Music Reviews
Echo Ono

Pontiak Echo Ono

(Thrill Jockey) Rating - 5/10

Is rock and roll not only dead, but unable to be resurrected, despite the efforts of millions of tight-pants guitar-slingers across America, the UK, and the entire surface of the Earth? Ask the three brothers that make up the Virginia-based band Pontiak and they'll say, Fuck no!

Their names are Van, Lain and Jennings. Echo Ono is their seventh release on major-indie label Thrill Jockey, and rest assured, there are no echos on the record or Onos either. Just another masculine, power-driven, ABA form of visceral guitar wipe-outs and ephemeral delay effects, smothered in the scent of the great outdoors and car tires.

When I think of electronic music, I think of genderlessness, I think of machines that offer the artist an opportunity to exchange their sex for the opposite one, or get rid of it entirely. Therefore electronic production is a kind of genderless leap of faith. But Pontiak's heavy blitzes of classic/stoner rock aren't genderless at all; they're symbols of masculinity being juxtaposed onto musical structures, with the “getting kicked in the ass” sentiment oozing everywhere. Echo Ono by default is an album that can't escape the atmosphere of a pub, road trips in a Ford truck, hunting big game, reading the latest copy of Men's Journal, eating beef jerky and any other targeted (and suspicious) acts of male-bonding and male showmanship. And if you don't believe me, then tell me: if an overblown guitar freak-out isn't invested in some sort of show-and-tell of testicles, then what are we listening to it for in the first place? So that we can worship Hulk Hogan and sacrifice a lamb in his honor? So that we can get stoned and peacefully turn on, tune in, and drop out while reading the Priapeia?

The major problem is not whether Pontiak are masculine junkies ready to put their penises on thrones of gold. The problem is timbre. I've heard their distortions before, I've heard their cymbals, that bass, that singing. Though many may not know, we're living in a world right now where a soft synth can create as many sounds as there are particles in the universe – yes, that's true! But despite that, musicians like the Pontiak brothers keep it classic; they actually want to play instruments, not program and sequence keyboards to death. There's nothing wrong with that, but I don't know what to do with the time machine they offer to step into track after track. It's a cleanly produced album, sure, but it lacks the attitude of the era from where it came, the 1970s. It lacks a valid product coming out of the carefree, smoke-a-joint sentiment it wants to recycle: it’s peripatetic but goes nowhere; it grabs a Clif bar instead of a bong; it does a free-solo instead of a dance. In the end, the sun-drenched laziness of the lyrics and chord structures both come off as an extreme, monkish, almost cloistral survey of obscure 70s off-hits, and trying to mediate them for an audience that (if they're like me) would rather listen to the latest sample of a chordata swimming in a sea of Ben & Jerry's then an acoustic guitar playing an augmented second chord. And good god, no more power chords!

So what's a male-band made to do with trying not be masculine while also wanting to play the shit out of over-amplified electric guitars? Most of the best “male” bands of the last ten years – I'll choose Animal Collective, The Mars Volta, and Radiohead for posterity – have always introduced another element to their programming: Animal Collective were stoner soccer outcasts who turned to bizarre sexually-charged metaphors but went completely electronic with Merriweather Post Pavilion; The Mars Volta were always a prog-jazz-latin mixture who relied heavily on sound effects; and Radiohead, by listening to an assortment of producers like Aphex Twin and Autechre, started writing computer programs for Kid A, or in the words of Thom Yorke, they “floated up [their] arse[s] and disappeared forever.” By introducing electronics into their sound, each band was also introducing genderlessness and femininity (Bixler-Zavala's high-pitched singing), but most importantly, they were getting rid of acknowledging their own bodies and replacing them for machinic apparatuses. They were inhabiting the machine by becoming the machine: the genderless machine.

“Going electronic” isn't some millionaire's fantasy, nor a reserved action for pop producer breadwinners – it is, quite simply, a cultural trend that transcends nationality and upbringing, representing the mindset of entire generations that are, without noticing it, little workers in the invisible Apple Inc ant-farm, who by paying attention to media have also disappeared up their arses forever too, unable to stop being bombarded by ads, by sounds made by oscillators, by thousands of musical structures that are unstructured, by the avant-garde turned commonplace, by art as sound, by sound as art. The schism between what classic rock was back can never be recovered from what our society expects the shape of new music to be: an electro-acoustic conglomerate that steers away from boring us. With that being said, can Echo Ono actually be listened to in full attention? Can its grassroots appeal draw us back in and teach us to shut down our computers and “bring it back home”? It won't work, it can't work, because the songs, by virtue of displacement, don't rock hard enough, and our rock 'n' roll sensing antennae have wilted, and have been for a long time. The painful, homogenizing ourobouros that is the 1970s classic rock sound is what the brothers are going to have to run away from, as fast as they can, wherever they can.