A Place To Bury Strangers has always been an exercise in pain to my ears. The New York post-punk/noise rock band deal in angst and sonic annihilation and have since their beginning. From their debut self-titled in 2007 to now I’ve attempted to find an in with them, but each time would end up in frustration and mild tinnitus. With their last album, 2015s Transfixiation I had found a crack in their wall of noise and found myself finally lost in their guitar/bass/drums pummeling. I liked it. I liked it a lot.
I started working my way back through Worship, Exploding Head, and their debut and came at their songs like an alien walking through the Guggenheim. I began taking their methods and structures apart in order to understand them. The sonic assaults felt more like meticulously-painted canvases that were meant to be consumed as a visceral experience, not necessarily an intellectual one. You can’t intellectualize a mountain or an earthquake any easier than you can intellectualize Throbbing Gristle or Suicide. Once you begin thinking about it too hard something gets lost in the translation. Oliver Ackermann and Dion Lunadon are sonic painters in the world of gothic post-punk. It’s dark, mysterious, and exists in sweaty nights where shimmering oceans of watery blackness pool along sidewalks. Black leather jackets, buzzing neon signs, and questionable decisions that lead to even more questionable decisions. Pain from pleasure, and pleasure from pain.
With their newest album, Pinned, APTBS have added drummer and singer Lia Simone Braswell to the mix. What Braswell brings to the mix is some light to the darkened room where all the scary sounds emanate from. Don’t think for a second this record is some sort of pop breakthrough. It’s not. It’s just as pained and chaotic as anything they’ve done before. There’s just a smattering of beauty on the chaotic canvas this time around.
As much as you’d like to think that the first thing you notice with A Place To Bury Strangers is the guitar assault, it’s rather Dion Lunadon’s bass. It’s what brings you into Ackermann’s fiery feedback squelches. “Never Coming Back” opens with a driving bass line that brings to mind Joy Division, the kings of gothic post-punk sadsacks(Peter Hook should be knighted by now.) The song swells with Ackermann and Braswell’s vocals before the apocalyptic guitar explodes. It builds into a cavernous end, then “Execution” rolls in. It’s a glitchy affair that feels like a hybrid of early Cure being run through Remain In Light-era Adrian Belew. “There’s Only One Of Us” almost sounds like Morphine in the beginning, before the chorus comes rolling in and the boy/girl vocals add an almost playful vibe(playful for APTBS.)
Elsewhere “Too Tough To Kill” sounds like Jesus and Mary Chain being pulverized in a sonic meat grinder while “Frustrated Operator” has an almost upbeat New Order sound with the driving drum beat. Of course Ackermann adds some Kevin Shields wall-0f-sound guitar for good measure. “I Know I’ve Done Bad Things” is minimal perfection. It’s like The xx being regenerated through a waterlogged Tandy 1000. “Keep Moving On” closes the record on an Wax Trax vibe, all techno drive despite itself.
Pinned isn’t veering very far from the inner ear destruction that came before it, but with the addition of Lia Simone Braswell the formula has been improved. There’s a little more groove and a much-needed feminine touch to A Place To Bury Strangers’ full-frontal noise assault.
7.8 out of 10
Okay, I must admit that prior to Slowdive’s brand new self-titled album I hadn’t really delved into their music. Yes, I know it’s a travesty and I’m making amends right now by falling completely head over heals for them. I didn’t partake in the shoegaze punch in my younger years(with the exception of Lush’ Spooky back in high school which I adored.) I was a metal guy with Rush and Joe Satriani tendencies and once saw a kid get thrown over the stairs in 11th grade for walking around with a Chapterhouse cassette. I knew I didn’t want that to happen to me so I stayed away from the hazier, dreamier aspects of alternative music. But a funny thing happened on the way to 40 years old, I started listening to those dreamy British bands of the late 80s and early 90s. I loved the worlds they created with guitars and guitar pedals. Sure, there was some synthesizers here and there, but mostly the use of swirling guitar noise and ethereal vocals created walls of beautiful, impenetrable noise that I couldn’t get enough of. I’d listened to Slowdive’s Souvlaki on a whim once and liked it but never returned to it. It felt like there was an equal shot of ambient and dream pop tones as there was the shoegaze “haze” sound.
Well here we are in 2017 and I’m sitting here listening to Slowdive, the band’s first new album in 22 years. It’s a stunning piece of work that works its way into your psyche and you gladly let it sit there in your brain. It’s just an absolute beauty of a record.
“Slomo” opens the record on an ethereal note. The song washes over you like the Atlantic at high tide. The vocals of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell act more as another dreamy layer of sound than a lead instrument. Like a conversation in a dream that you can’t quite recall once you wake up. Musically this track is dense and feels all-encompassing as the song fills your head. It’s exquisite. “Star Roving” sounds like that first DNA strand that begat future generations of kids staring at their Chuck Taylors as guitar pedals are engaged. Driving rhythm, spacial guitar riffing, and vocal melodies piercing through the vast sound. This is the song I want to hear when I take that first trip into space with Richard Branson, or Starlord. Whichever opportunity comes first. “Don’t Know Why” lingers in Cocteau Twins territory, which in my book is a great thing. “Sugar For The Pill” is the point where the album comes into delicate focus. The swirls of noise and haze dissipate and allow Slowdive to hone in on the magic. It’s not without moments of dreamy reflection, but here the band lay it all on the line.
Elsewhere, “Everyone Knows” sounds like a view of the world from atop the international space station with a touch of Doves Lost Souls thrown in for good measure. “Go Get It” sounds like Neil Young and Crazy Horse in space with echoes of Tears For Fears sprinkled throughout. That may sound weird but it’s really quite brilliant, trust me. The album closes on the beautifully epic “Falling Ashes”. The piano refrain puts me in mind of the piano in Radiohead’s “Daydreaming”, but slower and slightly more methodical. It slowly builds to Halstead singing “Boy, I’m the man/You’re the ghost in this town/Could this be it/Your final words, your own“. The music lopes and loops onto itself in an almost meditative state. It’s a beautiful way to end 22 years of quiet.
Slowdive is one of those rare instances when a band has two decades of radio silence then reappears just as good, if not better, than they were in their heyday. Slowdive not only capture the dream-like beauty of their early records but engage that sound with a healthy dose of age and wisdom. The result is one of the best albums of the year.
8.7 out of 10
Mark McGuire’s Beyond Belief is a behemoth of an album. It’s an epic double LP, nearly 80 minutes of expansive tracks that feel like the soundtrack to some existential, futuristic film. Though it’s largely an electronic instrumental album, Beyond Belief doesn’t fall into the usual electronic music category. While most synth-filled albums of late tend to keep things dark and brooding, McGuire opens the blinds and lets swaths of light into the proceedings. Think Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, and Causa Sui sharing some absinthe and some smoke. It’s this amazing mix of bright scenes with foreboding clouds in the distance. The result is a fantastic mix of post-rock, electronica, and prog that is stunning from start to finish.
“The Naacals” opens up peacefully with piano. Very svelte and calm. Tasteful guitar interplays with programmed drums and synth strings as the song builds to a triumphant crescendo. “The Past Presents The Future” is the dawn of some new beginning. A mix of Alan Parsons Project and Harmonia, this excellent track lets things get a bit darker with ominous synth growls enveloping you from both sides. McGuire knows how to layer a track to give it the feeling of propulsion. You can almost see the scenery flying by you as you listen to this track’s 15 minute run time unfold. “Sons of the Serpent” is this triumphant piece with soaring guitars and drums that sound like they were programmed on an Alesis SR-16. One of the few tracks with vocals, they work well to keep the cinematic feel going nicely. There’s a real 80s vibe to this song that begs for repeated listens.
I don’t know for certain if Beyond Belief is a concept album or not, but with “Earth: 2015” you really get the feeling there’s a story here. Kinetic programmed drums ping pong back and forth as tension builds with synthesizers creating a whirlwind of noise and chaos. There’s both a feeling of mining some sort of vintage musical well, while creating this aural neo-futuristic noir. These are songs you get lost in. “The Undying Stars” feels like clubbing on some distant planet or universe. More playful and less ominous, this song feels like a palate cleanser of sorts. “Locked In Our Sky Language(For Cyan)” is the longest track on the album at over 16 minutes and uses every bit of its run time wisely. Creating an ebb and flow with a nod to Krautrock’s repetition game, it builds onto itself beautifully. It feels like the great score work of Tangerine Dream, as well as McGuire’s contemporary Sinoia Caves. “Beyond” is another great vocal song, and it almost comes across as a pop track, which is then followed by the acoustic guitar track “True Love(Song For Rachel)”. “Belief” closes out the record, feeling like a summation of the record as a whole. Guitar, vocals, piano, synths, and repetition work to build this song into an amazing and epic coda.
At some points throughout this album I suppose you could call the music ambient. I think that term gets a bad rap, actually. Mark McGuire’s version of ambient is more of the cinematic variety. From the song titles to the album art to the massive scope within these tracks it feels like Beyond Belief is this free floating space opera. It tells a tale through music, emotion, and its ability to take you out of your own head and place you in the album’s own world. It’s a stunning piece of work. It truly is beyond belief.
8.7 out of 10
Transfixiation is the best album A Place To Bury Strangers have made. That’s not to say anything that came before it wasn’t worthy of hurting our ears. But this time around Oliver Ackermann has given the already harsh, dark sound he creates something it really needed: a groove. It’s not all about the numbing squall of a hundred different effects pedals(though there’s still plenty of that), but there’s equal time for the drum and bass duo of Robi Gonzalez and Dion Lunadon to beef up the tracks with some heavy rhythm and backbone.
But there’s still plenty of numbing squall. In droves.
APTBS has a wooziness to their music that is both intoxicating and overwhelming. Usually after about three songs on any one of their records and you start to get the feeling everything is just about to explode. Ackermann is all about sensory overload and he does it like a champ. On Transfixiation, however, he’s honed the aural insanity in and creates direct hits with each song. “Supermaster” and its intensity is in its holding back. Drums and bass carry the song with whisps of guitar noise coming in and out as Ackermann’s subtle singing says “What have I become/What is it that I have done”. It’s a pretty stellar way to open the record. Then “Straight” blows out of the speakers like a bull on fire with some killer drums and bass. Ackermann has the swagger of Mark Sandman in his vocals, which adds to the New York cool of this track. “Love High” sounds like My Bloody Valentine had a love child with The Jesus and Mary Chain. A perfect blend of shoegaze dreaminess and post-punk jaggedness. “What We Don’t See” is nearly hallucinogenic till the drums kick in and then the song almost sounds like a Modern English track run through a tremolo pedal and a blown out speaker cabinet. Then we get to the ominous “Deeper”. Imagine Leonard Cohen fronting Suicide in 1976 and you might have an idea what this song is about. You can almost see Travis Bickle driving around grime-covered Times Square mouthing the words “If you f%#k with me, you’re gonna burn.” This is a dirge of a track.
I’ve always heard a bit of a connection between Ackermann’s songwriting and engineering prowess and that of Trent Reznor. “Lower Zone” is that connection I think. The song is subtle, heavy on bass, and big on distant squall and squeal. It’s short and instrumental, but something I could hear Reznor pull off perfectly. Both guys are studio wizards and are masters at manipulating sound. “We’ve Come So Far” is frantic, loud, and as romantic as I’ve ever heard APTBS get. As romantic as desperation, tension, and trash-strewn city streets can get. “I’m So Clean” is an old school grinder that sounds like The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “The Living End” covered by The Stooges. It’s an impenetrable wall of noise and it’s glorious. “I Will Die” is the most overblown, in-the-red song on here. There’s almost no discerning bass from drums from guitar. It’s just a massive wall of fuzz covered in metal shavings as Ackermann screams from the center of it.
Transfixiation feels like the album where A Place To Bury Strangers have found that balance of noise, melody, restraint, and release. The addition of Robi Gonzalez on drums has put the band over the top, and given them the beating heart they needed. With just a few palpitations here and there.
8.2 out of 10