There are a number of approaches when it comes to making music. At one end of the spectrum, there is art-as-commerce: music seemingly written with the intention of generating fame and money and not generally considered to be the form’s creative high water mark. At the extreme opposite end, there is basically art for arts sake. This end can often be an emotional wasteland, where the intellect reigns supreme and the listener can feel alienated or ignored. Fortunately, with such broad generalisations there are always exceptions. And in the case of Pumice’s latest offering Puny, the exception is not just unusual it’s extraordinary.
Pumice is Stefan Neville. He has been making music, mostly alone, under the Pumice moniker since the early nineties and if the internet can be believed Puny is his eleventh album. But Neville’s creative output is not confined to Pumice. He is an astounding drummer, with a comparable grace and style to Gary Sullivan. He’s played with such luminaries as the Aesthetics, the Ho’Dogs and many more. What’s more Neville also posses a distinctive visual style and aside from designing his own cover art, he has also made forays into comics. He is undoubtedly an inspired and talented individual, which brings us back to Puny.
Pumice belongs to the musical tradition of the Dead C / Xpressway / Siltbreeze et al. That is to say unconventional, experimental, and textural with a strong lo-fi / cassette four track aesthetic. This kind of stuff usually polarizes opinion: it’s a love or hate situation. Neville elaborates on this style, at times maintaining the expected fuzzed-out and vague sonic characteristics, but also managing to contrast the more lo-fi elements with some beautifully recorded sounds. Layered upon this is an emotional rawness that makes his music more compelling than some of his intellectualising contemporaries. This is exemplified by tracks like 'Stink Moon' or the epic undulating accordion driven soundscape of 'Trophy'. There is also a strange brain-bending other-worldliness to his music – 'Coeliacs Bring a Plate' for example, sounds like musical free association.
There is a rugged beauty to this album that engages the listener beyond simply its musical innovations. Pumice is a great example of a style of music that is, in many ways, one of New Zealand’s true cultural inventions. Within this, Neville has an undeniably unique voice. Despite little media attention or recognition, he remains one of our more significant artists. Puny is a great album and at the risk of cliché: I can’t recommended it strongly enough.