On Neck of the Woods, Silversun Pickups add enough new twists to keep things fresh without straying far from what has cemented them as one of the more exciting bands in rock and roll ever since Pikul.
“Skin Graph” opens the album patiently with soft drones and gentle strokes weaning you from whatever world your head has occupied and places you squarely in their vicinage. At the one minute mark, the hum rumbles to the point of combustion and unleashes squalling fuzz not unlike the black-and-white, siren-song hit list transitions in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. The song propels into a classic Pickups’ wheelhouse with spiraling guitars while Aubert sings “all I think about is why the skin I’m in feels ordinary” before “Skin Graph” uncoils into utter bombast while Aubert howls “skin is alive and it’s leaving. Skin is alive and it moves me.”
“Make Believe” has Aubert utilizing a more of a soulful vocal register than we’ve seen him previously attempt. It’s also a song that drives home the sheer complexity of Chris Guanlao’s drumming and the tight rhythmic partnership between him and vastly underrated bassist Nikki Monninger. Ever since seeing Silversun Pickups touring behind Carnavas, I’ve never shied from heralding Chris Guanlao as one of the most exceptional drummers in rock and roll. In the midst of what is unequivocally a guitar band (every print piece about the band compares them with Smashing Pumpkins for this very reason) that also happens to have a singer with unshakable vocals, Guanlao holds his own to the point that he is a legitimately commanding presence onstage. His trademark arm raised high only to thunder down upon the skins with the force of his entire body is something you can never really tire of watching. He makes expert use of his entire kit and electronic drum pads all over Neck of the Woods. His versatility here is possibility more impressive than ever. When songs build to the near-breaking points, he’s right in step with the colossal buzzsaw guitars and she shifts gears on a dime, all the while jumping between clever rhythms and pure propulsion.
The shimmering first single, “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings, grows from a thin electronic haze through the verses into a massive shoegaze gale for the chorus. The dreamy sonic canvas painted under the eye of high-profile producer Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M., Snow Patrol, Crystal Castles, Bloc Party) is clear in the sheen of Neck of the Woods, but it’s a slick varnish that buffs the sound without daring cut its muscle. Lee brings touches of The Edge’s bouncing guitars, a definitive New Order electronic bounce on “The Pit” and Depeche Mode imprints here and there throughout the entirety of Neck of the Woods.
The album capitalizes on the use of synthetic sounds in the Pickups’ alternative psychedelia without digressing into electronica or a spaced-out loss of focus. Silversun Pickups excel at patiently creating an ethereal atmosphere of shimmering lights in an expansive midnight sky that can flare up into an addictive fury, seemingly in a split-second. You feel it coming when the tempo picks up, the guitars start layering on top of each other and then keys, bass and drums all explode in a choreographed battle at breakneck speed. It feels like all hell is on the verge of breaking loose; the walls shake, the floorboards splinter. It’s total release, and Silversun Pickups are adroit at delivering it time and again without getting stale (check out the one-two punch of “Mean Spirits” for and “Simmer” for prime examples.)
On Pikul, Carnavas, Swoon and now Neck of the Woods, Silversun Pickups prove they make full albums jam-packed with sharp turns, shifting tempos that rise up to tsunami heights and settle back down to tame currents with total precision. The wonder of it all is how they consistently make the transition from the calm to the fury and back again seem simultaneously spontaneous and clinically sharp.
Silversun Pickups have been labeled since their inception as Smashing Pumpkins fetishists. That label may never die, and I for one wouldn’t mind if it didn’t. When you brand your band in that territory from the outset, the expectation is for a gargantuan sound, and Silversun Pickups have delivered upon that promise since Pikul. They amplify it on Neck of the Woods to create a stadium-sized sound for a band whose hallmark sound has consistently trounced the modest venues they customarily play. Once again, Silversun Pickups prove you can stick to your guns and your influences, add a glossy veneer now and again and make a play for maximum impact without overstepping a boundary or losing your luster.
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