Every once in a rare while, there emerges a band so studious and mindful of its influences that it manages to recast its idols as perfectly distinct parts of its own style, somehow birthing an entirely new sound in the process.
Brooklyn’s A Place To Bury Strangers is not one of those bands.
Though newcomers to the New-York revivalist scene, they’ve somehow managed to speed from total to relative obscurity in a matter of months, rekindling every Brooklyn hipster’s dream of short-order success: Pitchfork’s Best New Music accolade, a reputation as the “loudest band in New York,” a forthcoming tour with NIN, and God knows what next.
And though their formula has certainly attracted attention, the band’s unequivocal debt to artists before them is somewhat unsettling. Every guitar sound immaculately replicates early 80s shoegaze and industrial, their blasé vocalist exhumes boredom and detachment the exact same way The Jesus And Mary Chain’s did, and, worst of all, even their most sincere moments are lifted from the Cure’s mid-period discography. The result: a musical Frankenstein of sorts, each disparate part sticking out in oddly predictable ways.
Scandalous? As it stands, not so much. But there’s something more sinister at play here: I don’t think these guys ever cared to sell records. I suspect that their point and purpose, oddly enough, is to advertise their guitar pedals.
Now, while I can’t claim credit for the bulk of that accusation, I will however, turn your heads towards the one who can – Nick Sylvester, a New York culture critic as brilliant as he is maligned, best remembered for his short tenure at The Village Voice.
In Sylvester’s words: “There’s not a song on [APTBS’ eponymous debut] worth talking about, which is to say there’s no song that will get in the way of [frontman Oliver Ackermann] demonstrating to us all the different settings and kinds and configurations of distortion pedals he can put together.” As far as critical assessments go, this one’s pretty dismissive. Still, the man’s got a point.
Consider my first piece of evidence. On top of fronting, singing, and playing guitar for APTBS, Oliver Ackermann quadruples as an audio engineer, having founded Death by Audio, a Brooklyn-based guitar pedal workshop, in the early 2000s. And though the company’s sonic focus is rather narrow – having committed itself to replicating late 80s distortion and fuzz – the pedals do a terrific job, as evidenced by the band’s stellar sounds. For effects that musicians were cobbling together from cheap equipment in the 1980s, Death By Audio’s $150-$320 price range seems a bit steep – even withstanding the painstaking experimentation they take off your hands.
But that’s skirting the issue. That is, these pedals still overshadow the band’s song-writing at every turn. Case in point: each track on the album is distinguished not by its melody or structure, but by the specific pedal configuration the band has elected to demonstrate. And though this approach has produced impressive results in the past, the band’s insistence on writing actual songs, as opposed to abstract noise, means that their trite melodies only get in the way of their distorted artistry. In other words, relying on bad songs to sell good sounds has only undermined the advertising campaign these guys seem to be pushing.
Still, the fact remains that the band, seasoned noisemongers as they may be, has only released a single album. So, negativity notwithstanding, my hope is that by next time around, they’ll have learned to write pieces that revolve around sonic texture, instead of ones constrained by melodies they’re too lazy to write. All concerns for quality aside, they’d probably sell a lot more pedals that way too.
A Place To Bury Strangers opens for Shellac, one of the bands they openly pillage, at La Sala Rossa (4848 St. Laurent) on September 17. Tickets are $15.