Written by: Goran Child, Special to CC2K
A predictable, disappointing effort.
If there is a malaise within the ‘shoegaze’ sub-genre, it is that its commitment to the frustration of expectation is so much its sine qua non that it often becomes the sole barometer by which a release is measured. Just as Sigur Rós can shift from challenging and interesting (their Ágætis byrjun LP) to BBC documentary-friendly coffee table M.O.R. (Takk…, and much of what comes after), or some Oceansize fans find themselves viewing the band’s sole ‘radio-friendly’ single, ‘Heaven Alive’, as a blight on an otherwise laudable commitment to inaccessible leftfield-ism, so can any artists who fall into this loose category find that their attempts to keep things interesting, to create tracks with discernible identity can ultimately show up their limitations.
But a select group (Eluvium, Jesu and Jeniferever spring most quickly to mind) seem able to tread this threatening line, weaving recognizable melodies with intricately-wrought, unconventional structures; Yndi Halda advocate an audible disdain for any sort of ‘hook’ (unless it comes about 15 minutes into a track), whilst a band like Youthmovies have ditched the shoegaze element almost entirely, all to great effect. Meanwhile, A Place to Bury Strangers, on new LP Exploding Head, show no such capacities, producing a record characterized by indecision and conservatism.
Coming on like a hybrid of the excellent Amusement Parks on Fire and the decidedly average Black Rebel Motorcyle Club (with whom APTBS have toured), Exploding Head contains some tidy ideas and many nice moments, but ultimately proves too formulaic to be a worthwhile release in an already congested musical stable. For example, album opener ‘It is Nothing’ juxtaposes a forceful garage riff with a decent line in atmospheric, almost aloof production; unfortunately, however, this tactic, used again and again and again on the album, quickly proves to have been a convenient formula rather than a suggestion of experimentation to come. The record repeatedly performs this increasingly monotonous gesture of alterity, seemingly unaware that, by reducing otherness and difference to such a gesture – one could even call it a ‘posture’ – one is glibly sacrificing the ‘alternative’ aesthetic upon which such a product relies for its artistic success. When the very next track, ‘In Your Heart’ does exactly the same thing but with a slightly more melodic rhythm, one can’t help but feel a little short-changed.
At its best, the record works well. In the atmospheric, Death in Vegas-esque ‘Ego Death’, the twin ingredients are mutually complementary, whilst in the rusted-over ‘Lost Feeling’ the relationship is more acerbic, creating an impressive squall of a song. These, however, are rare highlights: on ‘Deadbeat’ and ‘Keep Slipping Away’, the echoed production seems perfunctory at best, tedious at worst, whereas closing track ‘I Lived My Life to Stand in the Shadow of Your Heart’ (song titles aren’t really APTBS’s strong point) cannot and will never be able to escape the fact that it sounds like Ash hadn’t soundchecked properly.
The most annoying thing about this is that the band’s strategy is so uniform and predictable that even tracks which are arresting in isolation become tepid in context. 80s ballad in overdrive, ‘Smile When You Smile’, is a case in point: although doing very little wrong, and a great deal right, it seems bereft of ideas, purely by association with the album at large: it’s a sort of musical inanition, brought on, one realizes, by a lack of creative ammunition (to risk a rhyme). Similarly, ‘Everything Always Goes Wrong’, after a vitriolic start, swiftly lapses into what is unmistakeably the sound of a band bored with its own output. And when a band’s zealous commitment to a certain distinctive sound leads to them shooting themselves in the foot, one knows one is listening to a pretty ordinary CD.
At 43 minutes, the record is hardly an epic – yet make no mistake: this is a long three quarters of an hour, describing as it does a band with only one idea, and a perceptible unwillingness to stretch it. As an EP, the best tracks here would work well, but its shortcomings are almost embarrassingly tangible when it is presented as a full-length release. It is an album with a microscopic and ultimately boring creative locus, and surely cannot hope to compete with its heavyweight peers. In conclusion, Exploding Head lacks the bombast promised by its title, making for a whimpering, insecure effort which crumbles under scrutiny. A Place to Bury Strangers should have buried this effort: hopefully it won’t wind up burying them.