic inhumanity. It’s easy to let it swallow you.

I’ve thought a lot about plagues – as a concept – over the past few years. I imagine that most of us have. It’s probably impossible to live through a time of mass death and official incompetence and not think about what’s happening as some kind of divine punishment. I’m always looking for someone or something to blame, some way to displace the suffering onto something that I can understand on my own personal scale. But I ultimately can’t do that much on my own. I can be responsible with my choices to protect those around me, but that’s no guarantee that they’ll do the same, or that my choices even matter anyway. When I’m feeling at my most frustrated and tired, I think that the only thing left is the useless hope that, in some universe, things might have been different. It doesn’t save me from the crushing sadness that I am stuck in this one.

“A Letter From Purest Hell” is the album’s closing track. It’s one of the simplest songs here, and the one with the least processed vocals – Locke’s lyrics are front and center over a patient, pacing bass guitar. He sings about the void, the simple and inarticulable pain of loss: “I was so wrong/I wish you weren’t gone.” The energy builds as looming synths creep into the background; then the song explodes, one final burst of anger. “Nobody tells you that the grief/ wallows you up like you’re debris,” Locke cries, “There might be/Somewhere that’s quiet and lonely.” Three final blasts of guitar noise, and the song cuts off abruptly.

Wherever that place is, it can’t be found in hell.

Purest Hell is out today (May 27th, 2022). Support it on bandcamp, follow P.H.F. on Instagram, and stream it wherever you get your music.

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