[Acéphale; 2013]

Pure X shortened their name from Pure Ecstasy shortly before releasing their debut album Pleasure back in 2011, and that’s often what the album felt like; a wholly pleasurable ecstasy trip where all the guitars had soft and warm edges, voices echoed from far away – often unintelligible, but that didn’t matter – reaching a swirling peak at “Easy” where Nate Grace repeatedly sang that he “don’t feel nothin’.” If that’s the case, then the band’s sophomore release Crawling Up The Stairs is the morning after – the come down. This album is much harsher, more desperate and rawer; here Grace feels everything, and makes sure we know about it.

The first obstacle when reaching home after an energy-sapping experience is the staircase, so fittingly the album begins with its title track “Crawling Up The Stairs,” but while the title might describe an ascent, the emotion of the song is more akin to a descent into what Grace has called his “hell zone.” The same swirling, watery guitars from their first album are in place, but the earnestness of Grace’s falsetto along with his repeated whispering of “I couldn’t move,” give the song a more sinister edge. This is brought home in the next track “Someone Else,” where Grace’s voice is clearer than ever as he begs “come on break me,” “take me down deep into your hell,” “come on burn me until this body is dust,” amongst other demands before his voice devolves into a full-on growl, which then reels out into a beautiful and tortured falsetto to finish the wrenching track. The next couple of tracks are less cathartic but still resonate with emotion. Even as Grace’s words become completely unintelligible through the vocoder on “Written in the Slime,” the way his manipulated voice pairs with the delicately slowed and reverberating guitar and swaths of synth is sill powerful. The same is true on “I Fear What I Feel,” where a relatively bouncy melody is paired well with a sassier falsetto performance.

“Things in My Head” provides a small sliver of light through the darkness as a catchy and heartfelt acoustic-centred number. Its chorus reminds us that “we’re only here for a short time,” which comes across as solemnly life affirming. This is quickly shut down by “Shadows and Lies” which finds Grace pondering “what the hell is real any more?” and feeling “fear ripping at my fingernails, fear from every side” over a chattering of voices, before the cushioning soft guitars and feedback add more of a relatable feel to his paranoia.

Once into the second half of the album, the ethereal and shapeless “I Come From Nowhere” and the heartfelt plea of “Never Alone” show that the slow ascent out of hell has begun. Even though the band sounds as emotionally drained as ever, there’s an acceptance and a strength slowly collating in the feedback solos and more hopeful lyrics. These flow nicely into “How Did You Find Me,” the album’s most bombastic moment as Grace belts out the song’s title over plundering guitars, which redouble for the concluding vocal writhing and peak catharsis. With this off their chest they can serve up the summery slice “Thousand Year Old Child,” with sparkling guitar lines and coolly delivered lyrics like “there is no reason to think about time,” it’s a surprisingly upbeat breakup song, almost as if reminiscing on it fondly.

Crawling Up The Stairs ends in reflective mode. “Rain At Dawn” is an instrumental number that sounds exactly as its title suggests; Grace has called it a “palette cleanser” and bandmate Jesse Jenkins says that it’s “like washing away the rest of the album.” With this cleansing complete they can go into the final track “All of the Future (All of the Past)” and look at themselves with clearer minds, and with a more level-headed assessment of their lives they come to realize that they love themselves and life has not been and will not be all hell from here on out.

Crawling Up The Stairs should be praised not only for its beauty, honesty and sonic specialty, but also for the way it’s sequenced. Listening through the album takes you on an emotional journey that it’s clear that Pure X have carefully mapped out. This will only make it even more enticing on further listens.