Just over two years since her triumphant debut, Billy Nomates, the alias of Bristol-based songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Tor Maries, explores the emotional complexities of life in her second studio album CACTI, released on 13 January 2023 via Invada Records.
More introspective than her first album, CACTI is a danceable, post-punk confrontation of uncomfortable truths as well as the terrifying yet inevitable coexistence of boldness and vulnerability. Written mostly in the solitude of her flat in Bristol, Maries’ inventive use of old drum machines, her trusty micro keyboard, synths, pianos, and organs as well as the album’s crisp production creates a fusion of post-punk, dark wave and alternative 80’s sound that results in what could be described as a sort of upbeat melancholia.
The album opens with the punchy ‘balance is gone’ – a track that was released as a single in September of last year. A distorted, gritty bassline thumps; setting a tone of almost jarring intensity and laying an exciting foundation for the emotional rollercoaster that is to come. The second track, ‘black curtains in the bag’, is gloomier. Musical layers are peeled away to expose a more vulnerable Maries – marking the first emotional shift towards self-reflection and doubt. However, this is short-lived, with sarcasm and confidence returning with ‘CACTI’. Synths, pacy drum machine beats and increasingly distorted guitar riffs make for an upbeat and exciting track that appears to celebrate strength against all odds. Following on, the grungy guitar riffs drenched in tremolo on ‘saboteur forcefield’ add something particularly special, marking another turn to a more mellow and stripped back vibe.
‘spite’ is a particular triumph – being one of the most energetic songs on the album, it’s easy to imagine bopping to it at a gig or singing along with friends. Lyrically, the track could be conceived as a sort of post break-up anthem celebrating independence and feminine power, with Marias proclaiming ‘don’t you act like I ain’t the fucking man’. Distorted guitars, melodic synths and groovy, fast-paced drum beats make for an inevitably dance worthy track.
Maries’ vocals consistently deliver throughout the album. Communicating raw emotion through ethereal melodies, it’s clear that she means every word that she sings. Particular stand-outs are ‘vertigo’ and ‘blackout signal’ – the latter, which is the last song on the album, entails captivatingly raw and raspy vocals at its crescendo; as if Maries is shouting a final proclamation of strength and resilience through an echo chamber. The album closes with a feeling of optimism, and perhaps a readiness to embrace whatever life throws next.
Over the course of CACTI, emotions conveyed within each track fluctuate between bold-faced sarcasm, confidence, and crippling self-doubt; with the swagger of ‘spite’, ‘vertigo’ and ‘same gun’, being undercut by the more self-conscious and melancholic ‘saboteur forcefield’, ’roundabout sadness’ and ‘fawner’. Listening to the album in full feels almost like holding up a mirror to the realities of what it is to be human – with all its nuances and often-unpredictable trials, tribulations, heartaches and traumas. In this sense, CACTI is an album that feels deeply personal, yet also manages to transcend beyond this by enabling everyone to relate to its themes, and find their own narrative. By probing different emotions, a sort of comforting unity and camaraderie is created between listener and artist – perhaps serving as a reminder to us all be kinder to ourselves. After all, we are all flawed, complicated and at times fragile. As Maries says herself, CACTI is about “surviving it all”.
Review by Rebecca Kesteven: theweeklylisteningpost.wordpress.com