WVAU’s #1 Song of 2014: Pile – "Special Snowflakes"

Jesse Paller

Courtesy of Pile’s Bandcamp.

“Special Snowflakes‰” is, in many ways, the sound of potential being reached. It feels sort of ridiculous to say so, being that Pile have an incredible back catalog, and are one of the most beloved cult bands on the East Coast. But on “Special Snowflakes‰” they truly reach an apex and have created a work that nobody has yet been able to equal. This song brings their music to a level that nobody knew existed before hearing it.

Their longest song by two minutes, “Special Snowflakes‰” takes every quality that has earned Pile their well-deserved rabid fan base and focuses on each one to a point of ultimate intensity; deafening noise, equally deafening quiet, beauty and ugliness in a constant struggle for dominance. It foregoes your classic pop structure for a complex, suite-like arrangement, each section representing an extreme of Pile before abruptly transitioning to something else, the way you‰’d break eye contact that has been kept for too long.

When I first heard this song, I briefly worried that Pile couldn‰’t again reach the level of their perfect 2012 album Dripping, which introduced me to them and, in a broad sense, changed my life. My concerns were met with the quietest, most sensitive moment in Pile‰’s catalog. The song opens with a lone bass line, slowly augmented by tentative drum rolls, shy guitar lines and gloomy piano chords. The mighty foursome settles into their slow groove with a profound sense of restraint.

The snares click on and Rick Maguire‰’s vocals enter. His lyrics, strikingly clear, set a strange scene, an insomniac in the breaking morning. After this, a melancholy guitar figure plucks the song into its first transition, a zero-to-one-hundred move to a dissonant, distorted breakdown reminiscent of a nuclear warning alert. Between bursts of noise Maguire‰’s vocals lend melodic context, spinning his tale in this song‰’s closest thing to a chorus. The lyrics, as usual, are a sort of noir-ish outsider‰’s tale, filled with oblique, abject imagery. A man finds a pair of shoes with gold laces and becomes obsessed with that which makes him unique. His sole purpose becomes to crush those who foolishly consider themselves to be the special snowflakes in his presence.

The moment the titular words leave Rick‰’s mouth the band barrels into a jaw-dropping set of chords, a heavy, sludgy guitar dirge rent with snare flams from the great Kris Kuss, the kind of sublime musical moment that has writers reaching for their similes. If you can hear these chords without the urge to passionately nod your head to them, you should quit listening to music. The ugliness, as usual, disguises something pretty, a reiteration of the sad chord progression from earlier in the song, and a doomsday set of harmonies sings a chilling mantra: “smoke evil out.‰”

The second half of “Special Snowflakes‰” is the evil twin of the first half. Rick‰’s final “smoke‰” fades into an eerie reiteration of the opening, quiet section. Pile‰’s prettiest moment on record yet follows, with mournful piano and twinkling guitar providing an intimate atmosphere for more vocal harmonies (a novelty for Pile) and lyrics about necrophilia (not such a novelty). Then without warning an insane guitar anti-solo explodes over the pounding chords from before, with chaotic drum fills and Rick‰’s screamed vocals bringing the song to a point of ecstasy.

The nuclear warning briefly cuts through an abrupt break and the song plunges into its final movement, a return to the “chorus.‰” The lyrics have darkened- the protagonist‰’s obsession with his shoes and his need for attention and adulation has become his doom. He has become a joyless addict to his own uniqueness. The noise grows and the chords build up with nearly classical gravitas, to a climax among climaxes as Rick howls the phrase “TIE THOSE GOLD LACES‰” in an animalistic screech that ranks among the best of Kurt Cobain‰’s encounters with the beyond via shredded vocal cords. After this, he spits out the rest of his tragedy as the music begins to resolve- ironically, our protagonist is cursed to remain forever tied to his “special‰” badge of folly. Once again the words “special snowflake‰” end the section, followed by, fittingly, a final snare hit.

Pile brandish a form of rock music that is anything but stale- playing music that is complicated but subtle, subverting traditionally masculine sounds with gorgeous, sensitive songwriting, able to wring the beauty out of every last moment of noise. But even for them, “Special Snowflakes‰” is an astonishing work of art, and it has received its due adulation, now a fan favorite. When Pile perform it live there are few if any musical experiences that can compare with the level of catharsis. This song represents the musical and emotional vanguard of indie rock. To those who would proclaim the genre to be dead, I present its brutally beating heart.

One last, sort of related note about “Special Snowflakes‰” being WVAU‰’s #1 song of 2014: This year, the discussion of “hype‰” in relation to music reached a fever pitch for this writer, an inescapable specter that ruthlessly defined our tastes (full disclosure: a lot of music nerd friends). An example: eight albums of our top ten were recipients of the “Best New Music‰” designation from Pitchfork. Would we have fallen in love with them otherwise? We’d like to think not, but who knows? Our list looks a lot like pretty much that of every major relevant “indie‰” music publication you can find.

This isn‰’t to belittle our choices (all of which are awesome), but more of just an acknowledgment of how homogeneous the taste of our day has become thanks to the oversaturating promotion of hyped artists. It‰’s nice to know that, now and then, we can still transcend the suffocating, marketed-to-death majority by representing incredible songs like “Special Snowflakes,‰” life-altering shit that flies below the radar, music that gains intense love by its merit alone. There is no touted narrative here, no cult of personality, no kingmaking late night TV performance, nothing more than a band of regular guys that happen to have touched some higher musical level. And our DJs still chose it as the best song of 2014. Proof, maybe, that we are indeed a  dream college radio station, well deserving of our CMJ big up? I‰’d like to think so.