Album Review: A Place To Bury Strangers – Worship

[Dead Oceans; 2012]

There’s a moment in “You Are the One,” towards the very end of the track, where every previously established element of the song begins to collapse. The distortion moves back and forth between speaker channels, slowly increasing in both pitch and intensity, until it finally gives way to pure, oppressive, indescribable noise. It’s disorienting, overwhelming, invasive. And by the time it’s all over, you’re left with that sickness in your stomach – that instinctual feeling that something truly terrible has happened.

And yet, there’s an undeniable stylishness to the chaos on display. A coolness. A sexiness, even. Think Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series. The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” Fight Club. Psychocandy. It’s that certain artistic aesthetic that allures just as much as it repulses – the sort of art that presents an undeniably apocalyptic mindset and then invites its audience to revel in it. It draws you in just as much as it pushes you away, and in that strange contrast between the wholly inviting and the utterly abusive, it ultimately finds its power.

Within this sort of artistic space, it’s never the construction of a work that serves as its primary driving force, but its constant, unwavering sense of breakdown. There’s a plethora of different methods that can be used to achieve this sort of artistic atmosphere, but over the span of their career, it’s evident that A Place to Bury Strangers have lifted from the Jesus and Mary Chain school of thought – that of piercing feedback, pummeling walls of sound, disconnected vocal work, an ever-present sense of doom, a sheen of pop, and an undeniable sense of style.

By presenting their music through this artistic framework, A Place to Bury Strangers have separated themselves from a wealth of other contemporary noise-rock outfits. It’s the defining characteristic behind their appeal. But in everything following their self-titled debut, the band have failed to truly recreate that same pitch-perfect contrast between the beautiful and the grotesque that made their first record so thrilling. Exploding Head put an emphasis on more traditional song work and melody, losing quite a bit of the music’s edge in the process. And this year’s Onwards to the Wall EP, while occasionally calling back to the sound of old, never quite managed to fully maintain it. This provided enough evidence to wonder if the group’s first album was merely a fluke – a rare instance of catching lightning in a bottle as opposed to a taste of further brilliance to come.

Worship, at least initially, feels like the return to form we’ve all been waiting for. On opening number “Alone” and on the aforementioned “You Are the One,” the band recalls everything that made them worthwhile in the first place – luring you in through tightly constructed melodies only to attack when you are most susceptible. And then comes the third track, “Mind Control.” It is here that the promise of Worship starts to unravel, giving way to something that, while occasionally engaging, is nowhere near as strong or as striking as the music that comes before it. Make no mistake, there’s some other stuff to like here – tracks such as “Fear” and “Why I Can’t Cry Anymore” recall a lot of the same off-the-rails madness that made earlier offerings such as “To Fix the Gash in Your Head” so great – but more often than not, Worship sounds more like an emulation than it does the real deal. Granted, that emulation is the closest the band has gotten to the real thing in quite some time, but that’s only enough to label Worship an occasionally solid, but ultimately forgettable affair.