A Place to Bury Strangers: Transfixation
The Brooklyn-based noise-rock band try for a leaner, more focused sound, but they often find themselves missing the atmosphere of their earlier work.
A good debut album can be something of a blessing and a curse all rolled into one. A Place to Bury Strangers know this all too well; their self-titled debut was a near-masterpiece, a perfect whirlwind of effects-laden guitar rock that could be at once beautiful and terrifying. It was also a bit of a “lightning in a bottle” moment for the band, as they found it difficult to recapture that original magic on subsequent releases. Now, it seems as if they’re more open to trying a different approach with their latest album, Transfixation. This time around, A Place to Bury Strangers seem more amenable to a direct approach, one that pares back most of their effects in an attempt to focus on songcraft over atmosphere. It’s not a bad idea, but Transfixation just doesn’t have the songs to back up this approach.
In many ways, Transfixation relies on the performances of the band to carry it, and that can sometimes work. A Place to Bury Strangers have always been a capable live band, and some of the weaker material on the album is carried by the band’s frenzied attack. Their choice to record a relatively stripped-down album helps them in this regard, as well. The band have never sounded more immediate and vital as they do here. At times, when paired with the right song -- as on the driving “Straight” or the pulsating “We’ve Come So Far” -- A Place to Bury Strangers seem to have touched on an interesting side of their sound.
Elsewhere, though, the group seem more interested in turning their aggressive qualities up to 11 without really doing anything worthwhile. The clear centerpiece of the album, “Deeper", is a thing to behold, a failure so spectacular that it causes a double take. While no one could ever honestly say that A Place to Bury Strangers were outright original, “Deeper” finds them outright aping an artists (in this case, Swans) and not doing it particularly well. When Oliver Ackermann sings “If you fuck with me / You’re gonna burn” over the squealing guitars and noise, it comes across as more ridiculous than menacing. The bass-driven “Now It’s Over” doesn’t fare much better, trying as it does to create a sense of dread with little substance. Ironically, the strongest moments on Transfixation -- and also the shortest moments on the album -- are snippets that hearken back to the band’s shoegazing origins. On “Love High” and “What We Don’t See", A Place to Bury Strangers remind us of the depth that they’re capable of creating with these textures. It’s a pity, then, that the whole album ends up being so shallow.
I guess credit should be give to A Place to Bury Strangers for trying to change things up a bit. It’s not as if it would have been in their best interests to keep cranking out shoegaze pastiches into eternity. Still, it’s hard not to regard Transfixation as anything but a failed experiment, an attempt by the band to strip themselves down to their barest essence only to find that they don’t have much to work with. The volume and aggression are still there, but without any textures or atmospherics to give that aggression character, it all makes for an often-dull experience.