A Place to Bury Strangers
A Place to Bury Strangers
[Killer Pimp; 2007]
Never underestimate the power of the perfect guitar effects unit. The Jesus and Mary Chain's landmark Psychocandy would have sounded vastly less godlike without its use of a discontinued (and allegedly broken) Japanese fuzz pedal. Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis dredged his mythic decibel levels from road-worn Marshall amps, but his stoner racket wouldn't have been the same if he hadn't funneled it through the grinding fury of a Big Muff. In the right hands, one little black box can mean the difference between pummeling and decimating.
Few people understand this better than Oliver Ackermann, frontman for thunderous Brooklyn three-piece A Place to Bury Strangers: Under his catch-all company name Death by Audio (it's also a music venue, recording studio, and collective), he custom-builds and designs his own hand-wired pedals, which are used by everyone from Lightning Bolt and Serena Maneesh to Wilco, Spoon, and TV on the Radio. Not coincidentally, anyone looking for a quick description of his own band can look to the names he gives these things: Interstellar Overdriver, Supersonic Fuzz Gun, Total Sonic Annihilation.
With a bandname that's linked to both the Gospel of Matthew and the writings of British occultist Aleister Crowley, A Place to Bury Strangers represents something of a second coming for Ackermann. He was previously a member of defunct Fredericksburg, Va., dream-pop revivalists Skywave, whose records were all but baptized in the drones of (don't jump out of your checkered Vans!) the JAMC and My Bloody Valentine. After their breakup, Skywave's remaining members formed the like-minded two-piece Ceremony, and Ackermann moved to New York where he hooked up with drummer Jay Space and bassist Jono Mofo, turned up the volume, and began masterminding the wrecking-crew colossus that would become this album.
Compiling mastered versions of the band's early CD-Rs and mp3s, A Place to Bury Strangers' self-titled debut LP sets tinnitus-inducing noise-pop against a tension-wracked Joy Division-meets-Ministry backdrop. Plenty of bands have tapped the trebly, ecstatic side of shoegaze in recent years, but none have imbued it with this band's frustrated aggression or lacerating feedback.
What hits first is the reverberating distortion: The brutal textures announce themselves in pangs of blown-out guitar, crunching against the propulsive bassline and distant, static-soaked drums of opening track "Missing You". Thirty seconds in, the tempest recedes, revealing the song's love-wasted verses and murky, chiming guitars (think the Chills' "Pink Frost" and you're close), only to sneak up again for a shattered, metal-twisting chorus. The group's versatile squall can crumble majestically, as on the slow-motion starfighter explosions of "The Falling Sun", or growl like a wounded mountain lion, as during the pitch-shifting tumult of "My Weakness". And on "To Fix the Gash in Your Head", it even evokes the late-80s peak of Wax Trax! industrial bands, fleshed out by treble-heavy synth, buzzsaw guitars, and primitive, pre-programmed drum loops.
For a dude creating such awesome bedlam, Ackermann's uneven monotone comes off Ian Curtis-bummed. The hammering, Factory Records-esque beats and blistering effects-pedal descent of "She Dies" take place on a "white-letter day" ("There's nothing for me now," Ackermann wearily intones). Finale "Ocean" barely glimpses its bassline's steady shore through waves of resigned heartbreak. But the epic atmospheres are rarely as dense as I might be letting on. What matters most is the substance behind the style, and here, even morose falling-out songs like "Another Step Away" are saturated with slender indie-pop melody, notwithstanding the occasional weak lyric about how there's "no photograph that can capture who you are" (totally rhymes with "shooting star").
A Place to Bury Strangers can pull beauty out of eardrum-puncturing bleakness, but the most tuneful offering here, "Don't Think Lover", is gentle and romantic-- when not exploding at the seams. "Don't think lover/ Love lasts forever," Ackermann sings, and it's never quite clear whether the sentiment is optimistic or misanthropic. The stalking "I Know I'll See You" seems to play off the know-my-love-too-well urgency of the Smiths' "Hand in Glove", with Ackermann even warning, "Don't take my hand/ 'Cause I'll take it away." Like the Italians Do It Better label's similarly moody After Dark compilation, A Place to Bury Strangers may not be easy for would-be record buyers to find-- it's currently limited to 500 copies and put out by, um, Killer Pimp Records-- but it's worth every effort.
-Marc Hogan, August 31, 2007