Van Carney has said that his band Pontiak “has one ship and three captains”. His statement refers to the band’s recording process, but this is also a fitting way to describe the shared purpose the Carney brothers achieve on new album Maker. Recorded for the most part live, the album frequently turns raw and loose but is anchored in the players’ capable lockstep. The impact is a set of songs that are compositionally efficient but dynamic in the way the instruments and voices find novel ways to interact over the course of the album, which may have been recorded in Virginia but sounds like a desert session.
Maker begins strongly with “Laywayed”, a hazy, echoic number that frequently stutters and often threatens to stop completely. This combined with lyrics about “eyes turned to the walls” and “the plume of smoke” induces an atmosphere one associates with Queens of the Stone Age or Sleep. A song like this will endear Pontiak to fans of those groups, though it would be a shame if the band were only appreciated in the shadow of predecessors that aren’t necessarily its influences anyway. It is perhaps to fend off such convenient classification that the band follows “Laywayed” with “Blood Pride”, which has more in common with surf guitar or even psychobilly traditions than it does with the stoner rock family tree.
The album is also not without some connection to the sound of mainstream rock. For example, the rogue lead guitar and circular drumming during the first half of “Wax Worship” would have fit in on Fever to Tell. Structurally, this song is rewarding as it unexpectedly transitions into a hypnotic dirge. Protean vocals (a strong point throughout most of the album) reach an ascending benediction at the song’s end. However the vocals are not arranged as effectively on “Wild Knife Night Fight”, in which the background voice crowds the already double-tracked leads.
“Aestival” is one of the best songs on the album and certainly forms its emotional apex. Understated and elegiac — a sort of desert rock cousin to Air’s “How Does it Make You Feel” — this is a song that chases oblivion. With elemental lyrics and a delicate tremolo guitar riding an impeccable rhythm section, it builds to a late, comparatively frenzied climax but also introduces the album’s more meditative second half. The title track finally appears here, though the concept of “The Maker” has already been introduced earlier on the album, suggesting some unifying theme. Running 13 minutes, “Maker” manages to touch several stylistic bases without once sliding into aimless jamming. Is the epic length totally justified? Probably not, though a late Earth-like comedown section is especially satisfying.
Maker concludes with three songs that reveal the rough symmetry of the album. A more sedate bookend to the opening three tracks, it culminates with “Aasstteerr”, which actually sounds like it could be mixed directly into “Laywayed”. This synergy is in keeping with the thoughtful design and execution throughout, and it contributes to a high replay factor. The only drawbacks are a couple of brief interstitial songs (“Headless Conference” and “Heat Pleasure”) that do not quite figure into the overall scheme. Their exclusion would make this an even leaner and stronger set. But by no means do these indulgences sink the whole.
With its first few releases, Pontiak has come to occupy a key position within a certain strain of guitar rock. The solid Maker is another worthy entry that might earn Pontiak more lofty comparisons to bands that got there first, but it also provides evidence of the band’s unique creative identity.