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A Place to Bury Strangers - Exploding Head

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Artist: A Place to Bury Strangers

Album: Exploding Head

Label: Mute

Review date: Sep. 29, 2009

A Place to Bury Strangers - "In Your Heart" (Exploding Head)

Browsing around the categories at an online music store, I noticed that The Pains of Being Pure of Heart had been classified as Brit Pop. Not sure if that cheeky move was a decision of the store or the New York-based band themselves. They’re as wet as anorak indie comes, even if they grew up calling their anoraks “raincoats.” Still, they get the C86 feel down. And while that compilation has become synonymous with cutesy jangle, more than a few of the bands from the tape (and from the era) got louder after 1986. A Place to Bury Strangers could fake Britishness, too. They’re like the shoegaze counterpart to the not-actually-Scots-pop of Pains. These New Yorker’s have discerned a parallel set of rules, evoking a slightly different set of late ’80s Melody Maker cover stars.

They like their Jesus & Mary Chain and they like their My Bloody Valentine. They like very specifically the period after those bands shook off their “April Skies” and “Strawberry Wine” shimmers and concentrated on cramming as much noise into songs as they’d hold. Too much noise and the clamor becomes indistinct. Unlike American noiseters, JAMC wasn’t seeking avant-cred or atmospherics. Like the Mary Chain, A Place to Bury Strangers make well-worn changes jolt with unexpected spurts of chaos, even if you know how the melody will resolve.

In a sense, lead stranger-burier Oliver Ackermann has a harder job than the Reid Brothers. Most of the gaps that could hold a surprise have been plugged. The “musicians wanted” sections have been chock full of MBV/JAMC wannabes for years. Walk into a club as the doors open, and if a guitarist in the opening act is stringing together more than three effects pedals, it’s likely the band is going to play these games. A barrage of effects doesn’t make for compelling sound automatically, though. A new guitar tone every few bars can be as wearing as noodling for dexterity’s sake.

Exploding Head doesn’t fall into that trap, even as the tone does change every few bars. Unlike their debut album, it manages to showcase new palettes of colors on each track. “Everything Always Goes Wrong” manages to jerk back and forth between sputtering-engines and soaring leads, yanked not only by guitars, but drum work that could be a Roland programmed by chimps. Sheets-of-rain feedback pass through “It Is Nothing,” yet fail to wake the sleepy singing. Dams fill up with sound, and there’s suspense – will the water trickle over the top or will it burst? They harness squealing and roar well enough that when I go back to a track like “(When You Wake) You’re Still in a Dream,” I hear more precision than I did before.

But while I can appreciate this band, there’s very little excitement. They hew so close to a specific style that at times, it’s more tribute than continuation. I mean, “It Is Nothing” is just a few letters off from a My Bloody Valentine album title. And their misanthropy is all too closely modeled on the Reid’s (all the heads and holes and hearts), and even the JAMC seemed to be a bit of a put-on at times.

The sound they’re drawing from has a very small trophy room. There are only a few great records. It really does take some serious talent to build satisfying songs with chains of distortion and modulation. If it’s not exactly musicianship in the way of string-tapping guitar solos, the cases of artists who transcend the gimmick are rare. (Just like with string-tapping guitar solos.) What A Place to Bury Strangers creates is satisfying, nothing more.

It’s the Sex Pistols-never-heard-no-punk-rock problem. When players get too enamored with the origins of a genre, they can capture the style perfectly without any feel for the context that lead to its creation. Shoegaze was the Anglo half of a dialogue going on between UK and American bands. Kevin Shields was observing the new tones created by Sonic Youth, and trying to outdo them. Sonic Youth were drawn towards more traditional pop structures once they heard how artfully noise twisted them. It set off an escalating axe-race to make amplified slur more than simply assaultive. They were making it sexy.

The earliest phase of My Bloody Valentine was (so the legend goes) a sort of trash rock. Garage twang shows up on Exploding Head with “Deadbeat.” But I don’t get the sense that Oliver Ackermann loves the Cramps the way his heroes do. A band like the Hunches may have more misfires, but Exit Dreams does an even better job sidewalking in Frye boots. By applying over-the-top muli-tracking switcheroos, and taking their lyrical cues from Lou Reed instead of Jim Reid, the Hunches ended up with something harsher and prettier. It’s just as referential, but not reverential. Also, they give off the bad vibes of genuinely nasty people. If you want your pandemonium to echo through the cathedral, don’t be a disciple. Be a heathen.

By Ben Donnelly

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