Album Reviews

Pontiak – Living

(Thrill Jockey) UK release date: 6 September 2010

The Virginia boys in Pontiak have the work ethic of pack mules; Van, Lain, and Jennings Carney have released five albums in the last two years. Pontiak being the sort of band that rattles organs out of alignment with their impossibly loud live show, Living could well have been an incomprehensible, sludgy mess. But, as it is, Living is a thick slab of riffy backwoods blues-rock that works as well on big speakers as it does on headphones – in either setting, it engenders a sense of general unease and spooked-out edge-of-seat anticipation in the listener.

Living was recorded in an old barn on reel-to-reel tape, and the process bleeds through into the final product. During moments of feedback-thick guitar noise, the snare drum can be heard rattling hauntedly in the distance. For that matter – as with Pontiak’s live show – the guitar threatens to squall and squeal until there’s just no room in the barn for drums or bass (the latter of which is often played through a fuzz-box, and sludgy as lukewarm, days old milk).

To the uninitiated, these may sound like negative criticisms. On the contrary, Living delivers exactly what listeners expect from Pontiak, and the overwhelming sense of being swallowed up in noise – they’re a band with sharp teeth, mind – is all part of the experience. Living carries with it a built-in sense of dirt-road credibility, and it’s easy to imagine its creators as maniacal, shed-dwelling hillbillies (though this is probably an over-exertion of the rural Virginia mythos).

The album bounces between styles, presenting frantic, noisy blues-rock riffing (the excellent opener, Young), fuzzed-out shoegaze (And By Night), and – most surprisingly – acoustic near-ballads (Beach) that seem to stalk through the night in heavy boots made for kicking in teeth.

Much of Living is instrumental, and it is in some ways a concept album, but its narrative is lost (perhaps thankfully) in the noise. Vocals are thick and subdued, for the most part, and serve as a haunting counterweight for the music’s battering-ram attack. Tension is Pontiak’s weapon of choice, and they operate with surgical precision here; this is a premeditated tightrope walk of varying volume levels, but none of it is white noise.

The album is designed for the long form, and as such, highlights are hidden amongst the weeds and rubble. Perhaps the album’s overall tone is best conveyed in This Is Living with its siren-like screaming guitar opening and its thick, chugging groove. “This is living,” Carney sings. “And the dust gathers around.” Forms Of The sounds almost ripped from a lost Pink Floyd session, but it also sounds recorded through years of built up tape-hiss.

Tape distortion covers the whole album like an itchy blanket, but somehow it conveys a feeling of rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia. Living almost feels like a newly discovered lost gem, some missing era in the development of the rock archetype. Pontiak are a bit prone to allowing their instrumental breaks to extend until they risk collapsing under their own weight (see Thousands Citrus), but Living’s greatest strength is that they’ve kept the anticipation piano-wire taut. But the powder keg never really blows – close as it comes – and Pontiak’s careful precision makes for an album that lingers like a spectre beyond its runtime.

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More on Pontiak
Pontiak – Innocence
Pontiak – Echo Ono
Pontiak – Living