The Middle East upstairs was packed wall-to-wall when I arrived. I tucked myself into a corner, facing the stage on the left. Overhearing clips of conversation from the crowd, it was fairly clear that, although Austin, TX-based psych-rockers Black Angels shared the bill, most folks tonight were there to see A Place to Bury Strangers. A palpable buzz was purring through the audience in light of the fact that APTBS has seemingly come out of nowhere to make a name for themselves with devastating live shows. Indeed, their CMJ set at Loisaida was shut down by police after just a handful of songs due to noise complaints. This show was the one time I even considered corking my ears in fear of APTBS' ear-damaging reputation.
The thing that sets APTBS apart from other brutally loud bands, though, is their tunefulness. Underneath all the chaos and noise lies the band's incredible ability to churn out beautiful squalor. They are fulminating, yes, but for every ultra-loud band comparison, one has to be made in recognition of the band's knack for writing gorgeous, melodic songs. It is that sense of balance that makes APTBS so interesting and, based on the night's turnout in Cambridge, popular.
After a few minutes of standing around, the band, led by guitarist/vocalist Oliver Ackermann and flanked by bassist Jono MOFO and drummer JSpace, came out to scattered applause. Ackermann, who runs Death by Audio, a company founded upon the design of ear-shredding effects pedals, began unloading what appeared to be about a dozen of his company's creations and began plugging them into various amps around the stage. With all the pedals and wiring littering the front of the stage, a few people, including Jono MOFO, looked a little concerned when the husky bass player spilled his beer toward the entanglement of electronic equipment.
Without a word, the band launched into the first half of their set, which included "She Dies," "My Weakness," and the violent "To Fix the Gash in Your Head." APTBS take care of the business at hand (that is, playing songs) without extraneous talking or engaging the audience between songs. It was amazing how different the band sounded compared to their considerably less assailing album. Live, they were storming, an absolute onslaught. APTBS is a live band through and through, and what's more is the fact that Ackermann made it immediately clear that his vocals were not an integral part of the show. Unlike the album, where his voice is a prevalent part of the mix, his voice barely rose above a low grumble, like a protest buried under a wall of sound, as he focused his efforts on manipulating the sound of his guitar. Ackermann is actually quite the showman. When not singing, he careened across stage, often leaning and bending dramatically as his amp spit hellfire and white noise.
The second half the performance, about 20-25 minutes long, was a decidedly different affair from the first. Here, the show became one extended opus, as the band flowed from one song to another, never stopping, and included an Ackermann guitar swap. (It was difficult to tell, but I think I heard "The Falling Sun," "Another Step Away," and an extended "Ocean" in there.) I was floored by the constant beauty of the twists and turns, as well as their sheer ability to keep up the torrid pace. At times, it seemed as if Ackermann wasn't playing many notes, letting his various pedals do the work, sound churning over itself again and again. MOFO and JSpace, though, skillfully kept up the frenetic pace, providing a brutal rhythm section that grounded Ackermann's swirling guitar.
The show ended as suddenly as it began, but this time with Ackermann mumbling a closing remark as the band shuffled off, no doubt exhausted. The space was buzzing. My friend and I were close to the exit, and we hurried through the Middle East's adjoining restaurant and out into the cold. For about five minutes, neither of us could hear anything -- the ringing in our ears was literally deafening. A thought, one I expressed internally because I couldn't fucking hear myself talk, came to mind: A Place to Bury Strangers is gonna fuck up their hearing pretty damn quickly as they continue to straddle the line between loud, melodic rock, and blistering noise manipulation. And I think they're fine with that.