On 'Expeller,' Piles Don't Fix What Isn't Broken
Talk to enough bands, and you’ll notice a few patterns start to emerge. One of the most dependable is that bands nearly always frame their second albums as a correction, an opportunity to adjust whatever they weren’t quite satisfied with on the first one. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the production, the arrangements or the songs themselves, but for one reason or another, bands almost inevitably have some explanation for why their sophomore record is a truer representation of who they are and the music they’re trying to make than their debut.
That narrative doesn’t hold for the Milwaukee punk trio Piles, though. The band’s sophomore album Expeller, out this week on Gloss Records, is more of a continuation than a correction, because in truth their 2015 full-length debut Planet Skin didn’t leave a whole lot for them to correct. A volatile fusion of brisk ’80s punk and the lustrous, shoegazey underground rock that landed like a sack of Mentos in a bathtub of Coca-Cola, that record was the most confident punk debut Milwaukee had spawned since Absolutely’s 2011 jaw-dropper Learns To Love Mistakes—one of those debuts that was so distinct, so sure of its voice that you don’t envy them for having to follow it up.
And so on Expeller, the band stays the course. “All of our music feels like one big wave,” says bassist Nolan Truttschel. “We play like we play, so you get what you get with us. I think we probably did try to change some things this time out. We shortened up some stuff. Our last album had some longer songs, so this one is a little more straightforward. But mostly, you get what you get with us.”
It’s not that the band was completely opposed to shaking things up. For Expeller’s initial recording sessions, they recorded with NO/NO’s Harrison Colby instead of their usual go-to, Howl Street Studio’s Shane Hochstetler. In hindsight, drummer Drew Gricar says, they were overeager to get into the studio, and they rushed things. They ended up scrapping those sessions and returning to Howl Street, where they fell into a familiar pattern.
“We ended up going with Shane and having him record it, then mastering it with Carl Saff again, so essentially it was the same process we had for Planet Skin,” says Gricar.
Those first sessions weren’t a wash, though, Truttschel insists. “We made some good demos,” he says. “It helped out a lot, because we dropped a couple of songs after that, and wrote some new ones when we got back into the studio.”
Expeller doesn’t suffer for its familiarity. The album retains the same golden ratio of beauty and brutality as Planet Skin, but if anything the band has only grown better at sustaining tension—every song is so brisk and ceaselessly forward driven that it just rear ends right into the next. Meanwhile singer-guitarist Jesse Harmon’s effects-slathered guitars are as evocative as ever, while his voice has deepened to take on the resonance of so many of post-punk’s great frontmen. He packs a lot of scope into an extremely confined space—at times Expeller plays like an attempt to speed up The Chameleons’ entire ’80s discography and condense it into a lean 25 minutes.
It’s an exciting sound, in part because it presents so many different possibilities for the band. Given its rhythmic flexibility, there are any number of ways they could speed it up, slow it down, brighten or darken it, and you can’t help but wonder what kind of shadows it might cast in a different light. But for now Piles aren’t interested in exploring those possibilities. They’re content to follow this particular path, wherever it leads.
“We just kind of have been doing the same thing we’ve been doing since we started,” Gricar says. “It seems to be working out for us.”
Piles will play an album release show at the Riverwest Public House on Friday, March 17 at 7 p.m. with Red Stuff (who will also be celebrating an album release) and Blue Unit.
You can stream Expeller below.