SASAMI’s Squeeze Is a Metallic Urn for the Ashes of Rage
On her second LP, the Los Angeles musician swaps her debut’s shoegaze for more aggressive sounds—and creates her best songs yetMusic Reviews SASAMI
In a 2021 Ringer oral history on alt-metal band System of a Down’s sophomore album Toxicity, exactly one non-metal musician was quoted—or at least she wasn’t a metal musician at the time. “System of a Down taps this super-dark energy then puts it towards something they have real rage about, like all the insecurity and political toxicity of their homeland, and the state of human existence,” said Sasami Ashworth, aka SASAMI. On her sophomore LP Squeeze, the 31-year-old Los Angeles musician emulates her idols, mostly ditching the yearning shoegaze and dream-pop of her self-titled 2019 debut for metal, industrial and grunge. Through these newly loud and aggressive sounds—Ashworth has also played synth in Cherry Glazerr and, in a couple of TV appearances, Japanese Breakfast—she forges a space in which one can combine their own rage with hers and feel newly liberated through group catharsis, without inflicting any real-world violence. The maelstrom of distorted guitars and pounding percussion results in her best songs yet.
While writing Squeeze, Ashworth dug deeper into how her Zainichi ancestors—Koreans living in Japan, sometimes as a result of forced relocation—have been mistreated and marginalized. The anger she felt dovetailed with her learning about how the Japanese y?kai folk spirit nure-onna—part snake, part woman—spares good people and annihilates bad ones. On “Skin a Rat,” Ashworth’s ire is similarly specific and targeted: As Megadeth drummer Dirk Verbeuren goes absolutely off behind the kit, Ashworth and her backing vocalists—comedian Patti Harrison, who directed the video for Squeeze’s lurching metal cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Sorry Entertainer,” and Vagabon’s Laetitia Tamko—spew venom about a “hell-fucked economy.” Her target is clear—capitalism—but it’s how she describes her anger that’s the most interesting. “In a skin a rat mood / Cut ‘em / Crush ‘em with a big boot,” go the verses, which boast glorious guitars that could’ve been copied and pasted from a Korn song. Ashworth evokes violence with her lyrics, but it’s a mood, a fantasy. She never brings harm to anyone, let alone a rat.
Ashworth uses metallic harshness—sometimes courtesy of co-production from fuzz god Ty Segall—to create a safe space for sharing rage, validating it, and transmuting it into relief without physical consequences. She never mentions her family’s history or their specific marginalization, even though these details jumpstarted Squeeze’s creation, and that’s a smart choice: It’s harder to step into someone’s art and unload an infuriating personal weight when it so clearly belongs to someone else. “Need It To Work” storms by on plain-as-day language that Ashworth delivers in ways that relegate the whole story to the depths of her mind: “Like me? Do you like me? Do you notice me?” she asks in a sneering but playful tone. She sounds like she’s frantically walking in circles around her room, preparing to say something but not yet finding the bravery to get it out. “I need it to work,” she sings repeatedly atop the chorus’ devilish guitars, and as her lyrics fall out of time with both these guitars and the compressed kick-drum shuffle, the uneasiness amplifies the stakes. It’s music for trying to manifest the demise of even the most fearsome obstacle.
On “Say It,” the most overtly metal-indebted track of the bunch, thanks in part to co-production from Segall and Pascal Stevenson of post-punk band Moaning, liberation from one’s anger and romantic stresses go hand in hand. “Don’t want to agonize, just say it,” Ashworth sings, begging for her love interest to tell her how they truly feel; just their words could quell her rage. Yet other lyrics suggest that this honesty could be as violent as the very absence of the love that’s getting on her nerves. “Why don’t you rip it off?” asks a low-register, heavily pitch-shifted voice that sounds disembodied, almost like an intrusive thought, atop ripping low-E riffage. For Ashworth, “Say It” suggests, the mere notion of a paramour thinking ill of her can be as enraging and painful as claws in her skin.
Violence pervades even Squeeze’s less hammer-over-the-head moments. “The Greatest” is an overdriven yet gauzy power ballad about a deeply uneven love, with images of loaded guns against throats and Ashworth callously abandoned beside the highway. On “Call Me Home,” which King Tuff’s Kyle Thomas co-wrote and Ashworth produced, acoustic guitar strums and oversized, reverberant kick drums mesh with synths that sound like a chorus crying out from behind a wall, and the combined effect is equally haunting and gorgeous. It’s just the right vibe for the domestic yet tense scenes Ashworth paints—“Get a real job, and a fake smile” distills the exhaustion of making ends meet into just eight words—so when images of strangled necks and burnt eyes join the fray, they stick out like sore thumbs.
Squeeze’s less metallic songs aren’t quite as shocking and righteous as the headbangers. Though “Tried to Understand” is a catchy folk-pop singalong and “Make It Right” is a fun, bluesy romper, they lack the vigor and fury that make Squeeze an urn for the ashes of one’s rage: How can you pour your ire into a song if it lacks anger of its own? Squeeze excels when it provides the perfect soundtrack for punching a hole in the wall, or at least fantasizing about it.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes he just sits. Oh, and sometimes he critiques, too. Follow him on Twitter and find his writing at Pitchfork, The A.V. Club, MTV News, FLOOD, The Creative Independent and, of course, here at Paste.