Ponykiller’s fine debut album, The Wilderness, is one of those very worthy efforts that somehow evaded this reviewer’s ears in 2011, so I’m making up for that omission now.
Led by singer/guitarist/songwriter Collin Yeo, Ponykiller offers up a slice of neo-psychedelia that rewards repeated listening. Like those musical Californians whose influences show up on The Wilderness – Tim Buckley, Love, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and even the late Rozz Williams of Christian Death – Ponykiller’s psych-rock is, even at its sunniest, never without an accompanying dark shadow. “I feel love – like Hell,” sings Yeo, appropriately enough, on the album’s “Howlee.”
On The Wilderness, death shadows the singer’s every move. The recognition of human mortality undercuts any moments of happiness that do come his way.
The album opener, “I-5,” serves as an aesthetic statement of intent: “I can hear you on psychedelic wings,” sings Yeo, as the band serves up some 1960s flavored, yet still contemporary-sounding, acid rock. The aforementioned “Howlee” is next, the neo-psych vibe growing darker, while “Busketeer” at times evokes the desperate feel of Christian Death circa Catastrophe Ballet.
“Another Toxic Year” sounds like something from Love’s dystopian psych-rock classic Forever Changes: “They’re burning cars in Oceanside again,” sings Yeo. “And if I could I’d resurrect the sun/And make this toxic year be gone.” A circular, churning guitar riff finally resolves here into an abstract, trippy coda.
“Wendigo” showcases the band’s unique way of putting songs together. A choppy, angular and insistent guitar riff pushes the singer forward into his imagined lysergic funeral procession. Here, Yeo conjures up nightmarish, apocalyptic visions straight out of the television show The Walking Dead: “And we will not all make it through the suicide to come/We’ll only bleed the frozen ground and overdose alone.”
Other highlights here include “Magnet River,” an evocative number that evokes the mid-period work of Tim Buckley. Yeo turns in a dynamic vocal performance as he again undercuts happiness with a recognition of the ephemeral nature of all human emotions. “All the pretty girls/They love you/Just when your eyes turn to the sky and roll away.” The song’s coda abruptly turns on a musical dime, much like the Doors’ “The Soft Parade,” into a doomy funk march, complete with ominous, buzzing guitars.
“It’s all over (but the bleeding)” veers between ambient, bluesy passages and spacey acid funk, as Yeo sings in a droll, Jim Morrison-like cadence, “No one knows you better than me.” The catchy gloom pop of “Some Sunny Girl” could be a hit single in a better (and more sublimely stoned) world than this one. The song features some especially hooky work from Benjamin Deffendall on lead guitar and Trevor Darling on bass.
“DeadHeart” overtly features Yeo’s seeming lyrical obsession with water and drowning. “I can’t stand to be sleeping/Above the waterline,” he sings, before a psychedelic break featuring acid rock guitars straight out of Love’s underrated Out Here album. Throughout The Wilderness, a strong pop sensibility plays a game of hide and seek with the listener, leading him or her happily into the more experimental musical passages on offer.
“Into The Drink” continues Yeo’s watery themes, as he delivers a great vocal in the song’s poppy first half. To his credit, producer Philip Anselmo (of Down and Pantera fame) consistently delivers a sonic context here that’s entirely appropriate to Ponykiller’s singular style. Anselmo appears on backing vocals during the trippy coda; a half-chanted, druggy refrain of “Smooth sailing to you.”
The closer, “Headhunters,” is a psyche doom mini epic, a la The Doors’ “The End,” that builds pace slowly, anchored by Darling’s pulsing basslines. Yeo comes in with more vivid dystopian imagery, singing of “Bastard medics with clumsy killer knives.” Finally the drums enter, with Tim Nolan doing a very good take on John Densmore’s jazzy approach. The song ends too quickly – one can imagine this number stretching out to twice its recorded length in concert.