Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Album: A Place to Bury Strangers - Exploding Head

Exploding Head (A Place to Bury Strangers)
Album: Exploding Head
Mute, 2009
Rating: ******** (8/10)

There are no big surprises on the new album from A Place to Bury Strangers, out today on Mute Records. As always, the band is still something of a one-trick pony. The good news is that that one trick is so very awesome and original that it's far from played out - there are still lots more avenues to be explored, and more importantly, lots more eardrums to be shattered.

APTBS's trick comes, of course, from guitarist Oliver Ackermann's custom Death By Audio pedals. These create a mountain of fuzz, feedback and noise. Static covers the music like a thick layer of snow, while deep rumblings fill in every gap and piercing overtones punctuate songs. It's like My Bloody Valentine or the Jesus and Mary Chain on steroids.

For this reason, APTBS has always been more of a live band to me than one I listen to on record - it's all about volume, about overwhelming the senses and being swallowed whole by the noise. The record isn't the same experience. But then again, Loveless pales in comparison to My Bloody Valentine's live show and it's still one of the greatest records of all time. It's more fair to compare an album to other albums than to compare it to a concert.

Exploding Head starts off strong with the MBV-esque "It Is Nothing," a high-speed pitch-bender with simple but intriguing vocals and extremely tight distortion throughout. The song jumps into the sonic fray with both feet, as melodic overtones add phantom guitars and an deep foundation keeps the listener from ever finding the bottom.

There are a few sequencing problems on the album. Most notably, "Lost Feeling," with its weird Sonic Youth-like steps out of the key signature, is a great addition to the album, but is far too long, repetitive and unmelodious to sit up at track three. Later in the album, the silent beginnings of "Ego Death" break the album's spell and disrupt its flow. It would have been better to fill this space with more audible noise to keep the listener engaged instead of making them stop their concentration to check their speakers.

"Keep Slipping Away" is the album's standout centerpiece. It's well composed, with another simple but irresistible melody and a great sense of structure, driven home by half-tempos, drop-outs, breaks and the perfectly placed bridge. With a dancey, electronic beat and an anxious, repeating lead guitar, it recalls 80's synth music like Depeche Mode, but adds APTBS's characteristic NOISE. "Smile When You Smile" is a more typical APTBS track, but keeps things moving with hammering drums, a short bassy solo and an unforgettable melody. The decision to roll back the noise from time to time sends the tense, disturbed song hurdling forward.

The album goes out strong too, with the gothy, ringing reverb title track, followed by the intense "I Lived My Life to Stand in the Shadow of Your Heart." This closing song is writ large, with an expansive, open melody and a thick, distorted pulse in the bass. Feedback screams over it all until the song descends into its own static until it's only a hint of sound under the roar of white noise.

There isn't a bad track on Exploding Head. It's a solid, accomplished album with no filler and few missteps. It isn't groundbreaking for the band, it's just a further honing of what they've been doing for years. And what they've been doing for years is being more loud, more ominous and more awesome than anyone else around. Fuck yes.


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