Deus Ex Machina
Pabst are back with their sophomore album on the heels of their catchy-as-fuck début, Chlorine, from 2018. They worked their collective arses off last year, touring with the likes of Bob Mould and playing something like 30 festival dates. And then 2020 happened. So not much touring, but a delightful new album, Deus Ex Machina. Something about this album speaks to me. It could be the fact that the sound brings me back to the 90s, and it could be the fact that Erik Heise has a voice that reminds me of one of my favourite Seattle bands of the era, Flop, and its frontman, Rusty Willoughby. These are good things.
This whole 90s vibe is encouraged by the lead single off the album, ‘Ibuprofen,’ which the band describe as their drug of choice, and its neon 90s video. Of course, it wasn’t the Seattle bands that made neon videos, and, as we said in the 90s, ‘Friends don’t let friends wear neon,’ so there is the fact that all these 90s revivalists are getting it wrong. But. Back to the visuals for the track, they do have a distinct 90s feel through the colour scheme. The track itself is catchy as all get out.
Pabst are a three-piece, Heise handles vocals and guitar. Tillman Kettner plays bass. And Tore Knipping plays the drums. They hail from Berlin. They play guitar-heavy, bouncy guitar power pop. Heise’s guitars cut and slash across the rhythm laid down by Kettner and Knipping. There is always the danger of over-looking the bass and drums in the classic power trio lineup, as the guitars tend to dominate. And make no mistake, Heise’s guitars are the bouquet and the flavour of Pabst, but the rhythm section does lay it all down. Knipping is one helluva drummer, and Kettner’s bass provides the groundwork that allows the guitars to do their thing, hepped on reverb and distortion.
I am partial to ‘Legal Tender,’ with its choppy riffs and stuttering drums, as Heise’s vocals soar above the music. Throughout the album as a whole, his voice is mixed just right, it’s not always possible to make out his lyrics, but his voice is both above and buried in the mix, another instrument in Pabst’s arsenal. But ‘Legal Tender’ sees this choppy riff echoed by the bass, as Knipping’s drums stutter-start until the bridge, where the track opens up, at least insofar as the drums go, but that choppy riff carries on. And then the song breaks down into this wicked little breakbeat around Kettner’s bass and clapping, and then Knipping and Heise join back in, Heise’s guitar now the stuttering one. Good shit.
The second single from the album, ‘Skyline,’ is a critique of the hipsterization and gentrification of our cities in Western Europe and North America, centred around a wicked litt
This city has got no skyline
This city is a tourist trap
Homeless man holds you door
To a bank for cash
This city wishes it was dead.
And then we get this wicked little line in the chorus, ‘This city is no place for losers like us.’ And whilst they’re talking about their hometown of Berlin, which they dismiss of a shithole, made up of ‘trash and neon glow,’ this could be any city. I am teaching a course on the history of Modern Boston right now. And what Pabst describe in Berlin could apply to Boston. It could also apply to my hometown of Montréal. Or Seattle. Or London. Or Manchester. Get my drift? The band, in their press notes state the obvious:
Although more than half of the world’s population lives in cities (and the trend is rising), they seem to be becoming more and more hostile places as they increasingly develop into “locations”. Especially in Berlin, where we come from, we have noticed vast changes in this direction in recent years. High fluctuation determines the cityscape and the housing market, with more and more furnished apartments being built. If you want to live somewhere, you often have to compete with hundreds. Houses classified as dilapidated will be demolished or fully renovated (’cause otherwise the price will not rise).
Indeed, and there’s the fact of absentee landlords, transient rental populations, tourists in AirBnBs, and so on. And this, ultimately, is strangling our cities at their core.
‘Skyline’ segues into ‘Wish.com,’ a trippy, meditative one-and-a-half minute track centred around a pretty little bassline from Kettner, supported by floating drums and a bit of trippy guitar buried deep into the mix. It’s like this palette-cleanser halfway through the album.
And then what should be Side 2 erupts into ‘Fugitive (Another Song About Running Away).’ And here we are in different times, times that Pabst weren’t thinking about when they cut this album, but we’re hemmed in by Covid-19, in the US and several other countries, there are mass protests in the street against racism and the creeping rise of the fascist right. These are freaky times, and the idea of running away, in my case, to Northern Canada, is rather appealing at present.
‘Hell’ is also a wicked little track, centred around a 70s glam rock bassline and a fuzzy power chord riff, there are echoes of Canada’s Sloan here.
The more I listen to Deus Ex Machina, the more I like it, the more I’m transported out of the uncertainty of our times into this pop-punk wonderland that is reminiscent of Sløtface’s recent album, Sorry for the Late Reply. And if we are going to see an explosion of retro power pop, I’m all for it.