[7 October 2009]
In exchange for a stage and an audience, Brooklyn’s A Place to Bury Strangers will offer up the coldest frowns of any band in the world. But maybe these guys have a sense of humor after all? Yes, the title of the second album by the noisy trio, whom I’m obligated to call “The Loudest Band in New York” (though, all kidding aside, that tagline is probably true), really is Exploding Head. With the help of Paul Simon’s recording engineer, Andy Smith, the group has made the murky wall of sound of their eponymous debut into a fortress, creating an album that is enormous in its sheer audacity. This is A Place to Bury Strangers at their loudest, most relentlessly methodical, and, surprisingly, funniest.
Yes, funniest. Seriously. There isn’t anything outright funny about this album, but there are moments when you can’t help but question how slate-faced A Place to Bury Strangers really is. First that band name, a “you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” kind of name that’s only become more ridiculous with time, begging you to take it seriously in spite of—or perhaps because of—its awkwardness. Then there’s the My Bloody Valentine spoof on the opening song, “It Is Nothing”, with singer/guitarist Oliver Ackerman’s guitar rigged up to sound exactly like Kevin Shields’s on “Only Shallow”. Or the climax of “Ego Death”, with Acerkman stuttering above the reverb of his own voice (“C-c-come on”) before stealing the melody to the pre-chorus of “Born to Be Wild”. And, of course, the title track, with its entirely synthetic guitars and completely senseless chorus: “Come back, come back, come back, exploding head, exploding head”. A lot of it feels like a stand-up routine, as if at any moment Ackerman and company will shrug, finally crack a smile, and say, “Gotcha.”
But the sound they’ve created is no joke. The band’s brief existence has already left a deep mark on New York lo-fi thanks to already classic songs like “Missing You” and “Ocean” from their debut. More importantly, Ackerman has been quietly building an indie empire in Brooklyn with his Death by Audio effects pedal company, the core of the group’s sound and a fitting day job for this mad scientist of a musician. Bands from all over the country have embraced the “SKREEEAWWWWCCCCHHHH” of the Death by Audio guitar pedal, but Ackerman is still the master of manipulating his creations, as Exploding Head demonstrates. He forces all kinds of sounds out of his guitar: broken church bells, sputtering airplane engines, old synthesizers being played underwater—it was all present on the first album, but it’s perfected here. The noise feels less random, more carefully considered, and yet, still charmingly homemade.
And so there is a strong tension between the legitimate form and the sometimes laughable content of the music: the band’s nearly archaic, incessantly frowning image—straight out of 1985—and their subtly innovative sound—which could also come from 1985, or, just as likely, 2085. Do we laugh mockingly or bow our heads in respect? Do we howl in execration, excitement, or just turn the sound off? To recognize A Place to Bury Strangers’s absurdity is to embrace them. This conflict is played out on all ten songs here. It saves Exploding Head from being a nostalgic novelty, and proves that the band’s debut was no accident. The awkward lyrics (when you can understand them, anyway), the waves of noise, and the nearly impenetrable reverb should make you cringe. This isn’t easy listening music, it’s an album you have to work for—and at times, it’s back-breaking, heart-pounding, almost-not-worth-it work.
“Deadbeat”, for instance, opens with five seconds of Ackerman’s best written guitar part—a twisted, alien blues straight out of the British Invasion—only to be overpowered by layers of feedback and distortion. It’s almost upsetting to hear such a nice melody destroyed by this much noise, but ultimately, the song, like the rest of the album, makes for an anxious listen rather than a frustrating one. The only stranger buried beneath Exploding Head is a catchy pop album—and instead of just handing it to you, A Place to Bury Strangers makes you dig.