Hand-picked by Thurston Moore for his Ecstatic Peace label, Pagoda plays traumatic, sludgy art rock: the musical incarnation of an adolescence spent immersed in the sounds of the nineties. One can see why Moore may have taken a personal liking to Pagoda: as he and Kim Gordon, both children of college professors, formed Sonic Youth as an performance art project of sorts, Pagoda boasts a similar pedigree of intellectual vigor, New York grittiness and multi-disciplinary artistic vision.
Dark and visceral, Pagoda is the kind of music one expects to hear from a band fronted by actor Michael Pitt, known for his challenging roles in eclectic films like Hedwig and the Angry Itch, Murder By Numbers, and The Dreamers. The album seethes with brutality—in its raw guitar onslaughts, lyrics of blood, birth and death, and vein-like album artwork.
Most initially striking about Pagoda is the deep impression of Nirvana on the band: Pitt’s tortured vocals are startlingly similar to those of Kurt Cobain, and the riff from “Fetus” seems almost precisely borrowed from “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Yet Pagoda is far from a sad, long-delayed mimicry; they’ve incorporated the mellifluous sounds of a cello, moments of experimental noise and even spoken word into their debut. Pagoda reads like a precocious critical essay on the past couple decades’ staples of rock: Pitt’s phlegmy voice overlies a background of fuzzed-out noise on “Voices”, a song that recalls the call-and-answer, dramatic dynamic of Fugazi; “Sadartha” combines Klezmer-esque strings with a Pitt howl that could be Frank Black singing “In Heaven”.
Pagoda is decidedly more creative project that commercial aspiration. “Fear Cloud”, a terrifying minute-long cacophony of looped vocals, static and the sound of zippers behind pulled shut, sounds exactly like its title. The fourteen-minute long experimental piece “I Do” closes the album, with Pitt’s androgynous lips narrating the events of a night’s insomnia.
Pagoda’s debut is of note not because of its celebrity associations—this is no 30 Seconds To Mars. The furious drum offensive waged by Ryan Donowho is of a grandeur typically associated with speed metal bands. And Pitt, never formally trained as a guitarist, seems innately capable of scratching out harrowing melodies; his Pagoda is the twisted yet articulate first statement of an educated, angry young band.