Between songs at last night's Firebird show, A Place to Bury Strangers guitarist/vocalist Oliver Ackermann crouched down over a mysterious, suitcase-sized box with cables protruding from it. He dialed knobs like some kind of short-wave-radio operator tuning in scrambled signals from another galaxy.
Getting the chance to witness Ackermann coaxing these overwhelming sound collages from his guitar, effects rig and wall of Fender amplifiers in a small club setting feels almost voyeuristic, like you're maybe being allowed to see more of the mad science lab than you're supposed to. But the near darkness that shrouded the band for most of its set -- along with the seeming ease with which Ackerman executed his pedal switching dance in the near smoky darkness -- provided plenty of mystery. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that he designs his own effects: His boutique, Death By Audio, has become a go-to effects shop for everyone from Trent Reznor to Jeff Tweedy.
But this kind of hype has been building around APTBS for a few years now -- and like any band worth its salt that finds itself in this situation, Ackermann, bassist Jonathan "Jono MOFO" Smith and drummer Jay Space have obviously used its touring and recording opportunities to work toward perfecting its craft. Space's drumming has become tighter and he now incorporates synth pads that add a more industrial edge to the band's sound. Smith's low end rumble continues to anchor the rhythm section and never gets in the way of Ackermann's whirlwind of buzzsaw distortion and reverb.
Most of the first two-thirds of the band's set focused on new material from this year's Exploding Head. These tighter, industrial synthpop numbers were less shrouded in noise and let the lull of Ackermann's voice almost hypnotize the crowd. They were also the moments where his continuing evolution as a guitarist and effects manipulator were most evident. Whereas the last couple of visits by this trio of noiseists were dominated by deafening decibel levels and a near-constant barrage of enveloping noise, last night's show was much more dynamic. This allowed the more delicate and intricate characteristics of Ackermann's playing and singing to come through while also creating enough head-room for the band's loudest sections to have a significant impact.
That impact was made about three songs from the end of the band's set when Ackermann changed guitars, switched on trademark strobe lights and commenced with a fifteen-minute descent into a dark, smoky onslaught of furious noise that sounded like a head-on collision in reverse, or the gears and mechanisms of a gritty factory being forcibly ground to a halt. But what made this sound so powerful is not the sheer volume with which it was executed, but the attention the band took to making sure that the insanely high volume and noise was made up of only pleasant frequencies (as weird as that sounds to say) that didn't really cut through or pummel so much as they enveloped the room and flowed around the tightly packed crowd like roaring water.