All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons
By Dylan Peggin
In the world of indie rock, Silversun Pickups are indeed legends. Upon their arrival on the music scene in the mid-2000s, they unleashed a sound that combined the shoegaze aesthetics of acts such as My Bloody Valentine and the raucousness of the Smashing Pumpkins. Early cuts, such as “Lazy Eye,” “Well Thought Out Twinkles,” and “Little Lover’s So Polite” were ingrained in the public’s consciousness with their placements in various films and video games to subject the group to a larger audience. The band’s debut EP Pikul and first three full-length albums, Carnavas, Swoon, and Neck of the Woods, were released on the Silver Lake-based indie label Dangerbird Records. And in 2015, the band started their own label, New Machine Recordings, and released Better Nature and Widow’s Weeds.
Here we are in 2022 and Silversun Pickups has graced us with a new album called Physical Thrills. Back in the producer’s chair is Butch Vig, who had produced the group’s previous studio effort, Widow’s Weed. Not to mention that aside from being the drummer of alternative rockers Garbage, he has had a tremendous track record producing the likes of Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, and Foo Fighters. It’s a partnership that has proved to work and the end result is perhaps one of Silversun Pickups’ most accessible yet musically interesting records.
Arpeggiated acoustic guitars signal the intro of the album’s opener, “Stillness (Way Beyond).” This opener is a slow building number that has plenty of tranquil elements, such as humming vocals and textural synthesizers. The next track, “Sticks and Stones” features a sequenced percussion pattern and more of the same aesthetics featured in the previous track, this time a bit more mid-paced. It can’t go unmentioned that there is a tasteful lead acoustic guitar solo underlying the unaccompanied chorus vocals towards the end of the track. These two tracks get the listener’s ears accustomed to what they may think is a very mellow-sounding album. While Silversun Pickups can perfectly establish a chill type of groove, it’s the sense of drama that gives this band an exciting edge. Wait no further!
We get into familiar SSPU territory with “Hereafter (Way After).” It’s a fast-paced driving tune that has many of this band’s trademarks: tight locking drum rhythms, a memorable yet simple vocal melody, intricate bass lines, swelling synthesizers and arpeggiated guitars. The album’s first interlude is introduced with “Dream at Tempo 050,” a hark back at the Carnavas track “Dream at Tempo 119.” Bassist Nikki Monninger sings lead here and her soft voice pairs well with Joe Lester’s natural piano playing. There is a slight lo-fi vibe to it with the sequenced percussion and filtered synthesizers.
The next track, “Scared Together,” builds on this wall of distorted electric guitars and “wah-wah” synthesizers with a drum rhythm that establishes a distinctive groove, which provides a bit of fresh flavor to the band’s musical palette. Drummer Christopher Guanlao shines on this track with the song’s drastic shifts with some fast-paced hi-hat leading rhythm and a slight Latin-sounding midsection. It’s these shifts in composition that easily make this track one of the most dynamic on the record. Nikki takes the lead vocal on the next track, “Alone on a Hill,” and is paired once again with piano. With the addition of spatial harmonies, this track is total ear candy! The next track, “Hidden Moon,” has a distinctive piercing bass tone that sets a solid groove for the track. Brian Aubert’s vocals have that element of slight androgyny and distinctive phrasing that can easily be identified in the band’s older work but it comes across as more mature here. The melody in the chorus is also very ear-catching.
The bass plays a lead role in the next track, “System Error,” with a leaping bass line that provides a counterpoint for the main vocal melody. The melody in the chorus is doubled with both the vocals and lead guitar, creating this aural wall of fuzz. Interlocking electric guitars create this cool middle breakdown, which tails off with an unaccompanied guitar solo. The mid-tempo “Empty Nest” is a very uplifting number. Brian’s tenor vocals match well in unison with Nikki’s falsetto vocals. After getting acquainted with the gist of the track, the quirky offbeat middle section comes as a surprise to the listener. The filtered manipulated vocals towards the end of the track provide a sense of buildup to the final verse, followed by a reprise of the middle section which fades into an acapella ending. The album hits its second interlude with “Dream at Tempo 310.” There are recycled melodies and chord sequences that can be found in “Dream at Tempo 050,” which provide this album with a central theme/idea that gets revisited throughout. This time around, the musical motifs are electrified intensely. The lyrics, sung by Brian, serve as a proper continuation of the narrative found in the former.
“We Won’t Come Out” is a slow, sparse yet soothing track with the chorus vocals mixed interestingly with different parts coming in from all ends of the stereo spectrum. The track shifts entirely with a fast-paced groove that, along with the melody of the song, reminded me very much of their older song “Panic Switch.” A brief menacing guitar lick signals the intro of “Stay Down (Way Down),” which then transitions into an inspiring chord sequence driven by acoustic guitars. Nikki offers lead vocals in the pre-chorus and the harmonized vocals in the middle section are a nice touch. An ominous percussion beat leads us into “Quicksand,” which is based on piano, acoustic guitar, and layered unison vocals from Brian and Nikki. The harp-sounding synthesizer adds another tranquil element to the track. The song has an overall uplifting, mellow vibe which brings the listener back to where the album began stylistically and gives the listener the sense that the aural trip has reached its final destination. While this is the last proper song on the record, it doesn’t end here. The final dream appears in the form of “Dream at Tempo 150,” which is a distorted, lo-fi-esque reprise of the main musical motif found in the other dreams on this record.
Vinyl-wise, the album comes packaged in an iridescent foil gatefold jacket, designed by Lawrence Azerrad, which bears the album’s title and colorful pastel imagery of liquid drops and hand silhouettes. If you were one of the few that preordered the clear blue variant on the band’s website like myself, the lyric insert does come signed by the band! The album itself was mastered by Heba Kadry and the vinyl lacquer cutting was overseen by Guy Davie at Electric Mastering. The end result is an absolutely solid-sounding pressing where the soundstage is filled with layers of musical imagery and atmosphere.
Physical Thrills is an album that displays Silversun Pickups’ traditional musical tropes and trademarks that have already been established but delivered in a mature style that further refines their sound. While some of the distorted elements have been dialed back in lieu of more electronic elements, their writing sensibilities have remained intact. With a 20+ year career under their belt, it goes to show that they are still proving something by evolving their sound and keeping the indie flag flying high.