On synth and drum trio Point Line Plane's sophomore effort, they are shown up by their own album artwork and one sheet.
The CD booklet of Point Line Plane's second full-length, Smoke Signals, is a labyrinthine affair. Folding out to nine panels, one side is adorned with an intricate line drawing of what can only be described as a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The other side is a sort of post-modern wall of black ink punctuated in spots by Miro-esque splatters of white. Visually, the artwork suggests something dense, dark, foreboding, and unrelenting. Unfortunately, Point Line Plane can't live up to their own dramatic artwork, with an album that only shows flashes of the band's potential.
The album's opening title track begins with a minute and forty seconds of a throbbing synth line before singer Joshua Blanchard enters the song with his, um, unique singing voice. For most listeners, Blanchard's voice alone will make or break Point Line Plane. Personally, it took at least three tries before I could get used to Blanchard's voice enough to sit through the entire disc. If you can tolerate his castrated David Yow-like yowl, the rest of the opening is a fairly standard run through quasi-post-punk rhythms punctuated by Blanchard's nonsensical ("Feel so different / Feel so different / Feel the same") vocal outbursts.
The rest of the album similarly treads watery thin, synth-pumping beats. The band's own one sheet makes lofty comparisons to the Liars, Ex Models and Lightning Bolt, but that assessment is dubious at best. Point Line Plane lack the Liars' otherworldly exploration, the Ex Models' unquenchable sexual urges, and Lightning Bolt's plain balls-to-the-wall gusto. It's strange that for a band that is apparently known for their "destructively short 20-minute concert performances", their album finds them so terribly reigned in. None of that supposed manic energy seems present here.
If anything, Point Line Plane are most immediately reminiscent of Trans Am's latter period material. "1976" is a vocoder -affected track that wouldn't be out of place on TA. However, unlike the majority of that album, which reveled in its own '80s-aping irony, Point Line Plane's track is distinctly more moving. But the album's sole highlight is "The Messenger" and it is perhaps the best representation of Point Line Plane's bottom-heavy sound. The song crawls through the verse with a whiny synth-backed a helicopter like pattern of noise, before exploding into a beautiful mess of noise in the chorus led by Blanchard's howl. The latter portion of the song is a gorgeous array of starts and stops with ear splitting noise filling the silent gaps. The rest of the album would've benefited from the noisier treatment this song gets.
Ultimately "Smoke Signals" is all smoke and no fire. With a minimal synth and drum lineup, Point Line Plane don't do anything particularly exceptional or interesting with it and the album is weighted under a blanket of predictability. It's no surprise that the album shines when the band lets loose, but those moments are too few to recommend this disc.