There are bands, like The Dismemberment Plan or Destroyer, the brutality of whose name belies the often sweet-natured, good humoured, delicate sounds contained within their work. And then there are bands like A Place To Bury Strangers, who sound just as confrontational as you would expect a band called “A Place To Bury Strangers” to sound. One has to wonder, are they limited by their name to only writing this deliberately ugly kind of music in the same way that Pete & The Pirates surely must wish they’d be allowed to write anything other than the idiosyncratically English indiepop their moniker dictates they keep churning out? Or are they absolutely fine with the fact that, when you’re going to call yourselves what they’ve called themselves, people are going to expect something of you – and it’s not going to be pretty?
My money’s on the latter. Onwards To The Wall is produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by the band themselves, which suggests that this is a group who have spent a lot of time making their music sound precisely this unattractive. Here expanding their line up to include ex D4 bassist Dion Lunadon, chief songwriter Oliver Ackerman’s motivation for the project at this moment in time seems to be to investigate what a logical end to all rock and roll could be, exploring textures and melodies (to use the term loosely) that are as uncomfortable as they are uncompromising. But despite this being their most brutal collection of songs to date, one can’t help but harbour a sense of having heard a lot of it before.
Take ‘I Lost You’ for an example. Reverb rules supreme for a lot of the EP and no more so than here, where every detail is blurred so as to disorientate the listener as much as possible. Of course, this rewards repeat listens: until, that is, you’ve got the song in focus enough to recognise that rather than a year zero, what you have on your hands is essentially a Jesus and Mary Chain number. Once that realisation has been made, the ease with which such comparisons can be drawn does spoil the initial fun of Onwards To The Wall somewhat.
‘So Far Away’ continues their signature trick of letting the bass take up the role of looking after the riffs that other bands would normally assign to the rhythm guitar, whilst echo-caked six-strings make noises like shattering glass ever so slightly more to the forefront, and vocals hang like a fog. Elsewhere, things regrettably start to tail off even more once we reach the unashamed Joy Divisionism of ‘Onwards To The Wall’, a track so derivative that it’s difficult to take particularly seriously (despite the fact that we doubt there’s even a hint of a smile on anyone in the band’s faces). Similarly, whilst virile enough, the penultimate ‘Nothing Will Surprise Me’ with its primitive chord structure and distorted goth-pastiche vocals comes across like Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster without the sense of humour. And one has to wonder, what really is the point in that?
They’ve got an aesthetic down alright, and when played appropriately loud Onwards To The Wall is impossible to ignore. What is problematic for A Place To Bury Strangers, though, is that most modern musical playback equipment comes with the ability to turn the volume down a notch or two. Once this is done, it becomes pretty ignorable. There’s a sadness to this though, as A Place To Bury Strangers clearly never sat down to make a sound that could ever be thought of as background music – one imagines the very mention of it would be taken as an insult. Yet whilst the ambition and purpose to the record is all too apparent, the tunes could do with being a little clearer.