The story of Purling Hiss starts with one dude — Mike Polizze — alone in a crusty basement, committing to tape the towering psych noise percolating in his brain.
Polizze began to establish himself as a musician in the local Philadelphia scene as early as 2004, when he joined the psychedelic garage group Birds of Maya after catching sight of a flier in a record store that mentioned the Stooges, Blue Cheer, and Acid Mothers Temple.
The desire to experiment with his instrument propelled him to record in a makeshift studio in his home. With white noise and loud guitar on the mind, Purling Hiss was born a few years later in 2009.
Go ahead, say the name out loud: Purling Hiss. There's something satisfying about the combination of those sounds, isn't there? PURLing Hisssss. It evokes the rippling, spitting altered audio of those early solo recordings; after three such albums (Purling Hiss' blown-out psych in 2009, Hissteria's corrosive shredding in 2010, and Public Service Announcement's slightly sunnier explorations that same year), friend and fellow Philly-based musician Kurt Vile asked Polizze to put together a band so they could tour together. Purling Hiss grew to three; the ensemble we'll see at El Club includes drummer Ben Leaphart, recruited from Birds of Maya, and bassist Dan Provenzano.
When Polizze first performed with the band, longtime fans were a little confused. Where had the lo-fi fuzz freakouts gone? This live version was much more polished. But the fuzz freakouts really weren't gone at all — production values just went up. Sure, the vocals became easier to digest, and some power pop trips were now being taken, but the mind-bending spirit, the loudness, the reverence for heavy distortion — it was all very much the same, very much still there (to this day, too).
The first album Purling Hiss recorded in a proper studio, Water on Mars, came out in 2013 on Drag City. It was cleaner but just as visceral as the earlier stuff, bringing to mind Nirvana as much as the Silver Jews. Next came 2014's Weirdon, a not-that-weird trip down a noise pop road similar to the one Parquet Courts travels. All of which brings us to High Bias, their latest release. It was released in October by Drag City and is the object behind the current tour that is bringing them to El Club.
When it came time to record High Bias, Polizze wanted to bridge the gap between his early solo efforts and the more balanced music that came with the formation of a band. High Bias is as psychedelic as it is noisy, superbly bridging that gap while betraying as much of a loving reverence to punk as it does classic rock — all of which rules. Polizze's fantastic fretwork colors the album nicely — it's the spirit of grunge with riffs that are almost too well-executed, Dinosaur Jr. for the modern man. Polizze's voice is also better than ever. Sometimes he sounds like Bob Mould, other times like Jay Reatard. It's a good vocal spectrum to traverse, one that fits the music damn near perfectly.
Still, the sonic touch points of High Bias are quite varied, from "Motion Sickness," which sees Polizze channeling Dr. Know to "Teddy's Servo Motors," which adds a darker, almost goth-punk dimension to all this rock. "Follow You Around" is the album's poppiest diversion, practically a ditty, "Pulsations" offers high-energy snottiness, and the spacey garage of "Ostinato Musik" is pleasantly weird. The album reaches fever pitch, however, with the concluding 11-and-a-half minute amp-burning freakout that is "Everybody in the USA." The title conjures up thoughts of Bruce Springsteen, but there's really more of a warped Neil Young thing going on, and that's much better. (Also, "I'm afraid of everybody in the USA" should feel like a highly exaggerated statement, but during this election cycle, it's just not.)
Polizze's fondness for solos and distortion dates back to his adolescence. His uncle played country guitar; one day when Polizze was at his house, the uncle had an acoustic guitar plugged into his amplifier. "To make it interesting for me, he turned on the distortion so that when I strummed, it was so noisy and cool," Polizze told Spin back in 2013. Eventually he came across a Jimi Hendrix CD, which led to his first guitar and an obsession with the blues scale, Jimmy Page, and Black Sabbath — all of which you can hear, in some form or another, in his music to this day.
It's Polizze's skillful guitar playing, really, that sets Purling Hiss apart. The other thing about him is that he's a songwriter as much as he is a guitarist — High Bias is so compelling in part due to its melodic muscle and well-crafted song structures.
Fuzz is not hard to come by, and neither are melodies, but thankfully for us listeners, the core of raucous energy that stretches from the beginning of Purling Hiss to the power trio that they are now remains at the heart of the music. Come see the shreds for yourself at El Club.
Purling Hiss plays El Club with K9 Sniffies on Saturday, Nov. 19; Starts at 8 p.m.; 4114 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; elclubdetroit.com; $12 in advance/$14 at the door.