A Place to Bury Strangers is not your father's shoegaze band.
Moreover, labeling them as revivalist shoegazers takes for granted the ingenuity and showmanship of the Brooklyn-based trio's driving force, Oliver Ackermann. During live performances, he tosses his guitar around like an unwanted toy, generating sounds that disturb and compliment the songs.
More Who than Slowdive, more Ramones than Ride, no one in the band stands idly staring at the rarely washed stage floors as feedback pitches scream throughout the room. Beneath the Jesus and Mary Chain firmament of feedback lies 21st-century textures constructed around Ackermann's sonic vision.
Some bands simply exist to perform live while their records suffer. On the other hand, others release exceptional albums only to leave fans disappointed in their inability to capture the album's magic live. In any era, It is rare to find a band who can enrapture an audience with a visceral, confrontational live performance, yet maintain the magic captured in the studio. Although not always successful, APTBS tries just that, leaving everything they have both in the studio and on the stage.
Their new LP, Transfixation (released yesterday), reveals new approaches to unique sounds that are distinctively theirs. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, Ackermann constructed, and continues to construct, effects pedals to match the sounds in his head. In a time when many bands have creative control over how they record their music, inventing circuit-bending devices like custom pedals and keyboards has become a necessity.
To achieve APTBS' signature sound, Ackermann created a company called Death by Audio. Its products, such as pedals like "Supersonic Fuzz Gun" and a five-channel distortion box aptly titled "Apocalypse," have become coveted items by a who's who of guitar heroes, including The Edge and Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. According to Ackermann, his twin legacies -- being a member of a successful and well-respected band plus effects pedal inventor -- are inseparable.
"Recording today is a whole new ballgame," Ackermann said via telephone recently. "It allows bands to be aware of every element of the recording of the song. These days musicians and performers fall into two categories: they either want to be popular and famous or they want to be known for their artistry."
Not surprisingly, the very modest Ackermann's modus operandi is to develop his art and continue the band's sonic explorations. Some tracks on Transfixation will remind fans of the band's signature sound, but their new lineup -- including bassist Dion Lunadon and hard-pounding drummer Robi Gonzalez -- pushes that sound into new territories. On "I Want to Die," Ackermann abandons his typical Lou Reed sprechgesang vocal style for Ian McKaye-like screams.
"That song that you hear on the record was written in that moment, and at that moment and it wasn't working out," he offers. "I was sort of pissed off and it just sort of came out. I even rewrote other lyrics for that song, but it was never as good as that take."
There's no irony attached to the title, he deadpans.
"No, not really," says Ackermann. "We're all going to die."
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Conversely, standout track "What We Don't Know" sounds overwhelmingly elated. Ruminating over the band's usual moody atmospherics, Ackermann says that, for him, "Music is always a reflection of how you are feeling, and like life, it too is filled with ups and downs.
"And at that time, our positive feelings affected the song's vibe," he adds.
A quick, once-over listen to Transfixation cannot be justified when trying to understand APTBS' approach. "Now It's Over" assumes the straight-ahead punk rhythms of Joy Division's Stephen Morris, but "I'm So Clean" is anything but. "Lower Zone's" instrumental drone suggests that the band should consider scoring soundtracks for movies, television and especially video games.
"We may have appeared on a video game, but I would love to do soundtrack work, if we're approached to compose one," Ackermann muses.
When asked which filmmaker he would like to score a soundtrack for, he demurs.
"Oh, man, that's tough," he says. "That would depend on how interesting the project is. But, man, I would love to compose a soundtrack for a film one day."
Another advantage to the band's new lineup is their work ethic. After quite a bit of turnover, Dion and Robi's level of dedication and investment in APTBS indicates adventurous times ahead. The trio recorded nearly 30 songs for this album. Even though only 11 made the cut, their productivity suggests a Kid A-like shift on the group's horizon.
"This record came out in a different way with different procedures," remarks Ackermann.
On the other hand, APTBS's live shows are spectacles of pure showmanship. In 2008, they supported Nine Inch Nails and perfectly complemented Trent Reznor and company. Mesmerizing and explosive, their shows can recall Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and the Ramones. When on tour, they have a very specific sound in mind, and with that, they bring their own sound guy.
"Every room is different, and how those sounds adapt to each room all have to be factored," Ackermann says.
Although the band's influences are distinct, it's worth asking whether any guilty pleasures lurk in any of APTBS's songs.
"Absolutely, even ridiculous stuff we hear throughout our lives influence how we sound," Ackermann admits. "I mean, I'm sure hearing Huey Lewis & the News has influenced us in some way."
So could a cover of "Heart of Rock & Roll" even be possible?
"Well, maybe," Ackermann hesitates. "You never know."
A Place to Bury Strangers performs Thursday with special guests Creepoid and My Education at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 8 p.m.
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