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Planes Mistaken for Stars
Up in Them Guts
obody wants to sit at the emo table in the cafeteria. What started as a euphemism for "whiny" before growing into a catchall term for indie rock bands with, um, guitars, is now little more than a synonym for "uncool." Bands strive to distance themselves from the non-genre with the same fervor that Democratic politicians work to keep from being labeled "liberal."
Planes Mistaken for Stars started out pretty emo a few years back. Clean, ringing guitars; shifty tempos; vocals never without some trace of desperation. On 2002's marvelously titled Fuck with Fire they toughened up their sound with more distortion and more shouting. They didn't turn their backs on melodies completely, but they buried them under hardcore rhythms. Y'know that move where the guitar just plays one staccato chord high up on the neck while the bass carries the tune? Lot of that, as well as a few tracks where they'd, uh, "jam" a little, which for the Planes meant playing one riff for a long time to a pleasingly hypnotic effect.
But somebody must have called them the e-word, 'cause they still weren't satisfied, and on Up in Them Guts they sound harder than ever. The melodies have been jettisoned (in favor of jagged blasts of noise over violently unstable hardcore rhythms) and vocalist Gared O'Donnell has abandoned singing (for an atonal sandpaper howl). The lyric sheet features multiple brutally confessional incest narratives. This is not a fun record, nor is it meant to be. Fuck emo, says PMFS. We're a hardcore band, dammit.
And that's really the problem here. There's nothing inherently wrong with hardcore, but PMFS have forcefully transformed themselves into just a hardcore band, and little more. Some traces of the old band start to surface towards the album's second half, but we're halfway through before the intensity dips below eleven for even a second. Actually that's not entirely true; the minute-long opening track, "For All Mothers," begins with an acoustic guitar figure. Then the menacing rhythm section creeps up behind it, and it's disconcertingly topped off with the same raspy yowls that fill the rest of the album. After that, the amps go up and it's nothing but pound, pound, pound for the next four tracks.
Finally, on the excellent "Dancing on the Face of the Panther," relief is provided in the form of some dynamics, and boy is it ever welcome. The album's first melodic guitar lead plays over a rolling snare beat; the intro leads into a nicely muted verse; and of course the chorus comes roaring in, but it's not a sudden, brick-in-the-face kick-in, rather one that crashes over the listener like a tidal wave. Excellent. We have a fine guitar break about halfway through, and the whole thing effortlessly maintains my attention for all of its five-minute length. Why isn't there more of this?
There is. Over the next few tracks we are treated to some actual arrangements: the intros are nicely thought out and executed, the builds and releases of tension are well-paced, the codas are long and fierce (particularly on "Spring Divorce"), and even the monotonous vocals are shown to work given the right context. There's a couple of those breakdowns where they sit one riff, gradually disorienting the listener. Not to mention another acoustic-based fragment, this one with something approaching actual singing.
But soon enough they drift back to the same old sounds. The big closer, "The Last Winter Dance Party," opens with another acoustic bit before shifting back to straight-up hardcore. You know the big coda's coming, you know exactly what it's gonna sound like, and when you're right it's kind of a letdown because music this abrupt and jagged shouldn't be so predictable.
I'm not counting the Planes out for good, mind you. While they may appear at first to have painted themselves into a stylistic corner, PMFS have evolved noticeably on each release, so there's no telling where they'll head next. Let's just chalk this one up this one as a step in the wrong direction, and hope the journey doesn't end here.
Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2004-08-04
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