A Place to Bury Strangers: Effects-Pedal Memory Games
I liked Black Rebel Motorcycle Club too
Last week, Nick Sylvester wrote something that got me thinking. Nick was writing about a Place to Bury Strangers, a newish Brooklyn neo-shoegaze band that's found a whole lot of Pitchfork love on the strength of a limited-release ten-song self-titled debut album, and he called that album: "a songless one-trick turd" and suggested that maybe the whole thing is a pretty good marketing tool for Oliver Ackermann. Ackermann is the band's frontman, and he also runs Death By Audio, a company that sells hand-built guitar-pedals. And Nick sort of isn't wrong: the album is one long orgy of layered-up guitar-noises: swirls, screeches, fuzz-roars, moans, dings, hums, bleats, snarls. Nick is also sort of not wrong about the "songless one-trick turd" part. Ackermann and friends don't really do a whole lot with those guitar-noises; the songs seem to be organized around the noises rather than vice-versa, and only a few of the hooks manage to cut through all the murk. All the individual tracks collect a lot of song-parts without actually organizing them into logical song-progressions. We'll get a narcotically catchy quiet bit which will explode upward into a noised-up freakout, and then that freakout will gradually taper off into something quiet again. But the loud and quiet bits never quite cohere; they seem to fly off into each other haphazardly, as if by chance rather than design. The stoned-murmur vocals and the ticcy little bursts of staticy drum-machines almost always stay buried deep under the avalanche of guitar-sounds, rarely allowed to become anything more than implications. I can barely every understand a word Ackermann sings, and when I can, it doesn't exactly make me want to investigate further; it's all druggy-romantic cliches that a million bands have done better. But I really, really like this Place to Bury Strangers album, and I've been wondering why.
As far as I can tell, the short answer is that I like this album because it reminds me of a bunch of other stuff that I also like. With its hints of depressive, graceful melody obscured by squalls of feedback and broken, juddering drum-machines, it's sort of a cross between Psychocandy-era Jesus and Mary Chain and Automatic-era Jesus and Mary Chain. And, I mean, that's like two of the best four Jesus and Mary Chain albums ever right there (Automatic is better; I don't care what your Spin Alternative Record Guide tells you). And there's other stuff in there too. When the drum-machines really kick up a storm, I get welcome ninth-grade flashbacks to Ministry and KMFDM. In his Pitchfork review, Marc Hogan also mentions a sort of Joy Division/Factory Records hard-echo bleakness, which is definitely somewhere in the mix as well. And in the constantly cresting guitar-waves, the band seems to be consciously recalling the entire shoegaze class of 92. This isn't exactly a unique combination of influences; a Place to Bury Strangers is basically the bazillionth shoegaze-revival band to come along in the last couple of years. But they're the first of those shoegaze-revival bands I've heard that remembers more than just the wounded-romantic beauty of those early-90s bands; they also recall the forbidding buzzsaw ugliness of their drug-rock predecessors. So: the revive something that all the other shoegaze revivalists forgot to revive. That might not be sufficient to earn them a Nobel Prize or anything, but apparently it's enough for me.
See, a Place to Bury Strangers might not write great songs, but they have a great sound. And if it's a sound that a bunch of older bands already mined, fine. That means they mash down hard on a whole range of reptilian brain-associations and pleasure-center tinglers that exist somewhere in my DNA and in the DNA of at least a few music-dorks. Those associations have everything to do with effects-pedals, so it makes sense that Ackermann would've devoted a significant portion of his life to building and perfecting effects-pedals; it's almost as if he's chasing an innards-scraping guitar-fuzz Platonic ideal, using both his business and his band to get as close as he can to that plane of perfection. And maybe it's because they make me think of older, better songs, but the way the Place to Bury Strangers tracks bleed into the atmosphere when I'm walking around the city at night in a vaguely misanthropic mood is a very powerful thing. Enjoyment doesn't always require qualifications or explanations. A Place to Bury Strangers may be derivative as fuck, but that doesn't mean that they can't be really good as well. They've made a truly enjoyable album out of preassembled parts, and that's really no less an achievement than making one from scratch. I can't say if I'll be listening to a Place to Bury Strangers years from now, but right now, when I'm in the right mood, they do the trick.