By Brian Tucker
In mid-July experimental indie rock band ¡pretend surprise! released new album Butcher It in digital and physical formats on the Blood Drunk Records label. The five song EP could be seen as a long time coming given the band shake ups after the release of HOTmath and bringing in a new singer nearly a year ago.
But new material has been worth the wait, putting forth a band with different colors and a different vibe while retaining the intensity of its original sound. Fans won’t be disappointed with Butcher It. It’s like meeting a family member of a friend of yours the first time. There’s that familiarity – they’re similar but still look, act and sound different. Butcher It is like that in sound and appearance but ultimately is a fresh approach, an evolution, from the original band.
¡pretend surprise! began as a band with songs avoiding traditional verse-chorus-verse structure and sounded wonderfully out of control. It’s perhaps still out of control, albeit in different ways. With new songs and lead singer, the music still has a frantic and fearless personality, where chaos feels good yet finds beauty in other ways.
The album title isn’t a sonic reference, more an internal one. Here the band carves out new territory with restraint and softer qualities. Lead singer Zac Nobles delivers them with almost subtlety, especially given the guy’s strong ability to deliver vocals. Often he sings with a breathless singing quality, taking time and often coming across as seductive and bating. It’s like he’s working through things on songs, rarely losing it except for a rare moment on “Good Luck” where cool, calmly sung vocals break for a scorching moment.
It’s a striking album, signaled from opening song “Eyes for Strangers” and Matt Evans’ dagger sharp guitar notes. As their music has shifted focus, it remains engaging and reverts to solitary, introspective position. Aggressive and moody, its feels way more internal and brings to mind moodiness of mid-90s band Mad Season. Both albums differ sonically. They bear a low-key quality, no mater how bombastic things might get.
“Comeback” has an intimate punch built around tense, repetitive guitar work and severe rhythm via bassist Adam Tharrington and drummer Bobby Armstrong that itself is deceptive. Album opener “Eye for Strangers” is a bit murky, remaining calm until that great run near the end. Months ago, listening to their rough demos, it was clear the band was exploring, both musically and tonally.
“Under the Casino” is a solid example as it grows from a playful, shuffling opening towards a soundscape that’s like lightning erupting on a calm night sky. It again shows the band playing with convention (and moments of disorder) and creating a song from different vantage points (solitude, chaos, melody) that also ends abruptly, only adding to its ambiguity. “Good Luck” begins with a slow burn – it slowly creeps up on you. The vocals center this, never aiming to outshine the song. It’s a methodical track that finally explodes with Nobles’ intensity coupled with buzz-sawing guitar.
The band’s music has evolved in an interesting and arresting fashion, illustrated by shadowy guitar work at the beginning of “The Actress” and the heartbeat drumming throughout. The song features intense emotions, notably when Nobles sings from a stark place – “I traded my girlfriend for an actress.” It goes from explosion to calm and its final moments feel like peaceful defeat, the notion of coming to terms with something bad. It’s a mature song and it shows that musically and lyrically, ¡pretend surprise! is expanding and not with an easy coat of paint.