I first stumbled upon the work of Erika M. Anderson in the mid-’00s. Her band Gowns sounded both completely familiar and wholly unprecedented, bridging the deconstructed anti-folk sound of that moment with the ominousness of goth artists like Coil and Current 93. It felt like the end of something great when they called it quits in 2010, but when Anderson released her 2011 solo debut, Past Life Martyred Saints—a stunning collection of jaded pop songs—under the moniker EMA, I quickly redirected my fandom.
Her new album, Exile in the Outer Ring, is a portrait of growing up in Midwestern suburbs. It’s also a chronicle of being a woman among dirtbag boys—absorbing their music, hobbies, and anger, but never fully being accepted. Recorded in a Portland basement and co-produced by Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Jacob Portrait, Exile in the Outer Ring shows Anderson shifting her sound to accommodate the record’s theme. As she presents vignettes often set in the ’90s, she delves into the sounds and song structures of that decade, and from that broad array of music we still have no better word for than “alternative.”
As the album hops styles, there are glimpses of PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, Hole’s Live Through This, Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine, and a wide swath of ’90s industrial albums. While all of Anderson’s releases have nodded to industrial at times, this album embraces it more fully and more often. Her approach is similar to what Xiu Xiu’s done over the years—blending influences in a way that probably won’t appeal to industrial fans, but nonetheless seems steeped in a childhood of Skinny Puppy and Ministry records.
Compared to the vast majority of musicians currently taking cues from the ’90s, EMA’s take sounds fresh and exciting. Exile in the Outer Ring might not be as actualized as her previous efforts, but it’s still bold and uncomfortable in all the right ways, and easily one of the most intriguing releases to come out this year.