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A Place to Bury Strangers

Onwards to the Wall EP

(Dead Oceans; US: 7 Feb 2012; UK: 6 Feb 2012)

An extended play ultimately has a multitude of uses. It can be a simple single padded with bonus tracks or B-sides that a band or an artist wants to toss out as a sort of odds-and-sods release for die-hard fans. Or it can be an entity in its own right, a tight package of material that has a definite start and end, and is more of a mini-album – think Sugar’s Beaster as a good example of that. Well, Brooklyn’s A Place to Bury Strangers – known as the self-proclaimed loudest band in New York City – has delivered the latter with their latest EP, their first for the Dead Oceans label, an indie outfit perhaps better known for hosting more folksy or country-ish acts such as the Tallest Man on Earth and Califone. Onwards to the Wall is an all killer and no filler collection of five songs that is presumably meant to be a teaser or a taster for a bona-fide full-length that will hopefully come down the pipes sooner rather than later.


What the trio brings to the table with this release is abrasive noise rock that recalls a merger between British bands such as the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, among a raft of others that you could pick out. Heck, even vocalist/guitarist Oliver Ackerman sings as though he has something akin to a British accent, so you would be forgiven if you thought that this band was a post-punk revivalist outfit of a certain United Kingdom era. Onwards to the Wall is, by all accounts, punishing, brutal, bloody, visceral, damning and torturous while retaining a knack for melody and sugar-coated pop songsmithery. It’s a real sonic adventure that never relinquishes its grip on structure, despite the fact that the guitar effects pedals are practically stomped right into the floor. (Fun fact: Ackerman designs his own effects pedals at his day job, or did by the time that the band’s 2007 debut came out.) While Onwards to the Wall does recall a bevy of British bands from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and a harder-edged version of American sound-a-like bands such as TV Ghost, the band retains a signature sound that is all their own and, at times, recalls the harsher elements of Mission of Burma. There’s a real artiness to A Place to Bury Strangers’ sound, one that reveals itself upon multiple listens like an onion slowly being peeled back. Heck, all that’s practically missing from Onwards to the Wall is the sound of an air raid siren going off – though the band comes close to pulling off that ear-bleeding sonic abrasiveness on final track “Drill It Up”. And, yes, that title can be almost taken literally, as the song sounds a bit like Laurence Olivier about to have a go at Dustin Hoffman’s teeth in Marathon Man.


The extended play opens up with the in-the-red “I Lost You”, which is fuelled by guitar distortion and all sorts of screechiness and wailing, propelled by nimble Simon Gallup-like bass playing. The song literally crashes around itself in a wall of crackling guitar histrionics before falling into a rubble of static at the track’s very end. “So Far Away” follows, and dials down the holocaust of sound a bit – making it a candidate for the album’s single – but what is here is still fairly brutal and droning. It marches along at a reliable, mid-tempo beat that you’ll want to stomp and mosh around the room to. The title track, which appears next, is also a bit of a surprise in that it contains duetting female vocals, and it is dark and brooding a la the Cure during their early-‘80s tenure. The guitars here are more atonal and add a layer of dissonance to the proceedings. When Ackerman breezily sings, “I’m in love with you,” it comes off more as a lazy threat than a genuine proclamation of devotion. A feedback peal leads right into the next song, “It’ll Be Alright”, which is a bit of the EP’s weakest link in that the main guitar lick is perhaps a touch Klaxon-ish for its own good, but the tune is still a rip-roaring good trot that bolsters the overall dark theme of the record’s sound. “It’ll be alright / If I never see your face again,” Ackerman broods here, before the guitars fuzz and drown out his vocals by the time the chorus kicks in. Then there’s final track “Drill It Up”, which sounds a little like the soundtrack to the apocalypse kicked up to almost Ministry-like squalor. The song literally throws in everything, including the kitchen sink, in its uproarious clamor. Then there’s the break, where the guitars threaten to send off a warning chime to usher in the effortless pessimism conjured by the rest of the song.


If you happen to like British-sounding bands that brood and are dissonant, Onwards to the Wall, as an extended play, is a near essential purchase, and one that will have you salivating as to where this band is going next. On the other hand, if you prefer that your music not give you a bad case of Tinnitus, you might want to steer very clear away from this one. That said, A Place to Bury Strangers adeptly marry discordant sounds that have little right to go together well, and is an invigorating listen that will leave you bruised and sweaty despite its short duration. Going to even 11 wouldn’t be far enough; you’d need to crank your amps up to 12 to fully appreciate the sheer attack of the muscularity behind A Place to Bury Strangers’ sound. This ain’t music for the masses, but if you like your songs to reach out and smash your forehead into a bloody pulp, Onwards to the Wall is pretty much exactly what the doctor ordered, and it’ll do it in the tiny burst of just five songs, where most albums need a full 10 or 12 to render that. Onwards to the Wall is a compact summation of the A Place to Bury Strangers’ sonics, and does it without feeling that this is merely something that is tossed off or unnecessary. There are no B-sides really on Onwards to the Wall: everything is nearly top shelf. For those looking for something as strong as industrial-strength floor wax to serve as a dessert topping, this EP will handily do the trick.

Rating:

Zachary Houle is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee for his short fiction, and the recipient of a writing arts grant from the City of Ottawa. He has had journalism published in SPIN magazine, The National Post (Canada), Canadian Business, and more.


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