Graded on a Curve: Purling Hiss,
Water on Mars

Philadelphia, PA’s Purling Hiss, once the project of one man, has now metamorphosed into a full band. Water on Mars is their new record, and what it lacks in originality is replaced with strong set of influences well rendered. Folks with a favorable disposition toward the concept of the indie rock guitar hero might want to check it out, as should anybody currently grooving to the resurgence of ‘90s rock stylistics. While Water on Mars doesn’t transcend the material that serves as its inspiration, it is a surprisingly cohesive effort with a handful of great tracks.

The self-titled 2009 debut from Purling Hiss is just the sort of skuzzy, blown-out, overloaded document that’ll make a certain type of Stooges fan swoon. The record’s nearly nine and a half minute opener “Almost Washed My Hair” features a sustained wall of wah-pedal mayhem so intense that it actually conjures comparisons to some of the more intense heavy-psych offered back in the ‘80s-‘90s through the mighty Japanese underground label P.S.F. Specifically, the wonderful group High Rise sprung to mind.

However, Purling Hiss did possess some palpable differences in both delivery and conception; the former was manifested through an attraction to the thick-headed big-riffed hammer-down vibe of early-‘70s hard-rock, soaked up and then taken to an unconventional and naturally quite divisive extreme. The later came through the reality that Purling Hiss existed not as an actual band, but rather as the side project of one man, namely Birds of Maya guitarist Mike Polizze.

If the work of one dude, it didn’t necessarily connect that way in operation. And Hissteria, the first of two records released in 2010, immediately registered as a bit more “normal” in its gist. Overall, the record felt like something Nirvana might’ve come up with if, after Bleach, they’d elected to pursue a stranger and less angsty u-ground course. The sound of the heavy ‘70s was even more pronounced (and at times just slightly more streamlined), but instead of inner torment the whole mess was designed to simply pin listeners against the wall through powerful grooves and wailing amplifiers. All overdubbed by one creative mind.

Both Purling Hiss and Hissteria have been called lo-fi, but I don’t think the term is all that accurate. Shit-fi is a better descriptor. Same dif, you say? Not at all, I retort. For both of these records are seriously loud creations, crying out for slapping onto the turntable with the volume knob jacked way over to the right. In the process cobwebs get knocked off everything in the vicinity.

However, Public Service Announcement found Purling Hiss entering legitimately lo-fi territory with a batch of songs that landed not all that far from his Pennsylvania buddy Kurt Vile; some of it could even be pegged as a less emotionally volatile extension of Homestead Records-era Sebadoh (and word on the street is that Public Service Announcement is actually the oldest of the Purling Hiss recordings, simply released out of sequence).

This detour into obviously cassette sourced pop/folk spillage impacted more than one observer as a misstep, but on the whole I think the record goes down pretty well; it certainly made clear that Mike Polizze didn’t want to get pigeonholed as just an indie guitar warrior.

2011’s “Lounge Lizards” EP returned to the Stoogoid template of the first record, but with an interesting adjustment; instead of the blasted in-the-red Fun House-isms that made their debut such as gas (the only thing missing was a skronking saxophone), Polizze’s fourth installment grappled with the strains of the street-walking cheetah found on Raw Power, and in so doing it also rubbed up against the attitudinal gutter-blues of the New York Dolls and early-‘70s Stones.

There have been other releases from Purling Hiss, but this quartet surveys the main thrust of Polizze’s thing quite well. And any summery that simply pegs it as an exercise in heavy-rock with one oddball record thrown into the mix is definitely giving the whole deal short-shrift. The differences between Purling Hiss, Hissteria and Lounge Lizards aren’t hard to detect, and when considered together with Public Service Announcement, they detail a musician of considerable ambition.

And the diversity of those records helps make the big leaps found on Water on Mars a little less surprising. For Purling Hiss is the sound of one man no longer, the project having blossomed into a full-on power trio. Exactly when this development took place is a bit hazy, but the change was already in effect last year when this writer witnessed them deliver a fine set as openers for Mission of Burma.

Upon hearing Water on Mars’ opening track “Lolita,” the adjustment initially registers as somewhat subtle. The song itself wouldn’t be at all out of place on Hissteria, the tune wielding the same thunderous Grunge-derived riff-violence as that record (with Polizze flaunting the same raw-throated bellow that turned up on more than a few early Sub Pop singles), but due to the input of two unique individuals, specifically bassist Kiel Everett and drummer Mike Sneeringer, and a definite rise in production values, the heaviness feels considerably more rock-conventional.

Due in large part to the string prowess of Polizze, this turn of events is in no way a bad thing. But on the following cut “Mercury Retrograde,” the proceedings make a sharp move for the melodic, with the song being quite remindful of ‘90s Dinosaur Jr. Part of the similarity lies in Polizze’s drawl, though in truth he’s a less lethargic vocalist than Mascis. But it’s also down to the same blend of popish qualities and guitar heroics that summarize the post-breakup/pre-reunion period (aka “the Sire Years”) of ol’ Dino.

“Rat Race” continues this progression, though it’s sonically varied enough to avoid being pegged as the work of a determined Mascis retro-clone. But for much of its running-time, Water on Mars’ heavy-pop inclination does emit a definite ‘90s vibe. And it’s an aura that’s retained when Polizze unplugs on “Dead Again,” a short little digression that isn’t far from a lost acoustic demo from Cobain and Co.

“She Calms Me Down” is decidedly more psych-pop in orientation, not far from the sound of White Fence, and “Face Down” combines Purling Hiss’s general sense of Grunginess with a little of Ty Segall’s street-rocking sensibility (scarves optional.) So it’s worth noting that Water on Mars has been waxed up by the Drag City label, the current home of Segall and the imprint responsible for Hair, Ty, and White Fence’s rather swell collab LP from last year.

“The Harrowing Wind” cozies back up to the heavy-pop, with the tunefulness amongst the noise again mildly suggestive of ‘90s Dinosaur. But it also brings briefly to mind the sound of the terribly slept-upon Pittsburgh outfit The Karl Hendricks Trio. It’s a comparison that shouldn’t be overstated, however. I wouldn’t bet money on the members of Purling Hiss having heard Hendricks’ stuff. On the other hand, I wouldn’t bet against it, either. Oh, the mystery.

In diving headfirst into raving guitar abandon, Water on Mars’ title track steals the show. It begins with five minutes of pedal-stomping distortion that wiggles, gnaws, and ascends while Sneeringer and Everett deliver a superb pulse underneath, and then Polizze’s vocals enter the fray to provide sweet release. It’s a doozy. While still relatively contained in comparison to the flat-out mania of “Almost Washed My Hair,” it does extend that same unrestrained element into Purling Hiss’ new power trio template. And that’s a very positive circumstance.

“Mary Bumble Bee”’s return to psych-pop closes an album that’s very much a grower. Purling Hiss won’t be winning any awards for breaking new ground, but that’s really not their bag. Instead, it’s about a unified sound, above average songs, and one hell of a guitar player. In stepping away from the margins of a side-project and landing much closer to an established rock tradition, they’ve produced a very good record that bodes well for more.


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