Boston trio Pile made their name on fascinatingly askew indie rock and post-hardcore anthems, flecked with an earthier folk influence and prone to dramatic changes in both volume and tone. One need not look far into their catalog to find an ample backlog of potent guitar anthems, albeit anthems that frequently steer clear of rock’s most well-worn tropes. It’s perhaps fitting that Pile—whose approach to music made with guitars has never shared much in common with bands that typically occupy the tablature pages in glossy shredder mags—made their best album to date, 2023’s All Fiction, by taking inspiration from more electronics-based artists, including Portishead and Broadcast. That it’s still a work made primarily with guitars only speaks to bandleader Rick Maguire’s ability to look beyond the limitations of the fretboard.
The group’s five-song EP Hot Air Balloon comprises outtakes from All Fiction, which are neither inferior songs nor intended as b-sides or leftovers. In fact, they’d just as easily make for a batch of strong standalone singles, each piece spiritually connected to those on the band’s prior full-length as well as showcasing the depth and maturity of their songwriting after a career spent honing their barnburners into songs with a greater sense of nuance and atmosphere. Opener “Scaling Walls” is one of the best of the bunch, drummer Kris Kuss’ rhythmic shifts and nimble fills lending a rush of energy and power to what might otherwise be ambient pop, its otherworldly drone glowing beneath a snarling escalation.
That atmospheric sensibility—maintaining a steady distance from the group’s more explosive tendencies—ties together the five songs on Hot Air Balloon. They’re less rippers than dirges, meditative and cerebral, and lean more heavily on the presence of synths—or at least a less obvious guitar presence, anyhow—than any of the group’s many prior releases. “Only For a Reminder” floats within a warmly looping arpeggio, novel in its inertia rather than driving in forward motion, whereas “The Birds Attacked My Hot Air Balloon” juxtaposes brushed drums with whirring organ, evoking early ’00s Radiohead struck with a case of springtime daydream whimsy.
It’s in the final two songs that Pile recapture the grandeur that made their most recent LP as stunning as it is, balancing exploratory arrangements with an urgency that connects them to the grittier and grungier compositions of Pile’s past. As “Exits Blocked” slowly spirals toward a climax of psychedelic intensity, “You Get to Decide” is the rare moment here that actually features the kind of sudden, jarring rise in volume and distortion that might have been more characteristic in years past. That the group let it happen just the once makes it all the more effective, a blistering reminder of their searing potency amid a set of songs that finds them at their most refined.
Label: Exploding in Sound
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.