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Photo: Melissa Aquino

"Deathmask" chronicles a year of depression, anxiety, loathing and anger, but it's also a record of creative triumph and freedom.

If 2017 were a sound, what would it be? Toronto-based noise artist Ei’s answer is an extended terrifying shriek of torment. Ei recorded one track a day, every day for the entire year to create a single album titled Deathmask. The longest “song” on the record is 10 minutes, but most are shorter than 30 seconds—though since the tracks don’t have melodies or rhythms or structures of any kind, the whole thing tends to become a single blur.

The finished product is three hours and thirty-two minutes of “harsh noise wall”—an electronic genre that sounds like sticking your head in a gunning jet engine that is being dismantled by power tools. “[It] makes me think of what an anxiety attack might sound like if it was in a musical format,” Ei told me by email. “But ironically, it is also very therapeutic.”

For Ei, who is nonbinary and whose pronouns are they/them, Deathmask was specifically intended as a way to explore their gender identity and mental illness. They shared every song of the project on Bandcamp. “Each song is titled after the most prominent feeling or event of that day,” Ei explains. “Some of them are very mundane, some of them are very intense.” Many tracks started as a sample recorded on Ei’s phone, which they would then tweak and manipulate.

Sometimes you can hear the connection between the title and the music instantly. “Day 004: insomnia” is a slow, repetitive stutter of static—a bleak loop of anxiety and boredom, that lasts only a minute and 40 seconds, but feels like six hours, with every second dragging ruthlessly across the inside of your eyelids.

Other tracks require some interpretation. “Day 005: bleach” is a pulsing cascade of static which ends in giddy electronic siren sounds. “I had bleached my hair, which was a big deal for me at the time because I hadn’t done anything like that in almost a decade,” Ei explains. “It made me feel good about myself.”

“Day 292: lsdemon” has what almost sounds like a jaunty beat buried amidst the static. It was recorded on the day that Ei took LSD while playing a noise set for the first time, which they said, “was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had to be perfectly honest.” The 14-second “day 168: Ei” is also celebratory, with a piercing pitch pushing above a rumbling bottom. “This was the day I chose the name “Ei” for myself,” Ei says, and the day they stopped using their birth name.

Many of the prompts are less cheerful, though. “Day 099: finish this if I die” is about Ei’s yearlong fear that they would die during 2017 before they could finish Deathmask. Ei actually contacted other artists and arranged for them to complete the album if they were unable to do so. (Now that the album is completed, that particular anxiety is laid to rest, at least.)

Ashleigh Hutchinson

“Day 078: misgender” emits a noise like a plane decelerating. The track is about the grinding depression of the closet.

“Unfortunately, I keep my queer identity private [at work].” said Ei, who is employed at a factory. “I love my job, but I work with very backwards people who can barely grasp concepts past the 1950s let alone anything to do with gender. I pretend to be male at my job to avoid getting any bullshit from people. It’s something I hate doing, but it ultimately makes my life easier, despite the fact that I am continuously misgendered there. I know many others have to do this and my heart goes out to them.”

“[It] makes me think of what an anxiety attack might sound like if it was in a musical format.”

Though Ei is from Canada, the record couldn’t help but be influenced by the American election.  

“The current political climate of North America has absolutely made being in marginalized communities much more dangerous than before,” they told me. “Being treated poorly for being trans, seeing people say and do disgusting things because they feel they now have more of a platform than before, these are definitely things that affected me. My optimism for the human race gradually diminished over the creation of this record, I’m sad to say.”

The last track of the album, “day 365: mask” is, perhaps as a result, a particularly agonized one. Over its three minutes, electronic screeches bend and modulate like human cries. It sounds like souls pleading as they’re pulled into the abyss.

Deathmask is an expression of despair and rage. But according to Ei, it is also cathartic and empowering—even more so than the more traditional punk and metal that Ei used to make. “For me, it feels therapeutic to create something so intense sounding without there being any physical output from my body like in grindcore or hardcore music,” they said. “To have complete control over something like that is a very euphoric feeling.”

It may seem odd that the harsh noise wall genre, which is so abstract and so disconnected from bodily music making, is Ei’s chosen forum for thinking about their gender. But for Ei, it makes perfect sense.

“Performing with this project helped me become more comfortable with myself and express myself in ways that I was unable to in other projects I was in at the time and have been in the past,” they said. “The music itself is very much a blank canvas that I was able to paint with my queer identity and aesthetics that were looked down on in different circles.”

Musical genres are often drenched in gender expectations and preconceptions, from rock and rap’s masculine swagger to female pop and R&B’s sexy bump and grind. Harsh noise wall, though, obliterates everything flesh in a machined apocalypse of static. Deathmask‘s 365 tracks are a chronicle of a year of depression, anxiety, loathing, anger and cranial implosion. But for Ei, the day-by-day dive into obliteration is also a record of creative triumph and freedom.

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