Silversun Pickups frontman Brian Aubert has compared the band’s latest album, Neck of the Woods, to a horror movie. The record’s atmosphere is certainly dark and moody, even if that’s not necessarily new ground for the group, and Aubert and Co. show a new found fascination with ghost stories and the frailty of the human body, making it the lyrical equivalent of an early film by David Cronenberg or John Carpenter. In fact, if the trilogy of Carnavas, Swoon, and Neck of the Woods made up the first three films of a slasher franchise, it could easily be Carpenter’s original Halloween series.
Carnavas ebbed and flowed between restraint and chaos a la Michael Myers, stalking the listener with Nikki Monninger’s brooding bass in songs like “Three Seed” before murdering their eardrums with the shoegaze distortion of “Common Reactor.” Sophomore effort Swoon, or Halloween II, was more muscular (if not quite as flawless) than its predecessor. With the cataclysmic fuzz amplified and the production bolstered by dramatic strings, the tunes were louder, faster, and more violent. At times it was messy, but nonetheless enjoyable.
In an attempt to draw in new viewers while still retaining the Halloween title, the script for Halloween III: Season of the Witch eschewed any mention of Michael Myers and opted instead for a crackpot story that involved druids, robots, and exploding masks. The sci-fi/horror fusion didn’t work, as things never veered far enough in either direction to make a coherent product. Neck of the Woods takes a similar middle of the road approach, and as a result, the Pickups sound oddly de-fanged.
Most songs begin quietly, with Aubert plucking lonely, cavernous notes over one of Joe Lester’s celestial keyboard riffs or a drum loop from Chris Guanlao. Over five to seven minutes (even their best work has always felt bloated), things gradually shift into a white noise that’s never quite as loud or cathartic as the band’s earlier songs. It’s as if the group wanted to branch into more introspective territory with each track, then quickly launched into a pale imitation of themselves when all else failed. “Make Believe”, “Busy Bees”, “Simmer”, “Out of Breath”, and the watered down Joy Division cut “The Pit” all take this approach: A structure of constant, predictable crescendo.
The most successful tracks see the band trying something either completely new or simply sticking to their 90s alt-rock guns. First single “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)” uses a synthesized dreamscape as an anchor rather than an afterthought, cycloning during the intro before dropping out to showcase Aubert’s androgynous wail. The keyboards morph throughout the rest of the song to display a keen sense of pop-oriented peaks and valleys instead of just building and building to nothing.
“Gun-Shy Sunshine” shows similar variance as it interweaves crunchy power cords with hissing loops and vintage organ rather than jarringly shifting back and forth. “Mean Spirits” is the only track to charge out of the barn already dripping with high-stakes distortion. Silversun Pickups have always been unfairly accused of aping The Smashing Pumpkins’ 90’s output, only embracing nostalgia instead of tip-toeing away from it might result in more toothier tracks like this. Like the best material on Carnavas, it conjures a white-knuckle chase scene that would find itself at home in any horror movie worth its salt.
Essential Tracks: “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)”, “Gun-Shy Sunshine”, and “Mean Spirits”
Feature artwork by Dmitri Jackson.