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(Thrill Jockey; US: 28 Jan 2014; UK: 27 Jan 2014)

Innocence, the new album by Virginia power trio Pontiak, stands as a reminder that no matter what new sonic territory pop music delves into, a good old-fashioned guitar riff can still kick all kinds of ass.

There are monster riffs galore on Innocence, the 10th studio release from brothers Jennings, Van and Lain Carney. These farm boy rock enthusiasts are experts at breathing raucous new life into well worn formulas. For proof, look no further than the album’s first three songs, which evoke multiple decades of sludgy guitar rock—from Sabbath to the Stooges, Mudhoney to the Melvins—without sounding derivative. The searing title track gets things started with a squall of feedback and a primal scream from vocalist Van Carney: “Waaaasted”!  Next comes the album’s best track, “Lack Lustre Rush”. After some grimy fuzz guitar, the song kicks into gear with joyous hoots and a runaway-truck rhythm. Van’s vocals are great here, understated but also suggestive, maybe even menacing. When he purrs “Hey, wait a minute / Can’t you stay a minute”, you don’t know if he’s extending an invitation or issuing a subtle threat. “Ghosts” wraps up the opening trilogy with a crunching blast of psychedelic blues-metal that delivers one of the album’s most insistent riffs. These three songs are absolutely required listening for anyone who has ever felt compelled to blast rock music out of open car windows.

The brothers Carney clearly had more on their minds than riffage, though, when they made Innocence. A number of slower ballads appear here, sequenced to give listeners a break from the noise. There’s nothing wrong with a band exploring different moods and textures on an album, of course, but songs like “Noble Heads” and “Wildfires”, with their acoustic strumming and earnest vocals, as well as the organ-fueled “It’s the Greatest”, simply don’t measure up to the harder stuff. The songs are well-crafted, but they don’t have the same imaginative spark. As a result, sitting where they do on Innocence, they bring the record’s momentum to a frustrating halt and give it something of a split personality.

A few of the latter-half songs get things (mostly) back on track, including “Beings of the Rarest”, with its scorching, feedbacky guitar solo, and the pounding album closer “We’ve Got It Wrong”.  The Carneys produced Innocence themselves, once again going Old School by eschewing the aid of computers, so the album has an inviting analog sound that serves the classic guitar-bass-drums setup well. Innocence is a solid record. The slower tracks feel out of place and disrupt the flow of the album, but the highlights, especially the opening tracks, are as good as anything Pontiak has done before. Intense guitar rock isn’t a new pleasure, but in the Carneys’ capable hands, it’s still a potent one.


Matt Arado is an award-winning journalist and entertainment writer who lives in the Chicago area with his wife and two boys. He is also pursuing an MFA degree in creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. He kicks himself daily for never having seen Husker Du, Nirvana or the Jesus Lizard live on stage. Follow him on Twitter at @mjarado.

Pontiak -- "Lack Lustre Rush"
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