Volcano! frontman Aaron With has said that with Pinata the band set out to hang onto the “weird energy, the melodic tension, and the neurotic rhythm” of their earlier albums (imagine Talking Heads with more pronounced No-Wave influences), while making “the framework a little more decipherable.” I’d say they’ve succeeded admirably. Their sound is as spiky and aggressive, and their way with a contrastingly sweet melody as unexpectedly beautiful as ever, but their method is now a tad less capricious than before. Pinata should, if there’s any justice, broaden Volcano’s appeal without shedding any of their existing fan base.
Volcano! is Mark Cartwright (bass, synths), Sam Scranton (drums), and Aaron With (guitar, vocals). Hailing from Chicago and active since 2003, Piñata is their third album for the Leaf Label since debuting with Beautiful Seizure in 2005.
The opening moments of the album involve a squelchy synth bass line, which momentarily suggests that a Liars-style shift away from guitars might be on the cards, but unlike Liars’ (fabulous, incidentally) new album WIXIW, Piñata simply features synths as an additional texture. But with the exception of that album title, Piñata dispenses with With’s occasional lyrics in Spanish and accompanying Iberian touches on guitar, which is a shame.
At first I thought there might not be any standout tracks here to match personal favourites “Easy Does It” (from Beautiful Seizure) or “Africa Just Wants to Have Fun” (from Paperwork, 2008), but I was wrong; it’s just that the best tracks on Piñata are all kept back until the album’s ‘second side’. The lead single is the album’s lead and title track, “Piñata”, but the dual standouts for me are “Fighter” and “St. Mary of Nazareth”, with it’s poignant new-age lament, “I am constantly pinging the central server”.
You’ll have to use some imagination to work out how that lyric relates to the Virgin Mary, even if you read the interview notes Leaf have used for publicity, in which frontman Aaron With describes Volcano!’s songs as “mainly based on weird fantasies”. “Our goal,” he says, “was to tell stories with strange but universal sentiments.”
The protagonist of “Child Star”, With says, is a reincarnated individual who uses “the skills and experience of a previous life to gain competitive advantage over a helpless peer group,” while “Piñata” imagines “posthumous karmic retribution”, and “Fighter” is “a violent revenge fantasy”. I think I see a theme emerging.
With’s fantasies have been translated into a suite of videos, one for each track from Piñata, that have been posted on Volcano!’s YouTube channel, but you don’t need them. The music is sufficiently articulate; it speaks for itself.