In a past life, Arbor Labor Union were known as Pinecones. In fact, that previous incarnation wasn’t really that long ago—that Athens, Georgia post-hardcore act’s debut, Sings For You Now, was released in early 2015, introducing the band as a sprawling, psychedelic bunch of avant garde punks literate in the complete works of Baltimore mystics Lungfish. A year later, they changed their name and signed to Sub Pop, signaling a transformation of sorts. That’s only true in the sense of stepping to up to a more visible platform on the national stage. Their name is a bit wordier, their label a more prominent staple of indie rock, but their sound on new album I Hear You stays true to the expansive punk dirges they carved out on their first album.
True to themselves if not to a more conventional or recognizable punk ethos or aesthetic, Arbor Labor Union’s new full-length rides grooves and riffs much longer than most bands would allow. They find a melody and get comfortable in it, reaching climaxes only occasionally and with mostly subtle shifts. This is, in essence, where the comparisons to Lungfish come in, as that band had a similarly circular approach to song progression. But that’s not necessarily the whole of Arbor Labor Union’s sound. Their songs are more like punk rock ragas, balancing Southern rock riffs with an almost drone-like ambiance. They don’t throttle, they hypnotize.
“Mr. Birdsong,” the leadoff track on I Hear You, is a good litmus test for the listener. Opening with a flutter of feedback—something of a literal “birdsong” in effects pedal form—the track stretches out for seven and a half minutes as singer Bo Orr delivers an erratically punctuated soliloquy to the character in question. It’s probably amazing on drugs, though it’s definitely excellent if you’re not. Though patience is an important factor here. “Hello Transmission” is arguably even stronger, its slow-mo chug and swirling jangle repeating for a full two minutes before Orr unleashes his first cryptic bellow.
When Arbor Labor Union really gets going, as on the dense surge of “Radiant Mountain Road,” they have an undeniable energy and a sense of tension that feels all the more satisfying when it finally breaks. Likewise, their approach never strays far from a Rickenbackers-in-the-gutter sound, so it’s all the more remarkable when, in a song like “I Am You,” they make a big statement with only a slight change of direction. There are punk albums that hit harder, move faster, have more prominent hooks or flashier frontmen, but I Hear You makes a strong case for punk as an exercise in riding a groove.