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Purling Hiss - Water on Mars

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Artist: Purling Hiss

Album: Water on Mars

Label: Drag City

Review date: Mar. 14, 2013

Purling Hiss, the guitar-squalling offshoot of Birds of Maya’s Mike Polizze, first caught most people’s attention with a roiling, overdriven self-titled album put out by Permanent Records in 2009. Tracks like “Almost Washed My Hair” nudged at the intersection of noise and hard-rock anthemry, with the distortion and feedback pushed to the foreground, the vocals nearly buried in volcanic chaos. Hissteria, released a year later, continued in the same promising vein, all stomp and churn and obliterating amplification.

Yet, Polizze also unveiled Public Service Announcement, an older experiment in folky melody and acoustic strumming, more like sometime touring partner Kurt Vile than Comets on Fire or Hawkwind. It was at least a confusing move, and maybe a confounding one. Ben Donnelly, reviewing Public Service Announcement for Dusted, closed this way: “If the word-of-mouth continues, this will be the record where the conversation goes: ‘Well, I heard this one album, and I don’t get what the fuss is about.’ ‘If it’s the one where the guy on the cover is sitting, you gotta hear the other ones.’”

Listening to Water on Mars, however, I’m not so sure PSA was a significant detour. This fourth Purling Hiss album takes a lot of what was exhilarating about the self-titled and Hissteria and adds some structure and melody. It bridges the considerable distance between Purling Hiss and Public Service Announcement -- and, in the process, improves on both. The hard stuff (“Water on Mars,” “Lolita”) is easier to parse. The soft songs have significantly more spine.

Water on Mars also builds out Polizze’s self-recorded project into a power trio with Kiel Everett on bass and Mike Sneerington on drums. He achieves a level of density and power here that was missing on even the most over-the-top tracks from earlier albums, not to mention the clarity of readable rhythms running through the tracks. “Almost Washed My Hair” was like a continuous free-form guitar solo, like Neil Young and Kurt Cobain with their hair on fire. “Mercury Retrograde,” the first single on this album, is still powerful but better behaved. It allows guitar freakery to erupt from the margins, keeping the main verse/chorus structure unobstructed and clean-lined.

These are also Polizze’s strongest melodies to date, much better and more memorable than the ones on Public Service Announcement. I like “Rat Race” for its slanting, Superchunk-ish guitar onslaught, its relentless lift and hook, and “Face Down” for its angsty buzz of aggression. Even the softer, more acoustic cuts – “Dead Again” and “She Calms Me Down” – are insistent and engaging amid the fuzz. You get a whiff of Chris Knox in the first one, and David Kilgour in the second.

Public Service Announcement looked at first like an identity crisis, like the work of a guy who couldn’t figure out what he wanted to be or do. Now, with Water on Mars it seems more like a jumping-off point, maybe even a straw man argument to help Polizze sharpen his evolving vision. Look at Polizze’s progression as thesis (Purling Hiss), anti-thesis (Public Service Announcement), and synthesis (Water on Mars). Polizze is making a powerful case for balancing guitar chaos with songs.

By Jennifer Kelly

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