The “summer-beach-pop” discourse has been built up and proliferated with such force recently that it may take a while for most of us to realize how inexcusable it was to allow seasonal language to overshadow the caliber of the music itself. But when the sun says goodbye to the once-bright sky and the ice returns to haunt our hearts and turn our sidewalks into fucked-up, slippery, sloshed-out messes, the sounds of summer will, just like summer itself, fade away like all sunny-ephemera does. There will be frostburn and snot-icicles where there was once sunburn and sand-snot. There’s no way to prevent it. The winter-gloom shall return, and a mass exodus to California has already once proven to be nothing more than a quick stop on the way to yuppiedom. We can either spill tears into our Miami Vice beach towels, or we can face the frost and say, “Bring it on, motherfucker!” Henry Kissinger once said, “Whatever must happen ultimately should happen immediately.” The discourse of summer-pop, like all flimsy structures, will one day be knocked to the ground in order to make room for new ones. “It ought to happen now,” says Kissinger.
Exploding Head, A Place To Bury Stranger’s follow-up to their much-praised 2007 debut, is the first healthy tooth-kick delivered to the hypnotized bums of summer. These aren’t songs about strolling up and down a Jersey boardwalk in search of pizza and skeeball; they're about total self-disintegration. The central theme of the album is the perpetual slipping away of things: feelings, the Self, the Lover, the Other. These personal/textual foundations disappear, completely vanishing with the exception of the shadow-self that remains, in the end, outside of and overpowered by the heart it once lived within. This vanishing is not the universal consequence of time, but the result of the most painful, brutal banishment. Our character has been thrown out of the place that was once the most warm and welcoming, doomed forever to remain in the shadows. Despite Oliver Ackermann’s vocals occasionally angrily matching up with the punishing sounds that push Exploding Head to do exactly what its title promises, they ultimately remain fragile and drenched in tragedy.
Surely, the fuzz-fanatics and Loveless-loyalists are bound to lodge criticisms against Exploding Head, arguing that there’s less noise-screech here than on the debut, and that the vocals are more articulate rather than lost in mysterious reverb-mazes. These critiques, however, have less to do with the actual contents of the album and more to do with the uncritical myth that artists like A Place To Bury Strangers will never be able to capture the rawness and noisiness of albums past. Besides, fuzz persists throughout Exploding Head, commencing as soon as Ackermann’s rocket-tones blast off on “It Is Nothing.” The glass-shattering reverb-shimmers on “In Your Heart” leave thick traces of ear-bleeding goodness, as Jay Space punishes the drums with non-stop fury. One of the standout tracks on the album, “Deadbeat,” begins with a surf riff that instantly rams into a wall of beats and impenetrable static that, if not for Jono MOFO’s Big Black-esque bass foundations, might have dissolved into nothing, falling into the void along with the disappearing character’s eventual ego death.
One of the most obvious departures from their debut album can be found in Exploding Head's increased intensity in pace and mood. The pounding beats are relentless in contrast to the debut's momentary cool-outs on tracks like “The Falling Sun” and “Ocean.” In fact, “Lost Feeling,” which sounds like a nod to Joy Division’s “Shadow Play,” is the only track where things temporarily slow down, and even here, Space's pounding build-up induces a trance that's feverish, not calming. These fierce beats make Exploding Head much more danceable than their debut, and one can easily envision the dance-sweat burning off the remaining fragments of the self that are not broken down quickly enough by the emotional torture the character undergoes.
Exploding Head is a solid album that spits in the face of any sophomore slump expectations. The band has managed to shoot more energy and fury into an aesthetic that normally tires out after one album’s worth of material. That said, one is forced to wonder whether they will be able to continue working within the necessarily limiting structures of their chosen sound, or if they will have to become apostates in order to preserve their artistic momentum. For now, Exploding Head captures the band at the height of their game. And in a year when the most praised albums have been little more than sleep-fodder and forgettable suntan tunes, A Place To Bury Strangers remind us that it’s still possible to have our brains rocked the fuck out.
1. It Is Nothing
2. In Your Heart
3. Lost Feeling
5. Keep Slipping Away
6. Ego Death
7. Smile When You Smile
8. Everything Always Goes Wrong
9. Exploding Head
10. I Lived My Life To Stand In The Shadow Of Your Heart