There are certain bands that you never forget hearing for the first time. For me, Brooklyn-based A Place to Bury Strangers are one that make the list. Being a guitarist and effects pedal nerd, I first heard about them through the effects pedal company of frontman, Oliver Ackermann; the apropriately named Death By Audio. Being something of a mad scientist who readily admits that his pedals have the potential to destroy amps if not handled with respect, his sonic creations have found their way onto the boards of such legendary purveyors of noise as My Bloody Valentine and Nine Inch Nails.
With this in mind, you can get a good idea of their sound. So, wanting to hear the band of a man who makes fuzz pedals named “APOCALYPSE” and “SOUNDWAVE BREAKDOWN,” I took to Google and loaded up To Fix The Gash In Your Head, the standout single from their self-titled first LP. Instantly, it became clear that Oliver had been keeping all the best boxes for himself. I was met with punishing programmed drums met with the guitar equivalent of a sandblaster, with Ackermann’s sinister croon of “I’ll just wait for you to turn around… and kick your face in” lurking somewhere behind the static. Never before had I realised it was possible to peel skin off with soundwaves, but these guys had cracked the code, and I was hooked.
Through two more LPs and numerous EP and single releases, APTBS have honed and crafted that formula of ‘weaponised shoegaze’ – equal parts My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and a hurricane in a broken glass factory – occasionally taking detours into Post-Punk, Dream Pop, and out and out noise.
Their latest offering, Transfixiation, has been wrought with a difficult birth. Between recording and spending nearly two years on the road, compounded by the band losing their home in November last year with the purchase of Death By Audio Studios by Vice magazine, Ackermann admitted “It got to be too much, where we – or at least I – almost had a meltdown or something. I felt like we had to stop, and I wasn’t even sure if the album was going to get finished or if we were going to be going friends again.” These tensions, anxieties, and ultimately, the victorious feeling of coming out the other end of such a time are shot through Transfixiation.
Bassist, Dion Lunadon, and new drummer, Robi Gonzalez, lay a swaggering post-punk foundation for Ackermann to offer stabs of no-wave guitar noise, almost channelling Glenn Branca in opener Supermaster. The relatively gentle ending gives way to the explosive first single, Straight, which is equal parts xtrmntr-era Primal Scream and a robot being throttled with its own vocal cords as Ackermann’s mad inventor side shows in the bleeps and squeals of oscillating effects. While the pace is kept by Love High, it offers little to the album other than an love letter to the band’s more traditional Shoegaze influences, sounding more like an early demo than the sign of a band progressing. The aggression continues to be shed (though not the noise) with What We Don’t See, calling back to Ackermann’s previous band Skywave with it’s bubblegum pop riffs soaked in caustic soda backed by a Spaceman 3 pulse.
The sweetness doesn’t last though, as Shoegazey reverb and melody give way to their best Swans impression with Deeper. Moving at a glacial pace and clocking in at over six minutes, waves of distortion crash over a refrain of “if you fuck with me, you’re gonna burn,” in Ackermann’s attempt at something sinister vocally. It swings and doesn’t quite connect, but it’s an interesting addition, especially fading into the intermission of Lower Zone, which has the ghost of a John Carpenter soundtrack haunting it’s two and a half minutes. We’re given no time to enjoy the gentle fade out as we’re smacked in the face with sound of vintage ‘Strangers in We’ve Come So Far. Driving fuzzed out bass, pounding drums that are just as distorted, and shape shifting layers of guitar noise crashing from every direction – this is a band doing what earned them the title of ‘loudest band in New York’ and doing it their best. It’ll be nothing new to fans, but it doesn’t have to be. Play loud and enjoy.
Into the final third of the album with Now It’s Over, we’re met with The Soft Moon flavour Post-Punk, with a rise and fall growling bass, vocals bathed in reverb, and that “kick kick kick snare kick kick kick snare” drumbeat that sounds so familiar. It’s a beautifully crafted and atmospheric track that offers up the band’s comparatively gentle side following what came before. I’m So Clean comes in as a total surprise. Sounding like The Stooges smashed through a thousand amplifiers with some of Ackermann’s best vocals to date, it’s a shot of superdistorted noisepunk that could level buildings. You could be tricked into thinking penultimate track, Fill The Void,will let you catch your breath, but after its forty second intro, we’re slapped with a wall of fuzz yet again. Unfortunately, other than a vocal nod to Nine Inch Nails, the track doesn’t add a great deal and it’s impact is lessened by those that precede it.
The final track on an A Place to Bury Strangers LP is usually something special. I Lived My Life to Stand in the Shadow of Your Heart, from their second album famously broke the vinyl pressing machine for being too damn loud. I Will Die sounds like an attempt to do something similar. Everything is maxed-out, with ridiculous levels of brickwall compression blanketing the track from sheer volume alone. I have no idea what’s being sung as Ackermann is apparently trying to eat the microphone, but it doesn’t matter. It’s three minutes of catharsis that end just at the right time.
Transfixiation shows the scars of a difficult birth. Tracks vary in quality as you can hear them recorded in different sessions; some live, some more crafted, and the feeling of urgency along with constant pace of the album doesn’t allow some of the better tracks to truly shine and stand out as much as they should. Despite this, A Place to Bury Strangers have served up another session of sandblasting. It may not be as nuanced as some of their previous work (if you want variation, check out their previous album, Worship), but with ‘nu-gaze’ saturating the market with Ride and My Bloody Valentine knockoffs, it’s a breath of fresh air from a mad scientist and his crew of noisemakers.
A Place to Bury Strangers will embark on a UK tour starting next month with support from September Girls on all dates excluding Glasgow and Belfast.
Tue 31 – Whelan’s, Dublin
Wed 1 – Voodoo, Belfast
Thu 2 – King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow
Fri 3 – Belgrave Music Hall, Leeds
Sun 5 – Sound Control Basement, Manchester
Mon 6 – Bodega Social Club, Nottingham
Tue 7 – Hare & Hounds, Birmingham
Wed 8 – Clwb lfor Bach, Cardiff
The 9 – Oslo, London