Green & Gray might not be an album for everyone. On their seventh full-length, Pile does little to eschew their reputation as craftsmen of unruly, challenging rock music. Rarely offering pop melodies or structures (or hooks at all, for that matter), reserving the intensity of punk or hardcore for select dynamic peaks, and never submitting entirely to full-blown theoretical showmanship of musical complexity, it’s difficult to explain why the Boston quartet has become a cult-like phenomenon in indie music circles. For the uninitiated, Pile can appear as an indecipherable heap, but for the initiated there lies an abundance of detail and layers to work through. Green & Gray may be the strongest distilling of that passionately contrarian and unusual energy to date, straddling the band’s ferocious live energy amidst beautiful, if slightly bitter, passages of guitar picking and frontman Rick Maguire’s anxious lyrics.
Like most of Pile’s musical output, Green & Gray is not an easy album. Pile’s songs often give off a claustrophobic effect with discordant guitar confronting rhythmically conflicting drums in tumbling arrangements that swell and shake. Here, there’s more emphasis given to the tension of things than the grand chaos. Almost tender guitar picking abounds, but rarely feels fully settled, like on “Other Moons” where Maguire sings “I wonder if moons of others are painted as lonely as ours or if they don’t need charity,” mirroring the waver between beauty and aching.
The lighter moments help to bring Maguire’s lyrical monologue to the front, which can otherwise be buried and dominated by the roar of the band. On Green & Gray he appears preoccupied with anxieties of his place in the world. As the album progresses this develops from a picture of someone uncertain of the direction of relationships versus their own on opening track “Firewood” (“we can hold hands if we promise to go to the same place at the same exact time”) to someone afraid of not making enough progress by the string-backed “Hair” (“I like to walk fast and I demand you allow me to”). It’s not hard to place Maguire and Pile at the center of this existential drama about one’s significance. “I’m aware of my age,” Maguire admits on “My Employer,” going so far as to add that “work comes first.”
While the increased vulnerability is notable and orchestral flourishes have been added to the backgrounds of many tracks, Pile’s primary power is still in musical dynamism. Hitting their stride in the aptly-titled, roughly center track “A Labyrinth with No Center,” the band does well fighting between soft and serrated. The two following tracks, “The Soft Hands of Stephen Miller” and “Lord of Calendars” deliver the noisy and untamed sound that may be the best known signifier of the band.
Pile seems to take pride in doing exactly what is wrong by conventional standards: creating rhythmic confusion, foregoing choruses for the occasional repeated line, screaming when there was silence. There are few well-marked entrances to Green & Gray (the riffy “Bruxist Grin” might be the best) but when examined closely it can be a rewarding listen. It’s what’s made the band so difficult to engage with for many but what’s made the band so enthralling to others. And for those, Green & Gray will be something excellent.