[20 November 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Moving from a trio to a duo before the release of their last album, Location Location, seems to have been a freeing experience for Ahleuchatistas’ Shane Perlowin and Ryan Oslance. That album was their most expansive yet, a natural build on the tight squalls of their earlier records. Things became less about breakneck shifts, less about surgically sharp guitar riffs, and more about, as the title implies, both meaningful space and propulsion, getting somewhere.
Heads Full of Poison continues the band’s ever-swelling sonic heft. More than ever, the focus here is on texture, a very careful layering of sounds that bolsters the immediacy of their playing. There’s some overdubbing of guitars here, but the basic tracks – especially Oslance’s masterful, labyrinthine drumming takes – were recorded live. The result is an album with a lot of secrets to reveal over repeated listens, but that intricacy doesn’t dull the initial shock of these sounds, the striking power of these compositions. Ahleuchatistas were already one of the best instrumental bands working, and they may have hit a new high-water mark on their new album.
The title track tells us quite a bit about the album as a whole. Following edgy, Asian-influenced opener “Vanished” and shadowy mood piece “Future Trauma”, “Heads Full of Poison” burns for more than 16 minutes. It’s a song that recalls the strengths we already know about the band. Perlowin hits us with some intricate, palm-muted riffage that rises and falls over the negative space of the track’s start. Oslance’s tom work helps Perlowin stomp forward but also cast a longer shadow. It’s also a song that shows the ways in which the band has grown. There are straight-up chord runs in the middle of the song, more rock and roll than the metal or punk we sometimes associate with these guys, that interplay with more snarling hooks. From there, we get start-and-stop angles that approximate some kind of desiccated funk music, which devolves into swirling atmosphere. As it falls into silence, the song reinvents itself with a few brittle notes as a dusty yet blistering throwdown. The band doesn’t get particularly distorted, or even loud, but the sheer inertia the song builds is arresting. From that lean speed, they spread out and the song finally takes on the size it has been building to. It’s got the propulsion, the impressive space, and the layers of guitar all working at the same time.
It’s the brashest statement here, to be sure, but it also anchors the record, echoing out to mirror the more soft, pastoral roll of “Requiem to the Sea” as well as the tense build of “A Trap Has Been Set”. By the time we hit “Starved March”, the album’s closer, we’re down to gauzy guitar ringing and negative space, back to the foundation behind all the jittering sounds of the record. The ties between songs are tenuous, even ethereal, but as they announce themselves over multiple listens, the overall effect of Heads Full of Poison becomes clear and undeniable. This was a band once built on the punishing riff, the clattering howl of punk mixed with the unpredictable vamping of jazz. The new album makes clear, though, that things have changed, and yet the power of Ahleuchatistas’ sound still grows.
Despite its looser structures, its overall straight-ahead feel and use of cleaner hooks and chords make this seem, in its own unique way, like the band’s most rock-oriented album yet. It’s also a logical continuation of the politics of sound they present in their work. Theirs is a sound of defiance, of pushing back against power structures, against elements of control, against the status quo. The constant yet slow expansion of their sound is a hopeful move, a mirror of a (again hopefully) growing consciousness, that people are starting to see the need for change, change of all kinds, and this bolstering sound, this expansive sonic palate, represents the growing strength of a breadth of voices speaking out. Maybe we are the heads full of poison, tired of being fed it, concocting our own cure with words, with sound, with communal movements. Or maybe those in power are the poisoned ones, and they’ve been exposed to too much, they’re weakened, ready to fall, and we can lean on them with fresh ideas, with connection rather than division. One way or another, this is the sound of a change, one started or one coming, and Heads Full of Poison is the kind of record that will push you into action, even just the action of listening. Because there’s lots to hear on this record, lots to sift through. Seven albums in, and Ahleuchatistas are still challenging us in ways that are surprisingly new and unsurprisingly beautiful.