Pioneer 11 Deliver Stoned Profundity in the Era of Big Chill

Without the help of psychedelic drugs (as far as we know), Son Raw dives deep into the Los Angeles duo's debut full-length.
By    June 26, 2019

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Son Raw has a cover of “The Dream Shatterer” that would knock your fucking block off.

Pioneer 11’s Gravitorium is fun. That shouldn’t necessarily be noteworthy, but in an era where most bands position themselves somewhere between glowering political prognosticators of the apocalypse and the musical answer to civil war re-enactors for a half dozen dead sounds, it’s a welcome surprise. After an 00’s where declining album sales across the board allowed for rock bands to punch above their weight, the 2010’s have seen one nasty course correction after another, with the smarter side of rock music progressively abandoning the dance floor and the party to become critically-approved, politically correct head music. Blame streaming all of you want, but the 2010’s in rock felt like a litany of retreads, with a side of predictable political saber rattling. Fun, it was not.

Pioneer 11 don’t only avoid these pitfalls, they leap over them, with added pirouettes for flair. For one thing, they’re chill without being “Chill” – avoiding tired punk spikiness without veering into bland corporate predictability. Like most good Los Angeles acts of note for the past 30 or so years, this is because they understand the funk intimately and carnally, and a dedication to groove and syncopation underlines every track on Gravitorium. That means chunky basslines and programmed drums, but also a dedication to transcendence on the dance floor. You can fill arenas all day long combining EDM stomps to angsty dudebro vocals, but it’s far thornier and infinitely more rewarding to create a modern blues you can boogie to: rhythms that make your feet move and eyes water. That’s exactly what’s achieved on tracks like “I Haven’t Overstayed my Welcome,” which combines bump n’ flex bass music beat to growling guitars and wistful vocal performances to achieve a genuine fusion.  

If funk roots Pioneer 11 to the dance floor, their guitar lines are the space shuttles rocketing listeners to outer space through a cosmic sense of scale. Though likely too relaxed for those demanding virtuoso guitar heroics, Gravitorium features countless moments of genuine rock – deep, earthy, reverb soaked chords that conjure desert skies, space coyotes and the aforementioned fun. It’s the sort of earnest transcendence most contemporary bands would avoid, feel the need to apologize for, or at least preface with a 500 word essay on the harms of rockism, but sandwiched next to a Big Pun cover and anchored by LA beat-scene rhythms, the results are less cock-rocky than reclaimative. Why wouldn’t you want your guitars to sound awesome? Gravitorium manages the tricky balancing act of leaning into what makes rock worth listening to in the first place – the chemistry of a great band, the power of a great riff interacting with a solid groove – without aping their predecessors or alternately tripping on their own nuts trying to be clever.

Then there’s the vocals, soaring, saucer-eyed affairs that hint towards this music’s closest incidental analogue: Manchester baggy. While early 90s LA was busy trading in its peroxide-bleached locks for whatever Anthony Kiedis was sporting, Mancunian acts like the Stone Roses were combining classic rock to funk breaks under the influence of MDMA, and that cocktail of influences (and perhaps chemicals) now makes a lot of sense for an LA band with an unusually wide range of interests. Like Ian Brown, No one’s going to confuse Pioneer 11’s stoned profundity for straight up profundity, but like the Roses, there’s an emphasis on genuine emotion here, from euphoria to heartbreak. It all adds up to the rare contemporary band album that you can play out at a house party without someone yanking the aux-chord. It’s a lot of fun.

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