Stating the obvious for a moment: Pop. 1280 aren’t really subtle about their influences. Nor are they averse to being up-front with the moods that they’re looking to create. They take their name from a Jim Thompson novel about a deranged lawman in the Jim Crow-era South; they play songs titled “Bodies in the Dunes” and “Burn the Worm” with a frenetic intensity. And that’s not even touching on the fact that The Horror, their latest album and first full-length, features a song referencing Westworld, the early-1970s film about robotic gunslingers running amok. All of which is to say that the sound heard here is poised somewhere between post-punk and industrial music proper. Remember Pailhead, the late-’80s project where Ian MacKaye collaborated with the folks from Ministry? Five dollars says that Pop. 1280 does.
Which is not a bad thing at all, really. The Horror finds them moving out of the noisier territory of their earlier work and into something a little more refined -- though “refined” here is a relative term. The beats here are relentless, and there’s an emphasis on repetition from the outset. Opener “Burn the Worm” features the titular phrase shouted again and again; there’s a sense of mystery that emerges, and more than a little menace. Later, on “Nature Boy,” Chris Bug sings, “Hips to the right and hips to the left,” and what could be banal dancing instructions sound like the dispatches of a cult leader in some final stage of megalomania.
The Horror makes for a largely relentless, immersive listening experience. Sometimes, that relentlessness has a downside; it isn’t always clear if the group’s sense of menace comes from a genuine channeling of anxiety, or more of a reference to menace in the abstract. (In other words, whether they’re being scary or “scary.”) There’s some skirting of archetypes here, with titles like “Hang Em High” and “Beg Like a Human” evoking sinister pulp-fiction fates. Even so, the slower melody of the former, which seems to disintegrate even as it’s played, makes for a more chilling experience than the furious drumbeats that run throughout The Horror.
The members of Pop. 1280 have both the musical chops to play this genre-tweaking style and the thematic reach to add knowing references to it. Like the protagonist of Thompson’s novel, who eventually becomes convinced of his own divinity, they push long and hard enough at fictional archetypes to arrive at unexpected, disarming places. Most importantly, they remember that much of what made punk — and industrial, for that matter — so searing was unpredictability.