While all bands tend to evolve their sound over time, it can sometimes produce unsuccessful results, especially when they gravitate towards flashy, radio-friendly material. Every once in a while though, you find a band that is able to deviate from their original sound while still maintaining their identity. Such is the case with Silversun Pickups and their latest album, Neck of the Woods. The L.A. indie rockers have ventured away from the guitar layered, distortion-heavy norms of their past two efforts, Swoon and Carnavas, and into electronic percussion oddities.
For a band that has steadily grown from shy, shoegazing beginnings and into a melodic yet frenzied ocean of distortion, the darker, synth and percussion-focused flow of the album can be a bit jarring at first. However, drummer Christopher Guanlao assured that the switch-up was intentional. “We wanted to make sure we did something different,” said Guanlao. “We originally started out making a record I think people would have expected us to make, and that was the one thing we didn’t want to do. With our producer Jacknife Lee on board, we were able to change things up and make a different record while still maintaining the band’s integrity.”
While there aren’t any songs quite like the calming melodies of “Rusted Wheel” or the upbeat drive of “Substitution,” the band has smoothly transitioned into new soundscapes while still retaining their familiar charm.
Some aspects of the band haven’t changed though, such as their knack for writing a strong album opener. The opening track on any Silversun Pickups album always hits you with the definitive force of a heavy, full-bodied wall of sound, and album-opener “Skin Graph” is no exception.
“I really like the idea of that being the first song,” Guanlao said. “I also love the dramatic build up in that song. We wanted to let everyone know we’re trying different things, and hopefully they got that.” The cool, collected vocals of singer and guitarist Brian Aubert carry the song forward as it explodes into a rich chorus of guitar-flavored siren blares and thundering drums, emanating a vibrant energy that sets the path for the tracks to follow.
“Skin Graph” definitely serves as a gateway song into the more distinctive tracks on the album. Tracks like “The Pit” showcase the band’s experimentation with a more electronic sound, such as Guanlao’s drumming over an electric drum machine.
“That track has a more electronic dance feel to it, and I’m not used to drumming for songs like that,” said Guanlao. “When we started working on that song with Jacknife, he pushed me in a direction that helped the song make sense to me. That beat is so driving, and is just really fun to play.” The song’s dark overtone and reverb-rich bridge compliments the overarching dance beat in a way that can only be described as a twisted, indie club spin.
The band hasn’t relinquished themselves to house beats and electro-pop nuances. Some tracks are more akin to their past works, such as “Mean Spirits.”
Guanlao described the song as something that comes very instinctually to them. As the rock song that they tend to gravitate towards, Aubert truly shines here with the multi-tiered guitars and crooning-to-screaming vocal range fans have grown accustomed to over the years. The struggle for guitar dominance between Aubert and bassist Nikki Monninger powers the song as Aubert’s pitch weaves up and down throughout it.
Other tracks highlight the — as Guanlao put it — “mad scientist” keyboardist Joe Lester, as he brandishes his own slick synth-stylings that digitize the band’s familiar rock vibes.
Such synth-mastery comes off especially pleasing when blended with Guanlao’s on-point drumming and Aubert’s vocal harmonizing with Monninger. This is a characteristic of the album as a whole, as Lester takes the spotlight usually held by Aubert’s guitar riffage. The melancholy-to-airy range that Lester cranks out of his synth keeps the album varied throughout its electronic whirlwind.
“‘Bloody Mary’ was a song we were working on during Swoon, and it never made it past our practice space because we hit a wall with it at the time,” explained Guanlao when asked about the inception of the album’s single. “We came back to it later and reworked it completely, and it works a lot better now than it ever did. It has that pop sensibility, but at the same time its a different song for us.” The sequencer-synth opening and atmospheric chords stand out as a departure from their previous work, but also retains that same familiarity that harkens back to their past work.
Excitement is definitely a fitting word to describe the release of this album. While the guitar-heavy effervescence that the band has grown up with takes a backseat this time through, there is enough familiarity within keep fans from feeling alienated.
Neck of the Woods has allowed the band not only to take a risk and travel out to the edge of their shoegazing, guitar-layered boundaries, but also to flourish and thrive in an unfamiliar territory.
“We weren’t thinking ‘Hey, let’s make an electronic record.’ The main thing was getting out of our comfort zone, and it’s what we’re most proud of,” said Guanlao. “If people don’t get it, then they don’t get it, but we had to do something different. Otherwise what’s the point? We’re still Silversun Pickups and that’s never going to change.”
Ian Birnam is the lead music critic.