Album Review: Pile – Hot Air Balloon EP

[Exploding in Sound; 2023]

Even in their Dripping days, when Pile aspired to a punk aesthetic and occasionally lurched toward hardcore elan, singer Rick Maguire displayed appreciation for such plaintive figures as Will Oldam, Jason Molina and Phil Elverum. With recent work, including last year’s All Fiction, Maguire more deeply mined these melancholic sources, his deliveries – pensive as ever – contrasting effectively with the band’s mercurial, albeit restrained, accompaniment.

Though the tracks on Pile’s new EP, Hot Air Balloon, were recorded during the All Fiction sessions, the contrast between Maguire’s languor and the band’s muzzled aggression has never been more palpable. Even when Maguire and the band operate in parallel rather than intersecting universes, the result is notable, a blend of alternately heavy-handed and delicate instrumentation crossed with folk and sadcore-tinged vocals. Hot Air Balloon spotlights the band embracing an MO that could lead, with subsequent refinement, to their most eloquent work.

The project opens with “Scaling Walls”, Maguire’s mournful voice complemented by compressed guitars that sound like they’re being played through a small practice amp. Kris Kuss, whose drums have consistently added texture to Pile’s work, remains low-key but avoids repetition, integrating embellishments that never compromise the track’s essential starkness.

On the alt-waltzy “The Birds Attacked My Hot Air Balloon”, the band opts for a tense, semi-ambient soundscape. “A breath has been hanging and securely from a hook / a wild swipe at control to see which takes me first,” Maguire cryptically declares, cobbling an image that leans toward otherworldly angst but resists being emphatically horrific. As the piece nears its end, the instrumentation grows more rhythmic, a listener moved by swells and semi-crescendos.

On the synthy “Only for a Reminder”, Maguire’s use of the pronoun “it” instead of “he”, “she” or “they” points to an abusive dynamic, conjuring a parent who deconstructs a child’s identity to the point that the adult, having internalized such treatment, refers to himself in toxic terms. As the song progresses, the mixes grow more complex, almost punishing, though the piece never devolves or resolves into cacophony or catharsis.

With “Exits Blocked”, the band adopt more conventional rhythms, Maguire experimenting with phrasing and timbres that bring to mind Layne Staley-era Alice in Chains. “You sit here with the same view / and try to see something different / but it’s still only a mess”, he sings on closer “You Get to Decide”. Kuss’s cadent variations and well-placed accents create a distinct sense of flux and movement.

Hot Air Balloon’s soundscapes are wispy yet funereal, airy and turbid, fluid yet barbed. Maguire seems both heartbroken and equanimous, as if he is, to quote Laurie Anderson’s Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche, learning how to “feel sad without actually being sad.” The set exudes a surreal, even dissociative quality that could serve the band well as they continue to redefine their sound and presence.