On Pinned, we see a band that has gotten lost.
Oliver Ackerman had an incredible place to work in New York’s “Death by Audio” shop and DIY workspace. He didn’t just work there; it was literally his home. When you live in a warehouse you can turn things up really, really loud and experiment with some of the juiciest, craziest and most innovative guitar effects imaginable. This is the legacy of the first 10 years in the life of A Place to Bury Strangers.
A few band members have come and gone between records, but the band has managed to maintain a career trajectory and a sound that seemed to build momentum with every release. But they’ve been a little quieter since Death by Audio closed in 2014, both figuratively and literally. Ackerman had to move into a small apartment where he was no longer allowed to wind out crazy sonic storms. As he put it, “I couldn’t make too much noise, couldn’t disturb my neighbors. I would just sit there and write with a drum machine. It had to be about writing a good song and not about being super, sonically loud.” The trouble is, some would argue that the overwhelming waves of distortion, beats and struggling vocals was the appeal of A Place to Bury Strangers. Take all that away, and 2018’s Pinned is what remains.
Take “Situations Changes,” for example. It’s a quiet track which slowly builds with an organic drum rhythm and distant bass guitar lick. Ackerman’s vocals are up front and, as happens too frequently on this album, drummer Lia Simone Braswell sings along. Played right, this could work, but it feels off somehow. Braswell’s vocals might work far better on a track by themselves. Ackerman sings predominantly in a sort of signature weak falsetto and when Braswell simply compounds that sound it has the effect of taking the edge off of what would otherwise be a moody song with serious depth. Even the guitar effects and those rolling drum hits are lost in the wash of syrupy vocals.
“Frustrated Operator” has Ackerman singing low but again Braswell simply sings along while for the most part not really offering anything other than doubling down with two voices. The song is worse for it.
Nothing here seems dynamic or catchy and the record sort of plods along on an even keel of similarity and monotony. Between Braswell’s vocal addition and a far more muted range of sounds overall, the record tries to rely too heavily on the things that A Place to Bury Strangers haven’t been very good at.
But it’s not without it’s positive aspects as well. The melody on “Was it Electric” is beautiful and haunting and here Braswell only embellishes while letting Ackerman’s wallowing do what it does best. Her rolling, pounding drums beat out a relentless, impossible urgency while they both descend deeper and deeper into a hole of ethereal noise. This track is the record’s biggest standout and inspires hope that the next few tracks will see it turn a corner. The closer, “Keep Moving On,” is another winner, but too little too late.
The earlier A Place to Bury Strangers was a force credited with reinvigorating shoegaze and noiserock. The band was lauded for rising up out of nowhere with a sound long thought dead and breathing new life into it. With every album they pushed that sound further by introducing new elements such as rock drum patterns, surf-style reverb bass lines and wafting guitar sounds rolling around like an evil mist. On Pinned we see a band that has gotten lost in that mist, forgetting what made them stand out and moving away from it. You can’t fault them for that. But sometimes when you move forward, you only find a nostalgia for what you left behind.