Naming subgenres is probably one of the critics’ favorite tasks, and for some forms of music that doesn’t create too much pretense; whether twelve-tone or soul jazz, such descriptors often fit the bill. With rock music (and especially indie rock), things get a little more difficult. It’s hard to imagine any band approving of being called math-rock, post-rock, or slow-core. What’s really interesting is that sometimes the more unadorned the music, the more we want to find something to call it other than “music” or “rock.” The music of Virginia’s Pontiak — comprising three brothers, Van, Lain, and Jennings Carney — is powerful and ultimately very essentialist, though swathed in layers of psychedelic fuzz. Over the course of five discs for Thrill Jockey and one on their own Fireproof Records, Pontiak have carved out a respectable litany of muscular, sinewy, and motoring rock. Echo Ono is the trio’s latest, and puts nine tracks through their paces at just over a half hour of playing that is both frill-free and fascinatingly exploratory.
If one wanted to, one could put Pontiak alongside bands like Arboretum and Lungfish, though they don’t always have the same subtle detailing as the latter group. Van Carney’s vocals tend to take a back seat to the trio’s collective motion, applied as a keening textural wash over the whole, which also isn’t to say the lyrics themselves are inaudible or unimportant — ‘auxiliary’ might be a better way to put it. “Lions of Least” is a strong head-bobbing jam, guitar tendrils and keyboard burbles snaking out amid a grungy, lockstep rhythm section and swarming riffs. Sure, it’s anthemic and masculine, but with curious harmonies and monolithic entreaties that recall Pass and Stow-era Lungfish. “The North Coast” begins with wispy vocals over a slinky, metronomic backbeat and hollow strums, the chorus section by contrast a trance-inducing gnash. This piece segues almost immediately into the tumbling toms and dirty needle swirl of “Left with Lights,” which sounds as though Spacemen 3 had been weaned on The Groundhogs.
Things get softer with “The Expanding Sky,” a reverberant and sun-bleached ballad that recalls Reagan-era Pink Floyd, albeit much sparser. With the addition of organ and mellotron on “Silver Shadow,” that comparison is much more apt, and though the rhythm section revels in Southern Gothic sludge, it’s clear that Pontiak are showing a prettier, quite majestic side to their work. “Stay Out, What A Sight” melds drumset gallops, hand percussion, and acoustic guitar for a bright, folksy lyricism that comes as a surprise, though one can see that programmatically they’ve been building up to this point. Gritty overlays on “Royal Colors” bring us back to familiar territory, girded by electric organ pulses that nod to Phillip Glass and support the band’s raging squall.
With Echo Ono, despite their disposition to meaty and minimalist hard rock, Pontiak have shown that there is music beyond what they know. It will be interesting to see how they continue to suss it out.