(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Recording review - Pontiak, Innocence (2014)

Bite-sized chunks of roiling guitar

Let the ritual of fuzz begin! Heat shimmers, metallic grind, throaty roars, and muted growls - a multitude of textures awaits on Pontiak's Innocence. The Carney brothers have an innate grasp on "What Would Black Sabbath Do?" It goes beyond a mere enthusiasm for retro classic metal psychedelia; the three of them seem ensnared in the heady, distorted echoes of 1970. Despite the psychic weight of that history, they still set one foot forward towards the modern era, bridging the gap by emulating the neo-psych acid-trails of bands like The Flaming Lips. Their unique balance depends on that mix of moods and it's mostly effective. The album is full of great song ideas and ballsy riffage. The one weakness is that they seem to tire of  the tunes before they fully ripen. Innocence's 11 tracks run just under 33 minutes, which would be great for teen idol pop fluff. But these songs deserve much better treatment.

Both of the first two tracks, "Innocence" and "Lack Lustre Rush", set up solid grooves, the first with a Cream-meets-Sabbath bass-heavy guitar throb and the latter with a thick drum-propelled gut-punch. But neither idea is developed to completion. The hard-rocking "Lack Lustre Rush" sinks twisted roots into punk nihilism and metal head-banging. Van Carney laconically speak-sings his lines over the static-tone wash of heavily abused cymbals. On the first listen, the speedy drum fills at 2:12 sounded like the signal for a bridge that would open the track up. Instead, they were merely an unadorned solo to put the piece to rest. That lack of stamina wasn't just a missed opportunity to expand into new directions; it drew attention to the song's tonal uniformity.

Fortunately, the third track, "Ghosts", offers redemption. The song kicks off with an octave-counterpoint whipsaw guitar that sounds like shred-head parody of The Knack's "My Sharona". But there's nothing to laugh at as the frantic pace and distorted riff relentlessly turn the screws tighter. The drums mutate the beat from the initial nervous tic into regular waves of roiling guitar grind. By the time the vocals float out over the throbbing terrain, you get the sense that somewhere deep in Heavy Metal Hell, a dark angel is finally getting its black leather wings. The bridge provides some respite from the tightly wound drive with a quick run of cut-time chord changes. The brief solo is a feedback-fueled bit of black-psychedelic beauty. Notes drip into the void of the implacable rhythm and then bow out for the next verse to come in. This time the drums are clearly taking the song out when they kick into overdrive. This climax sets up a radical break in the tone with the next track, "It's The Greatest".

Here Pontiak shows a new side by leading off with a reedy organ. The lingering chords and relaxed drumbeat borrow a lot from David Bowie's "Candidate" (Diamond Dogs, 1974). After the pressure of "Ghosts", the laid back mood is a relief. Even the hippy-dippy lyrics are a splash of cool water, "My God, It's the best afternoon we've had/ Nothing but to do this. Right on, it's the greatest." This sends the album in a new direction for the next couple of songs, which favor The Flaming Lips style of trippy folk-flavored rock. The interlude serves its purpose and lets us catch our breath before Innocence falls back under the thrall of their metal-flaked influences with "Surrounded By Diamonds". The heavy Super-Fuzz tone sets up a choppy strobe-flicker of rhythm guitar to support the Ozzie-style vocal.

The album showcases Pontiak's feel for sculpting distortion into all kinds of shapes. Skewed reflections of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Tommy Iommi, and Jimmy Page make their appearances, but the band still shows plenty of originality, albeit in bite-sized chunks. Here's to hoping that their next release will dig deeper into the tunes.

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