The title of Banner Pilot’s new record, Heart Beats Pacific, might imply escape, but damned if these Midwest punks don’t owe a lot to their hometown atmosphere on their new record. These guys are a throwback to the early- to mid-‘90s pop-punk—the kind of sound their label, Fat Wreck, helped cultivate—where unabashed layers of power chords and basic yet slicing riffs cut through every song, clear-cutting space for the gruff vocals, here barked out by frontman Nick Johnson. In some ways, this record is exactly what you’d expect from a pop-punk band. But if the approach is not surprising, the results are still awfully strong.
The tension in this record rises out of a clash with surroundings. “Been living under frozen sky,” Johnson says to start the record on “Alchemy”. “But we’ve all got ways that we get by,” he continues, and these are the two sides of a coin the record explores. It vacillates between the miasmic sameness of suburban towns and too-familiar cities and the small things people do to make their quotidian life work. Johnson’s lyrics use an awful lot of repetition to drive this point home. That frozen sky, and the snow it yields, is all over this record. Even when “the day is warming up” on “Forty Degrees”, he still notes the lingering drifts of snow. In fact, nearly every song here mentions snow or rain or winter or the grey expanse of the Midwest sky. Under all that weather, we get neon and streets and parking lots, over and over again.
While the repetition of imagery may seem, at first listen, to be lazy, it’s actually quite striking in its effect. Rather than constantly trying to circle the square, changing the phrasing around his imagery to keep it fresh, Johnson constantly returns to the same markers, in the same way, and all of a sudden we can feel the city tightening around us like a coil. We remember where we grew up, driving the same streets with the same people in the same cars getting into the same shit.
The songs themselves buzz-saw through all these images, trying to shake them up or obliterate them all together. “Spanish Reds” delivers a huge chorus of guitars and crashing drums, spilling out all the worry and frustration that builds on the quieter verses. “Eraser” finds Johnson bark sanded down to a softer growl, but the song propels forward, nearly outrunning that huge Midwest sky. Even when they slow down on “Expat”, there’s still an energy to the mid-tempo as their usual speed gives way to something more patient, so when they get to the tumble-down chorus it hits all the harder.
The band effectively renders the sludgy winter days of life in the Midwest all through this record. You can feel how it pulls at them, especially on the extended closer “Division Street” where the dreaming of days gone by and other places finally isn’t enough to get them out. But, while the terrain here is both recognizable and fresh, some of the ways they forget troubles feels rote. The whiskey and wondering how they got here, questions about how they became “stuck in this fucked up place, in this routine? Vampire jobs to TV screens” all starts to wear as the record goes. In these moments, the songs feel a little helpless, avoiding choices and blaming geography instead of moving forward. The best parts of Heart Beats Pacific, even at their most maudlin, push back with a vitality that makes these songs surge with raw power. Banner Pilot paints a convincing picture of its Midwest home here, warts and all, but the band is at its strongest when it starts to gouge out holes in that huge canvas.
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