One of the more interesting aspects of the “digital music revolution” (maybe you’ve heard of it) has been the consistent brand loyalty to independent record labels expressed by most listeners, all while their major label brethren have been increasingly consigned to meaninglessness. Merge and Sub Pop, for example, remain hallowed indie powerhouses. Even smaller companies like DFA and Jagjaguwar bring attention to new albums solely through the virtue of label reputation. Along those lines, any release by venerable electronica standby Warp Records will generate plenty of excitement among longtime fans and casual followers alike.
The latest record fortunate enough to hold the Warp insignia on its sleeve comes from Australian genre-defiers PVT. The experimental electronic-rock act has been around for about a decade, originally making waves as Pivot. Their new album, Church With No Magic, shows PVT changing their sound in enough ways to warrant the slight touch-up of their name. Previously focused on moody instrumentals, the band is injecting energy into their work through stronger electronic-based compositions and Richard Pike’s shapeshifting vocals.
“Community”, the brief opening track, offers a sense of continuity from PVT’s previous work: a meaty synthesizer fades in and out above ghostly vocals, creating an atmosphere both dark and contemplative. However, PVT’s new direction makes itself quickly known after that song wraps up. “Light Up Bright Fires” shakes the haze off with aggressive breakbeats from live drums, joined by a bass synth line that snakes so low to the ground you’d almost have to dig to grab hold of it. Richard Pike asserts himself powerfully, his voice gliding from affected tenor to clipped falsetto, following the beat and pulse of the song masterfully. His performance here is a perfect example of how he brings new drama to PVT’s songs, enlivening them with a force never overly showy or domineering.
The album’s title track follows the pattern of “Light Up Bright Fires”, with a syncopated rhythm and synthesizers simultaneously maxing out the low end and sprinkling the song with chiming keys that lift it to lofty heights. Again, Pike proves to be the song’s masterstroke, this time bringing an Elvis-tinged swagger to a more throaty delivery. “I sold myself out / In a heartbeat”, he sings, his voice menacing and seductive in the same notes. It’s a formula and register that bring to mind Dan Boeckner, another singer able to bring a pitch-perfect confidence to his blending of rock and electronic elements in Handsome Furs. Indeed, Pike changes his approach each time a listener thinks he or she has pinned him down. He bellows into Ian Curtis territory on the fantastically woozy “Crimson Swan”, which also shares Joy Division’s affinity for combining melody and dissonance in ways successful enough to seem natural.
“Window” starts to make sense as a first single, its intricate sampling rolling at a driving pace that underscores the urgency of Pike’s stadium-ready delivery. He sings, “I won’t slip, / I won’t fall, / I won’t change, / No, I won’t slip…” in the beginnings of a perfect pop circle, a looping chorus that would’ve been taken from the best of radio-ready playbooks. Just when he’s gotten everyone to their feet, ready to jump in unison, he and the band suddenly slow the tempo to zero before finishing the song at a stuttering clip, purposefully never regaining the momentum of the song’s early promise. It’s a massively frustrating moment, but it works on a purely intellectual level. By this time, we believe enough in the band to go along with the joke.
Fortunately enough, “The Quick Mile’s” skittering hi-hat and soaring “oh-ah” harmonies are more than enough to make up for the popping of “Window’s” balloon. Church With No Magic’s final tracks are heavy on mood, and all successful in their own right. Closer “Only the Wind Can Hear You” has Pike singing his throat out, surrounding by bursts of noise and a buoyant synth melody. It’s a song that gets more stunning with each listen as it unfolds and unfolds. PVT more than carries the Warp Records torch, matching the label for restless reinvention and invigorating energy. Consider Church With No Magic, like Warp itself, a mix of high art and pop songcraft, music that will make you nod your head both to the beat and to a sense of real intrigue and admiration.