On Friday, A Place To Bury Strangers (APTBS) and Cymbals Eat Guitars shared a head-splitting bill at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg. For noise-rock fans, the lineup made strange sense: both bands can reasonably be described as tribute acts, and both demonstrate how that’s not necessarily a bad thing. APTBS — the sort of band acronyms were invented for — culls generously from the corridors of British goth and shoegaze, welding the screech of the Jesus and Mary Chain with the mope of Bauhaus. Cymbals, by contrast, take their cues from the eight-track squalls of early ‘90s indie-rock — think Pavement, Built to Spill, Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., all filtered lovingly by a bunch of Staten Island twenty-somethings. On Friday, both New York acts wore these influences with pride, and both delivered admirably.
When I arrived at the venue, I found APTBS’s tour opener, Hunters, wrapping up a raucous set. I regret not showing up earlier: with vocalist Isabel Almeida in tow, the band packed a rousing Riot Grrrl punch reminiscent of fellow Brooklynites EULA. Fittingly, Hunters’ debut EP was mixed by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner; on “Deadbeat”, Almeida channels Corin Tucker circa ’96, alternating shrieks of “I want it!” and “I need it!” with piercing guitar squalls.
Next came Cymbals Eat Guitars. I last caught the band at a 2009 college show, when Why There Are Mountains was new and founding members Dan Baer and Neil Berenholz were still in the band. One album, two lineup shifts, and a full tour cycle later, CEG has lost none of its trademarks: full-bodied feedback swoops, rich keyboard textures, and achingly plaintive vocals from guitarist Joe D’Agostino. The singer’s unabashed earnestness sets the band apart from the pack of ‘90s worshippers, and it’s what makes them great: D’Agostino’s vocal range encompasses emotive shrieks, unruffled moans, and tortured yelps, often in the same song, and without losing his every-dude cool.
Cymbals kicked off with a thundering guitar groan, then launched into a triumphant 40-minute set of heart-charged guitar rock, naturally emphasizing 2011’s Lenses Alien (which was written and recorded with the new lineup). Lenses is a tighter, more compact beast than Mountains (D’Agostino has credited producer John Agnello with the terse song structures and shorter lengths), and it paid off onstage, where the quartet played the album’s first six tracks with sloppy, impassioned elegance. Terse, driving numbers like “Keep Me Waiting” (which found D’Agostino spitting into his mic during the rousing octave jump) and “Another Tunguska” (which started small, but erupted into gorgeous, weighty guitar whines halfway through) boasted the group’s considerable range in tight, three-minute chunks, while “Shore Points” filtered light piano dribbles and pretty backing whoas into the band’s punkish burst. “Plainclothes”, D’Agostino’s tale of shooting cops and escaping to the Jersey Shore, made for a particular highlight, spinning waves of guitar feedback over an unlikely disco backbeat. The rhythm section often drowned out the higher end of the mix, but you couldn’t miss D’Agostino’s fantastic screamed verse at the end of the track.
The setlist made room for a new track, “Hawk Highway”, as well as two older cuts. On the bright, piano-driven “Indiana”, the band milked the fuzzy intro for an extra two minutes of noise bliss; on the epic loud-quiet-loud banger “…And The Hazy Sea”, Matthew Miller spiced up the drum rolls during D’Agostino’s screams and propelled the band through a rousing wah-wah explosion. Highlighting the debut’s expansive compositional tendencies, both tracks contrasted well with Lenses Alien’s firmer song structures. Sure, CEG could have played more from Mountains — or a longer set in general — but so goes the opening slot.
When A Place To Bury Strangers finally took the stage, they were already awash in smoke machine haze and red stage lights. Decked out in black attire and combat boots, the Brooklyn trio’s showy rock-star poses clashed amusingly with Cymbals’ jeans-and-flannel normalcy; the members seemed almost to be mocking the previous band’s impossibly modest stage presence. APTBS remained cloaked in darkness and disorienting light-projected imagery throughout the performance. It was more than just spectacle — to some extent, it seemed a fitting visual representation of the band’s unequaled volume and sheer mass of sound.
This is a band whose mildest songs, like “Exploded Head”, can envelope you in noise and reverberate in your gut. If you get too close to the amps (as I did), you can feel the wind in your face. The band’s clearest reference point is the Jesus & Mary Chain, and frontman Oliver Ackermann is the founder of Death By Audio effects pedals, literally manufacturing guitar noise in his spare time. He brags about effects that will blow out your amp. Is it any wonder APTBS has been crowned the “loudest band in New York”?
The band performed material from 2009’s aptly titled Exploding Head and this year’s Worship, spanning a thin gamut from hellish surf rock (“Dead Beat”, which found bassist Dion Lunadon kicking his mic stand furiously) to cold industrial-punk (“Mind Control”, with cool, evil vocals by Ackermann) and back. The tempos varied, shifting alongside a revolving door of key influences (think JAMC, Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Cure, lather, rinse, repeat), but the formula stayed pretty constant: drummer Robi Gonzalez bangs out a basic post-punk rhythm, Lunadon pounds out a sinister, throbbing riff from his almost comically overdriven bass, and Ackermann gleefully sets the whole thing ablaze with screeching sheets of guitar noise.
Unlike Cymbals, Strangers’ songwriting is often simplistic and occasionally faceless, lacking the songwriting complexity to elevate the band beyond its influences. Ackermann’s effects arsenal couldn’t rescue “Lost Feeling” from sounding like the mopey Cure imitation it is. But what the band lacks in originality, it makes up for with sheer intensity and raw spectacle. The band closed with the epic, slow-burning “I Lived My Life To Stand In The Shadow Of Your Heart”. The punk melody, one of the group’s best, disintegrated into a fuzzy, endless death groove.
Shadowed in strobe lights, Ackermann and Lunadon stalked cruelly across the stage, smashing their guitar necks into each other and against their amps. Ackermann lifted his modified amp above the audience, then kneeled at his pedal board, lit madly from below as he coaxed piercing noise from the instrument. (A YouTube user recorded much of the scene.) Lunadon, at once maniacal and methodical, towered his amps together, swinging his bass into it like an axe. Then, terrifyingly, he lifted the modified Fender amp above his head. He glared, then released it in a frenzy — lugging it straight in my direction. I jumped in fear, but it landed on the stage. Satisfied, Lunadon and Gonzalez walked off. Ackermann stayed put, hunched wildly over his effects board and seemingly relishing every moment. If you’re going to be the loudest band in New York, you might as well enjoy it.
Photography by Rachel Pincus.