Asbestos is a pariah material; prohibited, toxic, yet infused within structures and harmful when exposed. The wealth of metaphoric potential inherent within this fiber makes it the perfect name for a band such as Asbest (the German word for asbestos). Hailing from Basel, Switzerland, the group will soon release their first full-length record, Driven. Asbest play harsh, desperate noise-rock/post-punk, as an angry reaction to the events of our time, and in particular to highlight the experiences of vocalist/guitarist Robyn Trachsel as a transwoman in a cis- and heteronormative society. In harnessing music to lay these issues bare, they imagine a future in which gender is no longer an issue and people are seen as personalities.
Formed in 2016, Asbest self-released an EP entitled Interstates the following year. They come from a variety of musical backgrounds; Judith (bassist) played guitar in a swing band and currently also plays guitar in a klezmer band. Jonas played drums in noise rock band Heavy Harvest, while Robyn learned guitar as a teenager and has performed in a variety of bands from grunge to post-rock. Asbest’s music has elements of industrial, electronica and shoegaze, name-checking Metz, Girl Band, Swans and Sonic Youth, among others. It’s abrasive, heavy, and filled with brave creative decisions. I was fascinated by the track “Means Of Production” more of a performance piece than a song, in which Robyn yells plaintively “Invade/ Inseminate/ Incubate/ Replicate/ We are born on the assembly line” over an eight-minute walking bass.
Take a look at this live video of “Interstates,” from last year at Hirscheneck in Basel.
Says Robyn, “The band gave me the possibility to process certain everyday experiences on a more emotional level than I was used to or have allowed myself. So that was definitely very freeing. But it’s very important to me that it’s not only my personal perspective. I try always to include a broader meaning into the lyrics in order to expose the pathological and oppressive structure of our society as a whole with the example of my being transgender.”
Driven was recorded at Malthouse Studios in Bristol, UK, where Asbest supported Bristol noise band Spectres last year. “We somehow clicked and stayed in contact after this. We liked the production of their album and wanted the same kind of aesthetics which we got since they recorded at Malthouse Studios as well.” The album (due out on September 28th) is raw, urgent, and hypnotic. The theme of transgenderism dominates, with heartfelt vocals delivering lyrics that come from a very personal place. The title track contains the lines “There’s no guarantee that this is all worth the pain/ I might not like what I’m about to obtain/ I cannot know and although I’m prepared/ I’m fucking scared, I’m fucking scared; and in “Chain Reaction,” “My mind/ My body/ They should not compete.”
The band’s stated influences include the Riot Grrl movement and Sonic Youth vocalist Kim Gordon, but Asbest do not necessarily focus on feminism, as they are looking ahead towards a society where feminism will no longer be required. Judith elaborates; “We do think a lot about women’s issues and are totally in favour of any action that strives to lessen the effects of a still patriarchal structure. However, it is not necessarily our main focus since it is a symptom of a broader problem.” Jonas adds, “I think we can also serve as an example since we are a mixed band and gender isn’t an issue. In the Iong run, in general, that should be the ideal.”
The album Driven is due on September 28th, via A Tree In A Field/Czar Of Bullets.
There are now some transgender individuals with visibility in public arenas; for instance, US Democratic politician Danica Roem. She was previously a metal musician, and even within metal, there are positive developments taking place, such as record label Blackened Death which actively campaigns against transphobia. I asked Robyn what changes she would hope to see within the music industry, in Switzerland, and in society in general, to address the disparities faced by trans and non-binary people.
“My main hope is that we can reach the point where it isn’t an issue anymore, and people are seen as personalities and not as their gender. But we are far from that point. So I appreciate everything that helps to move society in this direction. My personal method was to try and not care too much about what is expected by society and do things my way. This was only possible by having a personal environment that was very supportive. So that is maybe my personal hope; that everybody should get supported if they choose to live outside of societal norms.” Jonas succinctly puts it, “In my experience, one should like the person, not the pronouns.”
Whether “They Kill” or not, one thing’s for sure, this song rips!
Asbest is currently in the middle of a short European tour. “Playing live is the cornerstone of our music,” Jonas states. “It is there where the listener can experience the atmosphere as we intended it. Also on a more visceral level. We very much like to play live.”
Judith notes that people’s responses so far have been across the board. “Reactions vary from slow claps to a rather overwhelming feedback. People that liked the show often have stated that they have been emotionally touched by it.”
The overall effect of Driven is an unsettling, thought-provoking mix of urgency and despondency, and I have found myself listening to it over and over again. The heavy riffs kick in at just the right moments, giving them maximum emotional impact. Meanwhile, the simple poetry of the lyrics conjures up powerful imagery. I’ll leave you with these evocative lines from the final track "They Kill” which sum up this album‘s unnerving sense of ennui:
“They kill the happy ones first
So the sad must suffer longer
They kill the strong ones first
`Cause the weak are more easy to plunder”