Given their downward trajectory over the last three years, it’s weird to think that A Place to Bury Strangers was a band that I liked—let alone championed early on, after bringing myself to like them, following the release of their self titled debut in 2007.
The band themselves, back then, were certainly an acquired taste, but got repped with a “Best New Music” and an 8.4 rating on the holiest of holy, thus making it something that I JUST HAD TO LIKE. I mean, in 2007, I was also, like 24, so I didn’t know any better and was incapable of forming an opinion on my own.
Sitting with APTBS through multiple listens, I eventually warmed up to it, finding an odd comfort in the pleading strains of “The Falling Sun,” and thinking the rest of it was, well, quaint; noisy and quaint. At the time, they were calling themselves “the loudest band on the planet.” The whole thing was not so much an act, or a gimmick, but it certainly was a borderline case. Sonically, A Place to Bury Strangers had always had 80s gothic pop leanings, even in their earliest days, but back then, it was channeled through so much distortion, fuzz, and thrash, you had to really listen to hear it.
Cut to two years later, with the band’s aptly titled follow up Exploding Head—and here’s where they started to really peel back the layers of abrasion little by little. I even saw APTBS touring in support of Exploding Head. They opened in 2010 for The Big Pink (Jesus Christ, remember them?) Well they were terrible. But A Place to Bury Strangers was so fucking punk. They played for 30 minutes exactly, and took no breaks in between songs. No banter with the crowd—nothing. Just noise, angst, and a “fuck you” sneer that was only amplified by the squall of feedback that their set ends with. They played in total darkness on the stage—none of the stage lights were on at all, so the band was only illuminated by the colors flickering from two projectors pointed out towards the crowd. No one in the audience knew what the fuck was going on. I thought it was great.
But that was also five years ago. And I can barely leave the house to go to the grocery store now, let alone go to something like a concert.
The A Place to Bury Strangers sound started to shift pretty drastically at the beginning of 2012 with a stopgap EP, Onwards To The Wall, then in the summer with their third full length, Worship. While Exploding Head dabbled slightly in “surf rock” riffs still backed by a punk brashness and a penchant for noise, these subsequent efforts scaled back the noise drastically, pushing a “post” in front of punk, making it the kind of thing that became pretty easily accessible on the ears—a fact that came as somewhat of a surprise given how god damn loud they used to be.
And now, three years later, here we are, with the band’s fourth effort, Transfixation.
The first thing that is alarmingly noticeable on Transfixation is how clear frontman Oliver Ackermann’s vocals are on the majority of the album’s material. Long gone is the endless reverb and murk that they were buried under on earlier releases—specifically on the album’s opening double shot of “Supermaster” and “Straight”—the former being a bit of a boring, plodding opening track, and the latter being something that sounds like it was born ready for play on Public Radio.
The thing that’s apparent on Transfixation is that A Place to Bury Strangers has seemed to have grown restless with their sound, and there’s no clear focus on what, exactly, they want to be almost a decade into their career. While their previous effort, Worship, was marginally accessible to a casual listener, despite the noise and fuzz, it certainly wasn’t the kind of abrasive album you’d expect from a band like this.
Here, however, Ackermann and company jump all over the place, as if to remind the listener that they can be BOTH accessible AND abrasive—and occasionally they can do both at the very same time, like on the fuzzy, noisy, but poppy “We’ve Come So Far.”
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Transfixation reaches its most abrasive (and kind of obnoxious point) halfway in, with the lengthy “Deeper,” a track laden with bone rattling bursts of noise, relentless guitar clanging, and Ackermann spouting some pretty moronic lyrics like “If you fuck with me, you’re going to burn.” Jesus buddy, I didn’t realize that a hip indie band from Brooklyn was so hardcore. Better not fuck with this guy, am I right?
By the time the album reaches its cacophonic conclusion in “I Will Die,” a track that pretty much pulls out all the stops from the “Let’s Be Really Loud” playbook, it’s clear that as a band, A Place to Bury Strangers have possibly run out of new ideas, or at least ways to stay fresh in a modern music landscape. Their self-titled album was innovative in 2007, because it was so raw and obtrusive. But with each subsequent release, the band has neither been able to reinvent itself, nor figure out a way to truly push things forward—they’ve ended up pigeonholing themselves into being “that one really loud band” but don’t have anything else to say for themselves.
Despite A Place to Bury Strangers’ admirable control over feedback and dissonance—you gotta wonder if the squalls coming from Ackermann’s guitar amps sound different on each take of a song, if these are “one take only” tricks, or if he’s mastered the art of noise so much over the last decade that he knows how to get the exact same tone blasting each time he tries—well shit, anyway, despite all of that, Transfixation, unfortunately, ends up being a rather unmoving, mostly uninspired, definitely uninteresting listen.
Transfixation is due out on February 17th, via Dead Oceans.
Kevin also writes for the super excellent Anhedonic Headphones.
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he’s been contributing to Bearded Gentlemen; and for nearly as long, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine. Since the summer of 2017, he began contributing “The Column of Disquiet” for The Next Ten Words. His writing has also appeared in The Wagazine, and in River Valley Woman. He is a vegan, a friend to all animals, and a huge jerk toward most people.