Following the success of Dripping, Pile’s 2012 breakthrough album and debut on Exploding in Sound, having self-released three records up until this point, the Boston-based band garnered somewhat of a cult following. The group’s marrying of a post-hardcore attitude with the intricate melodies, intertwining guitar harmonies and angular weirdness of frontman Rick Maguire’s songwriting style instantly established a definitive musical identity for Pile and, as such, their independent label debut amassed an impressive amount of attention from music critics and gave rise to a dedicated fan following that has only grown with each new release. Although no two albums from Pile’s discography are completely alike, the unique compositional prowess of Maguire has anchored all the rock outfit’s albums within a similar, recognisable sound, and this is no different for their latest release, A Hairshirt of Purpose. What does set this record apart from its predecessors, however, is its structure. Whereas previous Pile projects have been sequenced more like a selection of singles than a fluid, wholly cohesive album with overarching musical and lyrical themes, A Hairshirt of Purpose is their first album to quite clearly show that Maguire has tweaked his usual songwriting style to accommodate a more closely knit set of songs. Across this new album, the 13 tracks all flow into one another rather smoothly, and Maguire’s lyrical contributions to the project seem to be bound together by related themes, in a way that previous Pile records have not been. However, despite A Hairshirt of Purpose sounding as if it could be Pile’s most cohesive endeavour yet on paper, the end product is perhaps their most dishevelled and disordered. Within this new compositional approach, the cohesiveness of Maguire’s detailed songwriting is noticeably lacking, with his usual, convoluted melodies and harmonies getting wrapped up in knots, rather than being interlaced gracefully. What’s more, despite the tracklisting flowing relatively fluidly from song to song, on an individual basis, many of these tracks are structured in such a way as to seem rather directionless, with very little consistency being employed as to prevent these compositions from descending into a tangled mess of guitar noodling. Many of the flashes of Maguire’s masterful melody-making are just as impressive here as they have been on previous Pile projects, but the cluttered songwriting across A Hairshirt of Purpose allows such moments to eventually slip away into an ensuing muddle of vaguely-related motifs.
Admittedly, A Hairshirt of Purpose gets off to a very good start with the two opening tracks, Worms and Hissing for Peace, but, at the same time, these two songs are perhaps the most out-of-place on the entire record. The dreary, swirling guitar melodies of Worms, over which Maguire delivers an equally downtrodden vocal performance, even reaching into his upper register to engender that sense of fragile emotion, are to some extent evocative of the pacing of the vast majority of A Hairshirt of Purpose, which is very longwinded, for the most part. This being said, unlike many of the other songs across the tracklisting, Worms is especially successful, in that its rather lethargic tempo and progression are effectively accentuated through the impassioned vocal performance from Pile’s frontman and the bitterly sombre guitar melodies that twist and turn in the band’s familiar fashion. The second track, Hissing for Peace, is a particularly apparent outlier compared to the rest of the songs across A Hairshirt of Purpose, in that it is perhaps the only cut to live up to the heavy highs of Pile’s previous two albums. The rapid, discordant guitar picking retains a distinct post-punk edge, which is only fortified by the snide, soaring vocals, wherein it seems that Maguire may be taking some cues from the likes of Pixies’ Black Francis or Swans’ Michael Gira, especially considering his gritty, somewhat surrealist lyrics, mentioning shovelling limbs and “pissing in the ocean”. In fact, the pervasive emphasis on dynamics on this track, and across the entire record, is potentially pulled from the Pixies playbook. Similarly, much of Hissing for Peace has a Swans vibe to it, with the frenzy of clashing guitar chords remaining largely consistent throughout the cut, whilst drummer Kris Kuss’ beat switches are the predominant force behind the overall progression of the piece. That is until the last third or so of the track, in which the group descends into a heavy plod of grungy, sludgy chords and a whirling guitar lead that propels the song closer and closer to complete cacophony before abruptly cutting out. Ultimately, both Worms and Hissing for Peace are rather strong songs, with each one shining as the best example of the two sides to Pile’s divide between their slow, patience-testing, indie rock ballads and their abrasive bursts of post-hardcore piss and vinegar.
Indeed, practically every Pile record thus far has showcased these two sides of the band’s sound. This being said, in the same manner that their previous album, You’re Better Than This, leaned towards the heavier side of the spectrum for the most part, A Hairshirt of Purpose provides the opposing perspective, being far more reliant on its abundance of meditative, comatose and often times overblown songs that are hinged on drawn out song progressions and subtle guitar work. However, just as You’re Better Than This was arguably overly-reliant on its abrasive aesthetic, to the point that the compositions themselves lacked sufficient substance, A Hairshirt of Purpose simply reiterates this same issue, but in a completely antithetical fashion, with many of its tracks being languid and longwinded, to the point of either coming across as disjointed or directionless. Rope’s Length falls into the former of these two categories, being comprised of numerous passages that seem to be completely disconnected. Following a ludicrously overblown introduction of a constant, tension-building drum roll and a pair of eerie, swirling guitar melodies that lasts for nearly a minute and a half, the band abruptly stops and enters into a completely new section that doesn’t seem to be at all related to the one preceding it, meaning that the 90 seconds spent building up suspense were for nothing, with the listener receiving no satisfactory pay-off for the long wait. What’s more, given that everything but the lead guitar melody cuts out at the end of this introductory passage, at which point the melody gradually slows to a halt and is succeeded by several seconds of silence, the listener could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that another track had started by the time the next set of gentle guitar licks had finally appeared. Dogs is a similar case and, although the dynamic variation and tasteful incorporation of some looming strings redeem it slightly, it’s nevertheless a track that suffers from the same structural problems, often moving from one passage to another unnecessarily abruptly, which leads to some rather good ideas being cut disappointingly short. Then there are cuts, such as Milkshake and Leaning on a Wheel, that develop at a snail’s pace without the inclusion of enough substance to justify such a subtle songwriting approach. The arbitrary drum hits and quivering strings that appear throughout the first half of Milkshake, for example, don’t move the piece forward more than it sounds like a few of the band’s members are getting restless because of how long it’s taking for the song to get started. Despite being built on an interesting, folk-inspired tune, Making Eyes progresses at a rate so slow that it seems as if Maguire isn’t quite sure how to fit his vocals into the arrangement, thus his singing sounds rather clumsily placed atop this sluggish, folk rock instrumental. This hint of folk inspiration, which has appeared on Pile songs in the past, is even more evident on Slippery, but yet again, the compositional attitude of this cut is dishevelled to the point of sounding as if it was improvised on the spot. The first minute is comprised solely of Maguire’s vocals and a bare-bones acoustic guitar, which falls out of maintaining any semblance of rhythm or metre at times, in a fashion that is reminiscent of Phil Elverum’s approach to indie folk music on albums like Dawn or A Crow Looked At Me under his Mount Eerie moniker. On Slippery, however, this delicate songwriting style isn’t applied in a particularly compelling fashion, largely as a result of the fact that this opening section is inexplicably abandoned a minute into the cut, at which point the real song starts. Once again, considering the period of silence between the song’s initial two passages, many a listener would likely mistake this as a break in between tracks, given that the sections barely retain any similar themes outside of them being somewhat folky.
Ultimately, my reservations towards the compositional approach employed by Pile on A Hairshirt of Purpose isn’t simply a result of the fact that many of the songs follow a very fractured formula. There is nothing fundamentally flawed with such a songwriting style, and plenty of musicians have utilised such an attitude in incredibly inventive ways, as to properly play to the strengths of such a method, with the aforementioned albums from Mount Eerie being prime examples, in my opinion. The problem with the way in which Maguire handles this type of songwriting on A Hairshirt of Purpose, however, arises from the fact that it is seldom applied with any apparent rhyme or reason, with few overarching musical themes being used to tie up a song as a satisfying, cohesive whole, even in spite of its disjointed nature. Instead, many tracks on this record come across as being comprised of a series of unrelated motifs that are treated as appendages being awkwardly tacked onto one another. This is an even greater shame considering that there are an admirable amount of intriguing ideas conveyed in brief across the tracklisting, and the production value is impressively vibrant throughout, which accommodates the dynamic qualities of these songs particularly well. However, many of these ideas risk being lost in translation, due to the incoherent song structures in which they are packaged. Overall, therefore, A Hairshirt of Purpose may share many points of appeal with previous Pile projects, but the compositional framework that aims to convey such ideas is not efficiently tailored for this, and so many of these songs slip away from the listener’s mind far too easily.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10