Rick McGuire’s voice is a peerless conduit. Whether the Pile frontman is pressing his delivery down into a soft croon or unleashing a blood-curdling howl, the raw power he conveys is visceral. Take Green and Gray opener “Firewood”, for instance, where his bellowing voice oversees a pyre of guitar riffs being built up and promptly set ablaze. Alternately made of hovering quiet and sweeping drama, Firewood’s alternating passages of eerie stillness and over-the-top passionate belting seem to presage the band’s next move.
On the Boston band’s newest album, Pile is taken apart and remade. An experimental move for the trio of McGuire, Kris Kuss, and Alex Molini, All Fiction sees them expanding on their already vivid and gripping sound. Across the record, they pull in a menacing array of strings, keys, and discordant vocal effects; things scarcely found across the group’s prior seven albums. The influence of these adornments is clear from the first few stoic moments of “It Gets Closer.” Macabre strings pluck a few times as if just to warn you they’re there, before slowly fleshing out into an orchestral wash. Here, McGuire is acting less like a musician and more of a narrator, intoning darkly about an approaching threat; “It comes closer / Repeating over and over / Quieter, then colder.” In the moments where he takes a step back, his voice is replaced by a few stray plinks of a piano.
On the single “Poisons” McGuire and co. fight their way through a tangled arrangement. The metallic, clanking drum hits and muscular guitar riffs are just as stirring as the space between each note. McGuire’s affectation matches the staccato nature of the drums, each word falling slowly, but with force. As the band plays faster and faster, Pile pulls a bait-and-switch. We never get a climatic moment of payoff from the rising tension, as it ends abruptly, reverb and fuzz trailing in its wake.
Perhaps the most experimental moments on All Fiction are “Gardening Hours” and “Nude with a Suitcase. The former tilts slightly into post-punk, its guitars looping and jagged, its drums crashing with boundless weight. McGuire’s voice is distorted and dragged out indefinitely as the song trashes in fits and starts. “Gardening Hours” sounds like how an anxiety attack feels. “Nude with a Suitcase,” on the other hand, is a six-minute-long death march that would feel more at home on a late-era Radiohead album than a Pile record. Here McGuire sounds distant, muffled as though screaming through a cloth. An ominous, whirring synth hovers indefinitely while Kuss and Molini’s playing is closed in on by an organ’s lurching wail. After several movements, McGuire’s voice doubles, stretching out with autotune as he recites, “Just like losing my teeth in a guillotine dream / I’m free of my now former needs.”
The album’s last song, “Neon Gray,” accomplishes the impossible, proving Pile still has uncharted territory. Perhaps their first offering that could be described as balletic, “Neon Gray” seems to float; drums hit only to undergird delicate synths. The keys here are bright, buoyant and blurred just enough to melt into one another like out-of-focus string lights. As it brings All Fiction to a close, it does so with an uncharacteristic lightness. Pile do rage very well, we’ve known this for years. It’s intriguing to learn they do tenderness just as well.
Pile is a band that hardly needs to take risks. Having churned out some of the most consistent, inimitable rock music of the last decade, they could have remained in one place forever and satisfied their audiences. That’s what makes the sonic pivot on All Fiction feel so special; the band changed because they wanted to, not because they had to.
Eric Bennett is a music critic with bylines at Post-Trash, The Grey Estates and The Alternative. They are also a co-host of Endless Scroll, a weekly podcast covering the intersection of music and internet culture. You can follow them on Twitter at @violet_by_hole.
Watch Rick Maguire of Pile play an exclusive live set for the Paste Studio cameras in Nashville on May 20, 2021.