A Place to Bury Strangers emerged more or less fully formed out of the Brooklyn mid-2000s indie scene and have remained a constant within it ever since. Led by effects pedal specialist turned guitarist and vocalist Oliver Ackermann, they haven’t blown up, and they certainly haven’t gone pop, but nor have they faded away. The band’s signature element (earsplitting volume) and sound (a stew of post-punk, shoegaze, industrial, deathrock and noise) are both, more or less, as present on their latest EP Hologram as they were on the band’s 2007 eponymous debut.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, to be clear. APTBS had a sui generis sound when they started, and haven’t made large changes to it, even in semi-detours like 2018’s Pinned. They can craft a reasonably wide range of song styles within the framework of their reverb-drenched, almost KMFDM-esque blitzkrieg of distortion and pummelling rhythms—rave-ups, total barnburners, shoegaze ballads, ambient explorations, etc.—so the experience of each release usually doesn’t get repetitive beyond a two- or three-song stretch here and there.
For example, when it seems like Hologram will fall into a sameness trap after the one-two assault of “End of the Night” and “I Might Have,” the band dials back the intensity for the fast-paced but forlorn “Playing the Part.” New bassist John Fedowitz, one of Ackermann’s childhood bandmates, shows out quite well in this one, his lines every bit as robust as Ackermann’s clean or distorted guitar arpeggiations. Drummer Sara Fedowitz, both here and on the rest of the project, seems capable of handling anything Ackermann will throw at her, whether that means matching the distorted programmed breakbeats at the top of “End of the Night” or receding back in the mix (save for her titanic snare hits) for the Jesus & Mary Chain-indebted “I Need You.” The two musicians are as fine a supporting cast as Ackermann’s ever had.
There are some missteps. “In My Hive” starts out as a straightforward four-on-the-floor, Joy Division-esque tale of a relationship gone sour, but any momentum the song could build keeps being interrupted by background effects that are too loud in the mix and give the impression of bargain-basement haunted-house sounds. It seems almost aware of its own shortcomings due to a solo section midway through that you expect is prologue to a key change, but then it goes back to the same incoherence that’s characterized the rest of the song. On a more general level, Ackermann’s voice and lyrics, while never serving as the primary element of APTBS records, are truly buried here, leaving you puzzled as to the EP’s desired mood (with the exception of the plaintive, gut-wrenching “I Need You).
Few EPs ever feel truly “complete.” This is often true even when the form is used successfully to tell a story, as with the first two installments of Nine Inch Nails’ Bad Witch trilogy. There are no such concerns here: Hologram is simply a bite-sized sample of what A Place to Bury Strangers can do. It’s quite possible that Ackermann and the Fedowitzes found it necessary to make solely to get a sense of what their version of the band would represent, and were happy enough with the results to release them. These songs almost certainly aren’t the best they can do in this format, let alone equal to their best work on the self-titled or 2009’s Exploding Head. But Hologram does prove that the APTBS sonic dynamic still essentially works—and leave you quite curious as to what an LP might offer.