Frequently impressive yet unspectacular
A Place To Bury Strangers - Live At The Junction, Cambridge

Jesus and Mary blah; Black Rebel Motor-blah; dirty, menacing, industrial, feedback-laden, effects-heavy blah. Notwithstanding the implications of their name, the new album by A Place to Bury Strangers suggests a band less concerned with inhumation than with digging up the corpses of artists who, in decades past, specialised in torrents of lowering guitar music played at a volume almost greater than their audiences could bear. That, however, was then. Twenty-five years or so later, it’s difficult to deliver the same dark, intense discharge and still pack a shock to the system.

So it proves tonight. As with the album, which is appropriately entitled ‘Worship’, APTBS’ performance unequivocally exalts the power of noise. But while it’s frequently impressive, it’s also oddly unspectacular, and sometimes even feels contrived and self-involved. Such accusations hardly seem fair – guitarist/vocalist Oliver Ackermann in particular has put in far too many years’ hard labour on the underground for his sincerity to be in doubt. But while the sheer voltage of their sound tonight is periodically awesome, APTBS are also so unremitting that compared, say, with their neo-shoegaze cousins Ceremony, they seem devoid of light and shade. Live, more than on record, they aim directly for the central nervous system. Amplified to a faceless roar, they often seem to obliterate their own neural networks instead.

It’s a shame because, when he brings it under control, Ackermann’s technical mastery of the guitar is superb, and there’s a real warp and weft to his songwriting. The excellent title track from the new album is a case in point. Its opening is deliberately extended tonight by a series of reverberative rattles which make the creeping shadow of the bassline all the more baleful and forbidding. Similarly, it’s the restraint shown during ‘And I’m Up’ that makes it expressive. In keeping with the lyrics, Ackermann sounds drained by compulsive sinfulness, while the bursts of corrupt noise that punctuate his refrains are far more thrilling than the wanton overdrive produced elsewhere.

On the whole, however, gone are the cranked-up, serrated noises of 2009’s ‘Exploding Head’, and the accompanying prospect of a Poundstretcher-values My Bloody Valentine. Instead, this is far too far in thrall to the business of engineering noise for its own sake. Ackermann can make this music bend and moan and shriek at will, but, like his vocals, the subtleties tend to get lost in the tsunami.

Make no mistake; there’s nothing wrong with expansive feedback and wind tunnel effects. But in 2012, when pop culture has broken so many former taboos it sometimes seems doubtful that it will ever shock us again, APTBS are in danger of looking like inflexible, Generation X refugees, gloomily asking us for one last dance. Impressive and virtuoso it may be, but short of fresh intent and modern purpose, it all just sounds a little bit blah.

Words by Thomas Kirk

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