In some ways, 2009 has felt like 1989 all over again. One reason has been the welcome rediscovery of some of the best and noisiest music of that period: the UK bands that took their cue from the Jesus and Mary Chain's epochal Psychocandy album four years before, and made a point of playing at extreme volume, fusing feedback and noise with three-chord minimalism, and cutting the narcotic haze of psychedelia with a harsh, discordant approach more suitable for soundtracking Thatcher's Britain. This year, My Bloody Valentine once more returned to the live stage, more ferocious than ever, and both Loop and Spacemen 3 had their back catalogues polished up and re-released. Even Head of David got back together for Supersonic, while many of this year's most feted new records are openly in debt to these bands and their less celebrated, but no less worthy, kin.
Which brings us to A Place To Bury Strangers, an American three-piece with late-80s English scuzz-rock flowing through their veins, and their inevitably feedback-frazzled second long-player. Although really it's the first proper album by the self-styled "New York's loudest band," as their eponymous debut, released on Rocket Girl last year, was a disparate collection of fifteen tracks recorded over a period of five years. Exploding Head sees the boys join a grown-up record label (Mute), with a concomitant increase in production values, and ten songs put down in one location, in a matter of weeks. If those first fifteen songs saw the New York trio obviously in thrall to Psychocandy, Isn't Anything and- to a lesser extent- the Sisters of Mercy circa the 'Reptile House' EP, then Exploding Head is their first true statement of intent, and a chance to show us what they can do with those influences.
Well, the basic reference points haven't changed, but Exploding Head scores points over its predecessor for better dynamics, greater clarity, stronger songwriting and more use of light and shade. Some may mourn the lo-fi caveman racket of before, and on first listen I too was disappointed by this album's relative subtlety, but really Exploding Head does everything the debut did, only better. Just like their role models, they still make a fetish of volume: check out opening track, 'It Is Nothing,' surely another way of saying 'Isn't Anything,' and it's My Bloody Valentine by any other name: a propulsive psychedelic wash of queasily ascending noise, backwards guitar rush and relentlessly pounding drums, vocals decidedly just another instrument in the mix.
There's good reason, it turns out, for that last quality: when singer-guitarist Oliver Ackerman's voice does come to the fore, as on 'In Your Heart' (lifted as a single), it's something of a wet blanket, neither tuneful nor particularly distinctive, and the lyrics when they can be heard seem forgettably banal. But beneath the clanging harmonics and feedback, the mechanical drumming and rapidly-blinking hi-hats, there's a catchy pop song here, albeit one that's decidedly doom-laden and lovelorn.
Indeed, A Place To Bury Strangers have given their inner goth far greater rein on Exploding Head. The hammering two-chord mantra of 'Lost Feeling' recalls Pornography-era Cure, while the ringing, galloping guitars on 'Keep Slipping Away' can't help but evoke classic early Sisters of Mercy, descending as they do over a locked down bass/drum groove. 'Ego Death' crawls out from between the Sisters' 'Afterhours' and the Mary Chain's 'Sidewalking,' but most striking of all is the title track, which references the Cure again, but this time the spare gothic pop of Seventeen Seconds or Faith: one-note bass, flanged guitar, a heavily-gated snare drum rhythm and slivers of noise exploding in the darkness like flares over the Mekong Delta, but with a strong, mournful melody snaking through.
And that's the other thing: like the Mary Chain and MBV, A Place To Bury Strangers have simple, straightforward pop melodies buried deep in their burnished black hearts. 'Smile When You Smile' is a blurred bubblegum tune buffeted by explosions of backwards feedback and pummelled by ceaseless numbskull beats, while beneath the death disco dub destruction, 'Everything Always Goes Wrong' rama-lamas along like the zombie Ramones.
But ultimately, for all its familiarity and formula, Exploding Head just sounds great. Cranked up, you'll hear no more thrilling record this year, and it sits neatly as a more visceral, vicious companion to the Horrors' Primary Colours, which mines many of the same influences. And taken as a showreel for Ackerman's customised guitar pedal business- as Death by Audio, his clients include U2 and, yes, My Bloody Valentine- the album is undeniably impressive. I want what he's got.
It ends with 'I Live My Life To Stand In The Shadow of Your Heart.' It sounds as though the drummer is playing too fast, pulling this naïve pop song stumbling after him through guitar razor wire and buzzing chainsaws, yet still the song somehow survives with innocence intact. Or for at least two and a half minutes anyhow, at which point it's fed directly into some evil Kafka-esque Penal Colony mincing machine. The tune disappears: the bass rumbles like a conveyor belt as glistening needles jab down. And then, finally, the band unleash their full feedback fury, the sonic ragnarok they've been holding back until now. And the song is unequivocally atomised, pulverised till all that remains is an eruption of the most gloriously monstrous bass distortion, literally shredding your speakers back to the Stone Age. And then- the song is gone. The CD is over. And your stereo is in little pieces all over the floor.
1 It Is Nothing 2 In Your Heart 3 Lost Feeling 4 Deadbeat 5 Keep Slipping Away 6 Ego Death 7 Smile When You Smile 8 Everything Always Goes Wrong 9 Exploding Head 10 I Live My Life to Stand in the Shadow of Your Heart
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