As far as music goes, 2023 has been revolutionary – especially in the underground electronic scene. One album that’s flown under the radar for many has been the latest drop from Tennessee digital hardcore act whit3corset. Known for her deeply personal and provocative sound, Emily White takes things up a notch with the hard-hitting and at times unsettling PETRUSHKA.
Despite sharing its name with Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet, the name didn’t initially come from the theater. “I used to hang around the streetwear scene in Memphis a bit and would regularly go to thrift and resale stores to dig around hoping to find nice pieces,” Emily wrote to me. “I went into Retrograde on Highland [in Memphis] one day and found a tee with the sleeves cut off that I believe was from the ’80s or ’90s. It was very captivating – something about the design just latched onto me. I translated the Cyrillic text and was presented with “Petrushka.” I did my research into the design and couldn’t find anything anywhere, even with reverse image search. It’s a very unique piece.”
However, that doesn’t mean the play’s influence is non-existent. “I could see something of myself in the character. It’s a story of jealousy, rage, and weakness, and I wanted to reflect that in my work,” she wrote. “I was inspired by thematic elements of Stravinsky’s ballet – not in the sense of how the story being told is about a love triangle, but in more of a metaphorical sense. The idea of being a puppet chasing a dream only to be brought down in the end and watching as the perpetrators live on with no repercussions resonates with me.”
Appropriately, “LAMENT” opens the album with a thumping intro, unrelentingly lashing out with unapologetic lyrics exploring deceit and loss of trust before ending in bloody fashion. “A lot of my lyrical content pulls from real life experiences with abuse and surviving against all odds,” Emily recounts, and this track gives off that intensity right out the gate.
Distorted music box-like sound, instrumentals that sound almost like they were written for a stage performance, and heavy layers of distortion really ramp up the performance of the title track. Soon, it starts hitting us with shouted lyrics and pounding drum beats, the uncanny atmosphere never letting up.
“With PETRUSHKA, I knew I wanted to sample elements of the ballet, so I downloaded MIDI files of the score and put them in my DAW. The first instrumental I made was very bouncy and upbeat, but I struggled to figure out a way to end it that didn’t feel cheap. Over time, the instrumental grew off me and I lost all interest in the track and almost scrapped it entirely until I decided to try again with a different mood and section of the score, which is what you hear on the final track,” Emily told me, calling it one of the more difficult tracks to write for the album.
“YOUR DESIGN” takes a different direction entirely, beginning with a metallic riff straight out of a late ’90s underground nu metal track before launching into a full-frontal audio assault. “Back when whit3corset started as a project, there was a period where it was going to be primarily a metal/hardcore project…with my history in noise, instrumental hip hop, and poppier leaning stuff, I decided it would be best to do a blend of everything,” Emily revealed. “In the early stages of PETRUSHKA, I initially wanted to phase out all of the heavy elements in favor of a more atmospheric direction.”
This would not come to fruition, however, as her computer malfunctioned. “I moved over to my backup laptop and worked on a track using only stock plugins just to fuck around and make something very ignorant, and the end result was YOUR DESIGN, the first single.”
The heavy atmosphere on the album does not slow down for a minute. Leaning deeper into the digital elements, “PAWN” begins with a heavily distorted bassline backed by terrifying synths and growling vocals that surround the dense atmosphere of the track. faradayribcage and DJ Rozwell of KFC Murder Chicksboth lend their talents to this track and it shines through, bringing all their sounds together in a cohesive mass of brazen anger at those who have wronged her. Emily explains, “With this album I wanted to take a slightly different approach with how I discussed trauma. I felt like my previous releases were too based in wallowing and lingering in the pain, so I wanted to make this album about persevering and finding strength within oneself to overcome.”
Leaning into the puppet themes of the play, “MARIONETTE” slows the pace down considerably to explore toxic attachment and abandonment, adopting a more synth-pop main riff to push the brooding bassline forward, capped off with thumping drum beats over the pained recital of melancholy lyrics. It manages to capture the same feel as “YOUR DESIGN” and “PAWN” even without the intensely heavy backing instrumentals due to its structure and placement on the album – which makes sense since they were all made the same day.
“CROSSES” drifts into a noisy beat over spoken-word vocals before transitioning into a deceptively beautiful piano loop before pained screaming begins. It ends abruptly, leaving you both wanting more and feeling relieved that the artist’s suffering has ended. It’s not the shortest song on the album by a long shot, but it moves so fluidly that it’s over before you can really process what’s happening, a consistent and poignant theme of the album; that trauma isn’t always long and drawn out, but sometimes a quick experience that you don’t quite understand until much later, and only then do you realize just how much it took from you.
According to Emily, one of the hardest songs to write was the final track, “ROSARY.” “I began writing the song on my organ, but I couldn’t find a way to put together all the parts I had written,” she says. “The main motif of the first part of the song was very somber and beautiful sounding, which made writing lyrics very intimidating because I wanted to do the music right.”
The slow, evocative beginning gives way to a more frantic and impactful ending, as the song speeds up and the previously sung vocals give way to bellowing screams to contrast the nearly serene synth. “The back half of the song came from a different project file I was working in. I had taken one of the organ parts I had written and put it in the context of a drum and bass track…it was the much needed climax for a track that builds up so much momentum.”
So, the ultimate question; is this for everyone? PETRUSHKA has elements that a casual listener may not be thrilled with. The mixing can seem off in parts if you don’t listen to noise-heavy digital hardcore regularly. The transition from heavy, moshable tracks to slower ballads can feel too abrupt for some. The thematic elements of pain, trauma and resentment, with lyrics that don’t mince words or rely too heavily on deeply layered and easily-misinterpreted metaphors, can be upsetting or triggering.
And all those things created an experience I’ll never forget.
As someone who has been a part of the extreme digital music scene for sixteen years, I’m used to content that some would deem “triggering.” But edge doesn’t just come from how violently misogynistic or racist you can make your lyrics; it can also come from challenging the listener to accept the actual banal brutality of the real world. When I listened to this album, there were parts that evoked a visceral reaction, one that turned my stomach and tightened my throat; and then there were parts that were so damn catchy and danceable, it brought me right back in. This is an album I’ve listened to more times than I can count, and it’s easily one of my favorites of the year.
However, to call this album a joy to listen to is complicated. Within the expertly produced instrumentals, the heavy focus on grooves, and the passionate singing, whit3corset weaves a complex tapestry of the thematic elements of trauma and depression that can at times be hard to approach. I think a better term for the album is triumphant, because as Emily put it, “It starts out where the initial impact begins and ends on a more hopeful note.”
And you feel that hope near the end, and it lingers after. And then you hit play, and “LAMENT” starts again.