In a way, Nick Corey and Chris Bug contrast rather fittingly, even though many might assume they bear a likeness to each other. Corey, the high-powered, deceptive main character from Jim Thompson’s 1964 novel Pop. 1280 is a man who, on the surface, comes off as incompetent. Beneath the façade though is a ruthless and intelligent killer, capable of twisting emotions and perceptions of others to fit his needs. His real power his comes in his secret: by maintaining a level of amiable idiocy, he can toy about with the happenings of the town he runs without ever being suspected. Bug, on the other hand, is up front about his misapplications and disdain of life happening around him. He’s the lead singer of Pop. 1280, who take their name from the Thompson novel, and while both would be promising suspects for violent crimes after a little time in their company, I’m glad to say that only Corey – a fictional character – is the one who goes through with his actions.
Just to be clear: I’m not accusing Bug of any sort of criminal offences. The only thing he’s guilty of is having troubled misgivings about life. He sings like a pissed-off Charles Bronson – ready for a fight at any moment – narrating one of the Hostel movies. Though the term “Nailhouse” usually refers to stubborn and intent home owners who refuse to move for the sake of redevelopment, when Bug sings the word on “Nailhouse,” from their new album, Imps of Perversion, it feels much more apt to be imagining scenes of torture with rusty pointy nails in dank dungeons covered in grime and blood. With this description, it would appear nothing much has changed since Pop. 1280’s 2012 album, The Horror, but this time around, instead of post-apocalyptic scenes of brutality, Imps sounds disturbingly current. Bug and his bandmates carve out a piece of life in a poverty-stricken metropolis in a manner that feels like a prisoner carving out tallies on walls of their cell.
All this imagery is meant to be complimentary. If there’s one thing Pop. 1280 do well, it’s to create a sense of dread and unease, relentlessly pushing forward into your skull with distorted guitars and carnivorous vocals. Imps is a step up from The Horror in terms of fidelity; producer Martin Bisi captures the band in a way that sounds like their tearing up a basement recording studio. It’s fun in its own dark way, but unfortunately if suffers from being more directionless than their previous effort. A lot of the tracks here suffer simply for being clunky, if not lumbering. Guitars and synths that sound somewhere between space-age and sewer-like lurch like creatures emerging from the sea (see the B-movie album cover), and though a little unnerving at first, they just don’t shock and impact like they should or could. Tracks like “Human Probe II” and “Dawn of Man” are vicious on their own, but combined with the other nine tracks, they make for a relentless, stodgy listen.
What’s missing here are the hooks: Guitarist Ivan Lip straddles his instrument through distortion peddles and crawls all about the guitar’s neck, but rarely are there moments that match the content from The Horror in terms of having something to latch on to. The Horror was apparently built around improvisation in the studio, but here the band sound more like they’re just aiming to all make a racket without caring for making any content that really fuses together. There are moments where the kinetic energy is obvious – the climaxing guitar chug on “Coma Baby” and the release of “The Control Freak” – but it often fizzles out into more heavy, turgid material.
Thank goodness for Bug then. He’s the central focus here, and on Imps, he sounds more brazen than before: there are moments when he genuinely sounds like he completely about to lose it, like on the ferocious final chorus of “Nailhouse,” or “Human Probe” where he seems to get to point of being disgusted, spitting as he walks away from the microphone at the end of the song. Although his song titles make for brilliant reading (“Do The Anglerfish”; “Machine Trauma”; “The Control Freak”), and feature lines that sound like dance moves being shouted at you by a drill sergeant, the actual lyrics don’t stick out as much as before either. He still sounds threatening and ominous when he’s there (“When I go, I’m not gonna go alone,” he sings creepily on the sewer-plodding Wax Fang-like “Riding Shotgun”), but when his time is up, his force stays with you rather than his words. It’s like waking from a nightmare: you know it was all in your head, and you can’t remember many specifics, but the whole experience fills you with an uneasy sense of dread.
Still, Pop. 1280 hardly seem like a group who give a fuck about what anyone else thinks about their music. I’d be lying if I said the content of Imps doesn’t sound like it would be amazing to throw yourself about to during on of the band’s gigs and credit where credit’s due: the band sound like they’re loving it too. I’ve mentioned sewers a few times here, and that’s the image that sticks with me the most when I listen to Imps. Although working your way through the album can feel like trudging through the shit-stinking mud in the tunnels beneath the streets, there are glimpses of lights that break though from the surface, like manhole covers left exposed. The only thing is, when you see that light and try to pause for a moment to take in the sight of the world above, Pop. 1280 are there to throw a bucket of stagnant fish heads and dog turds in your face.
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
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