Saturday, July 10, 2010

Modern Classics: "Carnavas"

Silversun Pickups’ 2006 LP Carnavas is an album that pulsates with energy. The guitars buzz and wail, the drums pound, the bass throbs, and the keyboards swirl. It is indeed a hard rock album, even bordering on alt-metal. But it doesn’t make the mistake of being noisy for noisiness’ sake, as many hard rock bands tend to lean toward. Silversun Pickups deliver this set of songs in rich, voluminous layers. With added volume, they become thicker instead of merely louder. And with repeated listens, their richness becomes increasingly evident.

What are also evident are the band’s influences, chief among them being the Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins. The heavy, layered buzz of the guitars and lead singer Brian Aubert’s high-pitched tenor indeed bear a certain resemblance to Billy Corgan’s early 90’s work. But where Corgan’s vocals often seemed whiny, Aubert’s are instead almost ghostly and a bit wistful. And where the Pumpkins tended to wallow in gloominess in order to elicit sympathy from the listener, Silversun Pickups draw the listener in to a soundscape that feels mysterious and ethereal, yet is somehow striving for clarity and truth. Indeed, the otherworldy quality in Aubert’s voice sometimes bursts into an aching wail that somehow drives home the importance of the song. At times, Carnavas seems like a sustained quest for the band, one where they are intent on sifting for insight while surging relentlessly forward with guitars and drums blazing, but leaving the listener free to interpret the song for its own sake.

Carnavas is indeed a heavy album that will fill out every part of a speaker system, but somehow it doesn’t feel heavy. The album’s opener “Melatonin” sets this tone—it starts loud and it stays loud, but it crackles with positive energy that compels the song forward and keeps the listener in its grip, thanks in part to a head-nodding beat by drummer Christopher Guanlao. The next two songs are great examples of the band’s talent for striking the right balance between loud and soft dynamics. Midway through “Well Thought Out Twinkles,” Nikki Monninger’s driving bass line and Joe Lesters’ atmospheric keyboards are left alone for a few measures, before being joined by Guanlao’s drums, and then Aubert’s vocals. This layering effect tempers the song and ends up giving more weight to a searing guitar lick that happens a bit later. “Checkered Floor” slowly builds from soft keyboards, a steady guitar part, and a measured vocal line to an explosive chorus that culminates in a driving guitar solo, but then comes down to a softer guitar and drum part for the outro, accompanied by soft murmurings from Aubert. These dynamics are crafted expertly throughout the album, and are a large part of why it doesn’t leave the listener feeling worked over by the end, as many hard rock albums tend to do.

The non-heavy heaviness of Carnavas is also due in part to the lyrics. To say that they are vague would probably be an understatement—they certainly don’t seem to make much sense at face value, and it doesn’t help that they aren’t printed in the liner notes. But in their own way, Aubert and Monninger (who contributes a great female vocal counterbalance in a number of tracks) are able to convey a sense of depth and meaning through the way they emote them. In fact, there are times throughout the album where they seem to make perfect sense simply by the way they are emphasized. However, repeated listens tend to confirm the fact that they are very much open to interpretation. This in turn helps avoid a heavy-handed edge to the album and very much fits its mood—one of ardent striving yet alluring mystery.

When broken down, Carnavas is a wonder to behold of pure rock and roll craftsmanship. Even in its “noisiest” outings, one can discern the layers of detail and the intricacy with which it was recorded (at least three separate guitar tones can be discerned at the same time in “Melatonin,” for instance). The drums are a particularly striking feature of the album due to the variety of their sound. At different times, they echo, shimmer, and seem slightly muted, and at other times are firmly in the forefront. In “Three Seed,” for instance, they are given a striking clarity—at one point you can actually hear the snares vibrating against the drumhead, as if the listener is sitting in the studio next to the drums.

What’s unique about Carnavas is that it is a muscular and hard-driving rock album, but still has the ability to wash over the listener with a subtle yet energizing ambience. This is no easy feat, and there’s nothing quite like it.