With downcast eyes and a soft-spoken demeanor between songs, Brian Aubert of L.A.’s Silversun Pickups is very much a portrait of the reluctant frontman. But with the flick of a pedal from his eagerly tapping foot, he leads his band roaring into heavily distorted guitar rock; a mixture of fuzzy angst and quiet-loud dynamics applied generously to a base of early ’90s alternative music. On stage, Aubert and his bandmates, bassist Nikki Monninger, keyboardist Joe Lester and drummer Christopher Guanlao, erupt into a coalescent wall of intuitive rock bliss, with just a sampling of shoegazing tendencies. Imagine Kevin Shields fronting The Smashing Pumpkins in their early days, with a strong sense of melody and pop structure, and you’ll have a good starting point. Their recordings lose none of the energy from their live set, as evidenced by last year’s Pikul EP. Silversun Pickups’ debut full-length, Carnavas, has only sharpened the edges of an already tight outfit promised by their excellent EP.
Carnavas is an album that is visceral by way of mechanization. Aubert’s raw vocals, when combined with the often moody accompaniment of his band mates, conjure images of the beast that lurks beneath the glitz and glamour of Hollywood; the drugs, the misdirected ambition, the things that are anything than what they first appear. Monninger’s sinewy bass lines serve to anchor Aubert’s compositions, rife with deliberate distortion and heavy posturing. Lester’s keyboards provide ample support to Aubert’s frenzied guitar playing while Guanlao laces each track with enough high-hats and bass-kicks to knock any unsuspecting listener out of their headphones.
The tracks on Carnavas, on first listen, seem to hide behind guitar effects and rampant drumming, but repeat spins reveal the intricate melodies that lie just beneath. The addition of Monninger’s harmonies serves as a delicate contrast to Aubert’s own vocals. Leadoff track “Melatonin” steps right into shoegaze territory with more fuzz than your dryer’s lint trap. Aubert’s vocals peek through the distorted haze to relate a story of its despondent central figure and her dreamlike existence: “And after 6 milligrams/ We’re talking again/ Who would know?” It’s a thrilling and near-climactic way to start off the album, but things only get better from here on out. “Well Thought Out Twinkles” follows right after with a guitar riff that pulses like an outtake from Gish. Guanlao is no stranger to the snare while Monninger infuses the song with sharp bass lines that glide freely down the fret board.
The stutters and atmospherics of Lester’s keyboards that open “Checkered Floor” will leave most listeners gasping for breath by the time its crashing chorus explodes in a spray of guitar revelry. Aubert is a master of the dramatic, knowing exactly when to lead his band down highly mechanical thoroughfares and when to surface for air. Live favorite “Lazy Eye,” with the album’s closest resemblance to “Kissing Families” from Pikul, showcases Aubert’s knack for the quiet-loud dynamic. By the time he’s screaming “Everyone’s so focused clearly on sunshine” midway through, you hardly expect the song to maintain for another three minutes with just as much energy, but it does. Standout “Rusted Wheel” starts ominously enough, with thinly picked guitar notes that echo in the background. The song builds layer upon layer to its gratifying crescendo, employing Monninger’s bass and Guanlao’s drums to heighten the tension as Aubert’s guitar comes in for a crash landing with Lester’s keys.
Rarely will you hear a debut as powerfully affecting as Carnavas, brimming over as it is with vitriol and profuse confidence. For a band that’s been together for over six years, it’s a debut that’s long overdue. It’s almost as if Silversun Pickups spent the time making sure that their first official release sounded more like a greatest hits than a debut; there’s isn’t a bad song on the whole album. But whatever the reason for the wait, I’m glad I can finally put Carnavas on my stereo, close my eyes, and just fuzz-out.
The Smashing Pumpkins – Gish
My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything
Film School – Film School