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Total Sonic Annihilation. Death by Audio. Loudest Band in New York.
For better or worse, these phrases have attached themselves to Brooklyn's A Place to Bury Strangers. The words seem almost comically boastful: Although they're meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there is something funny about a band whose recordings break record presses, whose shows have prompted death threats from sound guys and gotten shut down by police (who in one instance waited to pull the plug because, an officer said, "This band is sick").
That "loudest" designation is actually not something the group embraces. It was supposedly hung on the band — guitarist/vocalist Oliver Ackermann, bassist Jonathan "Jono MOFO" Smith and drummer Jay Space — by a blogger at an early show, and then Smith put it up on Bury's MySpace page as a joke. The act's record company then decided to put stickers on the front of its self-titled debut album that read "New York's Loudest Band," which is indeed quite a boast for a band from the noise capital of the country. Much as the players might demur about their claim to that title, the tag has stuck ever since.
"I think people get a different idea as to, you know, 'What is loud?'" says the laid-back, chatty Ackermann by phone. "I mean, we play really loud, with the amps cranked up, but you know, you can go see Bruce Springsteen and he's probably really crazy loud; he just doesn't sound loud because he's playing, like, an acoustic guitar or something. And you'll be there for like three hours." But Ackermann's band usually doesn't play for more than half an hour or so, and he claims that the ears can handle really high volumes for short times. The bandmembers don't even wear earplugs, and Ackermann swears he doesn't have any hearing damage. "I don't know...we've been doing this for a really long time, so maybe our ears have gotten a little used to it."
For his part, Ackermann has been crushing eardrums since the mid-'90s, when he fronted the similarly minded Skywave, which almost certainly was the loudest band in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Back then, Ackermann's favored touchstones — the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, the Cure, Ministry — were not as far in the past as they seem now, whereas A Place to Bury Strangers seems almost like a throwback act. Skywave didn't survive Ackermann's move to Brooklyn early this decade, but his love for thick hazes of booming distortion certainly did.
"I think it's just really beautiful," he says. "There's kind of this chaos with the noise that brings out different interesting elements or things that you could never explain."
Creating such a squall takes its toll on equipment — shows often end when Ackermann has no strings left on his guitar — but this doesn't really bother him. "We try to lose our shit as much as we can," he points out. "We use different visuals and strobe lights, you know, getting it to where we feel really disoriented on stage, and at those moments you kind of lose it sometimes.... Any guitar can always be glued back together. I guess I'm at an advantage, where I can fix most of our equipment, since I build effects pedals and can modify our amps — so if something goes wrong, usually we can repair it."
Which brings us to Death by Audio. Death by Audio is the name of Ackermann's effects-pedal company/performance space/recording studio/record label/home. He founded DBA (get it?) in 2001 as a way to make a bit of extra money; though he had studied industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, he had no formal background in electronics, so he basically taught himself how to build pedals by trial and error and by reading books. He now sells pedals with names like Soundwave Breakdown, Interstellar Overdriver Supreme and Fuzz War to acts like U2, Nine Inch Nails, TV on the Radio and, most recently, Kevin Shields, whose status as mastermind of My Bloody Valentine renders him nothing less than a deity among noise fans.
"It was insane," says Ackermann, who definitely perks up as soon as this is mentioned. "We just played a show with them in Norway at a festival...and we got to hang out with those guys, and Kevin was, like, really psyched that he got the pedals and got to use them, and it was just nuts to hear that." (Regular folks can buy these pedals, too, on Death by Audio's website.)
And, of course, these custom effects, which can make you cringe with high frequencies as surely as they can pummel you with mids and lows, have been a key part of A Place to Bury Strangers' sound ever since it was formed in 2003. In building them, Ackermann has learned a great deal about the way the ear hears certain frequencies and the different ways it can be tricked. He describes building a pedal that was "two different filters, and although everything would stay the same volume, it would introduce different frequencies on both of these filter channels, and so you could just switch back and forth between these two filters, and it would keep making it sound like it got louder and louder, when really it's just like switching between two different frequency sets.... Listening to it, you get accustomed to the sound that you just heard, so you don't hear that initial blast, but when you switch to that other thing, then you hear it so that it's almost like an explosion."
Which leads us, finally, to Total Sonic Annihilation. Total Sonic Annihilation, the name of Death by Audio's original pedal and the headline on A Place to Bury Strangers' MySpace page, may seem like tongue-in-cheek hyperbole until you hear the band, at which point it merely becomes an accurate description of its sound.
A Place to Bury Strangers, which comprised recordings from throughout the early years of the group's career and was released in the summer of 2007, wastes no time in announcing its agenda; the very first sound is a blast of painful high-frequency fuzz. By the time you've frantically turned down the volume, these blasts have given way to rumbling bass, robotic drums and a much gentler, chiming guitar line — yes, Ackermann can do pretty, too. The rest of the album consists largely of the outfit taking its already noisy forebears and giving them the Death by Audio treatment: "Don't Think Lover" could be one of the best songs the Jesus and Mary Chain never recorded; "To Fix the Gash in Your Head" recalls Ministry and Broken-era Nine Inch Nails with its industrial drum machines and drill-like guitars; the stunning "The Falling Sun"— the album's highlight — is like the bombed-out remains of a Phil Spector ballad. And closer "Ocean," with its rubbery, churning bass line and epic sense of gloom, would be a dead ringer for an outtake from the Cure's Disintegration were it not for the layers and layers of fuzz, some of which can out-harsh Merzbow.
Initially pressed in a run of only 500 copies by tiny Boston imprint Killer Pimp, A Place to Bury Strangers received a Best New Music tag from indie kingmakers Pitchfork upon its release, and things took off from there. Earlier this year, industrial overlord/patron of awesome bands Trent Reznor tapped the band to open for Nine Inch Nails, and now it's on its first national headlining tour. New material, including a live album that's already been recorded, is forthcoming, but the bandmembers have to slow down first. When the act makes it home in December, Ackermann and company are planning to work toward finishing up a new album.
In the meantime, they'll be out happily weakening the foundations of clubs in North America and Europe, putting that whole no-earplugs, no-ear-damage notion to the test.