Once claimed to be “the loudest band in New York”, noise rockers A Place To Bury Strangers have carved out a true cult following since forming in 2002. By creating a sound that fused heavy distortion with gothic and shoegaze tendencies, their first two albums laid down some wantonly dense retro sounds, while their later releases somehow managed to feel a little more accessible without losing too many of the band’s most confrontational elements.
Their 2019 release ‘The Fuzz Club Session’ was recorded in a single day when APTBS visited Love Buzz Studios in South London at the end of a tour. According to frontman Oliver Ackermann, there are times where it’s possible for a band to feel tired of their own material after being on the road, so a little re-invention is needed to keep things interesting. That’s very much where this release comes in.
While you might expect your average APTBS live recording to amp up the distortion to absolutely ridiculous levels, the first thing that’s notable here is how sharp most of this recording actually sounds. Yes, it has distortion and yes, it stays true to the band’s origins, but the way these tracks have been reworked in an intimate setting actually brings out their finer details in a couple of instances. ‘Never Coming Back’ is a good example of this, since it’s played fairly faithfully to its ‘Pinned’ album equivalent, but with the vocals shorn of some of their distortion and the bass mixed in a way that sounds both fuller and cleaner, APTBS wind up feeling like a dark, gothy and slightly more commercial version of their usual selves. It’s a great recording that finds Oliver in good form vocally – and since everything loosens slightly towards the end to usher in a wall of howling guitars, it has just enough bite to keep the older fans happy. ‘Punch Back’ (a track from the ‘Pinned’ deluxe edition) gets a workout here that’s actually the opposite. The warmth of the studio take is replaced by an odd feeling of distance. Drenched in echo, the drums sound more industrial and the ugly shapes thrown out by the guitars are utterly relentless in the way they pierce through everything. Out front, vocalist Lia howls and curls her voice, resulting in something that’s at once disarming but also fairly confrontational…and stripped of the various effects that buried her studio performance, she sounds so much more vibrant. This is almost certainly more interesting than the studio recording.
Going back to the 2007 debut, ‘Ocean’ appears in a savage arrangement that draws more heavily on the pulsing repetition. The way the bass pushes through, no matter how intrusive Ackerman’s sheet of ringing guitar noise becomes, is the very essence of why this band impresses with such a confronting sound, while a heavy rendition of ‘Drill It Up’ makes a great feature of the drums. The EP version was always cool, but hardcore fans will surely love the way this live take values the bass drum and shrill guitar sounds over the vocal or any kind of obvious melody. Better yet, though, is the rendition of ‘We’ve Come So Far’ that has so many effects placed on the vocals and drums, it doesn’t even sound live. Sharp and frenetic, there’s a really cold feel to these five minutes, as if the original tapes from Jesus & Mary Chain’s ‘Psychocandy’ sessions have been roughed up for an industrial remix…and with guitars bombing with the sound of crashing spitfires, there’s a careening chaos within the noise that just has to be loved. Brilliant.
For hardcore fans, the best news of all is that this disc contains a previously unheard song. Utilising a slow, programmed beat and a frightening amount of echo, ‘Chrome Shadow’ at first sounds like APTBS are going to pay tribute to Joy Division as there’s a very strong ‘Unknown Pleasures’ vibe coupled with some intensive, ominous drones. Then – bam! – the rhythm is masked by ferocious distortion that then appears to loop, creating something that hurts in the same way the most intense moments of the APTBS debut once had. From out of the fug, Oliver’s vocal at first struggles to make an impact, and then you realise it’s so heavily distorted it’s never actually breaking through. There are even a few seconds where his voice has been so fucked up by effects that it sounds like an electronic death ray from an old 60s sci-fi series. Since the drones and beats continue, it soon becomes clear that this is one of the most difficult APTBS numbers to emerge for a few years. Following the occasional hints at something more commercial on a couple of the band’s previous albums, this is a full on return to the confrontational and impenetrable noise from their first two records. It’s mean and almost unlistenable in places – older fans will be in their element!
The older material isn’t always reinvented in a really massive or overly striking way here, but there’s enough of a variation on the songs for fans to perhaps gain a new perspective. Against the odds, ‘Fuzz Club Session’ somehow manages to be everything to everyone: long-time supporters get another release and the potential to hear a couple of old things with new ears, while the uninitiated get a fantastic (if brief) career overview packed into approximately twenty seven minutes. Both parties also get brand new material…and A Place To Bury Strangers effectively draw another phase of their journey to a close. More than just a curio, ‘Fuzz Club Session’ joins 2012’s slightly more accessible ‘Worship’ as a career highlight.