Think Lightning Bolt's ferocious noise cut through with arena-filling rock melodies... then double it.
Kicking off with a fury of drums, bass riffs pelted out so hard and fast that they radiate, the opening seconds of "The Great Divide" might come from any of a handful of frantic noise bands -- Lightning Bolt or Ex Models for instance. Yet this onslaught lasts only about half a minute. It crashes abruptly into stillness, and out of this pause, emerges a simple, rising, Celtic melody sung by bass player B.J. Warshaw. There's drama in both halves of the equation -- the explosive barrage of hard-beating sound and the arching, questing anthem -- and when they combine, as they do mid-song, Parts & Labor becomes one of the most interesting rock bands going. Very few musical outfits can remind you of Hella, Sugar, Guided by Voices and Big Country in the space of a single song. That they do this while remaining essentially, organically, undividedly themselves is even more impressive.
The duality that makes Stay Afraid so compelling is a relatively recent phenomenon. Formed around the core of keyboard/vocalist Dan Friel and bassist B.J. Warshaw in 1999, the band began its life as a pure noise band. Their first album, Groundswell, was all instrumentals, toy keyboard lines lodged deep into fuzzy electronic storms of static, experimental to the core and without a lighter-raising anthem in sight. Their next, Rise, Rise, Rise with Tyondai Braxton, began the move towards structure and melody and incorporated vocals for the first time. Now with Stay Afraid, they continue that trajectory, melding sing-along choruses with experimental breakdowns, jackhammer energy with searching lyrics in a brilliant and electrically-charged whole.
Paranoia and anxiety runs through Stay Afraid, both in its jittery, intermittently eruptive sound and in its lyrics. "A Great Divide" is studded with unsettling imagery, from the eye-topped pyramid of the U.S. currency to the gleaming high-rises that look down on dirty streets. The band lives in Brooklyn, so lines like "The trains were still delayed / The rates they still decayed" (from "Springtime Hibernation") may be surreal visions or just the view from the morning commute. But in any case, their songs depict a blasted urban landscape -- you can hear the grind of street machinery in the squealing walls of feedback, the pound of construction in the drums. Think of Stay Afraid's world as a place so loud you can't hear yourself think, and yet you do think, and sometimes your ideas take you away from the chaos.
It's surprising, in a way, that the drummer on this album is Parts & Labor's third in as many albums, because the new guy, Christopher Weingarten is an essential element in the band's sound. He is blistering fast and poundingly loud when he needs to be, as on the tribal tom toms of "Repair", the machine-gun spatter of "Springtime Hibernation", the head-banging three clunks of "Stay Afraid", but he's also quite good at the subtle bits. There's a sublimated tension in the sticks-on-rims intervals in "The Great Divide", a light-handed propulsiveness in the intervals of "Drastic Measures" that make plain a real understanding of music and how it works at varied volumes.
That said, though, Stay Afraid sounds best turned way up, loud enough that the synthesizer rumble at the beginning of "Drastic Measures" sounds like an approaching jet liner, loud enough that you hear not just the top notes of singing, playful keyboard riffs and snare thwacks but the massed sounds underneath them. With the volume on high, you can hear chaos in the proliferation of sounds, but exuberant, triumphant order in the way they fit together.