By Brian Tucker
“We feel like we do make verse-chorus-verse songs. We just add so many variations I can see how the structures might be misinterpreted,” guitarist Matt Evans said about the atypical song construction his band ¡pretend surprise! makes.
The experimental indie rock band released their new album Butcher It on Blood Drunk Records in July. The five song EP could be seen as a long time coming given band shake-ups following 2012’s HOTmath. They would add a new guitar player (Adam Tharrington) and then a new singer (Zac Nobles) nearly a year ago.
Butcher It has been worth the wait, putting forth an already dynamic band with new colors and different vibe while retaining the intensity of its germination. They began with a wonderfully out of control sound and it still is, albeit in different ways. The music retains an anxious and fearless personality, where chaos sounds good and can find beauty in the process.
“Most of our lyrics are about conflict,” Evans said. “To butcher something is to take it apart and dissect it. I think that refers equally to the situations in the songs as well as the writing process.”
The album title serves as a sonic reference against an internal one. Musically, they carve new territory from restraint and refined qualities. Evans cites exploring options on the guitar and perhaps getting older for the evolving sound.
“We’ve always made songs out of the way that we play our instruments, not the other way around. We just kind of let it come to us. The process has never changed.”
Nobles’ subtlety on songs can be surprising, especially given the guy’s ability to belt out vocals. They have a breathless quality with Nobles taking his time and can occasionally sound seductive. It’s like he’s working through things, rarely losing control except for rare moments, like on “Good Luck” where things break for a brief, scorching delivery. The material is largely emotionally driven and the music equally so, with dynamic guitar work both frenzied and atmospheric.
“Guitar licks are just whatever I come up with sitting around. I might think of a sound that I want to try and capture, but I come up with basic riff ideas on my $60 acoustic guitar in the living room. If something sounds good on that thing I get really excited about hearing it in the practice space with my actual rig, Evans said. “I liked thrash metal as a kid, but I could never play all fast like that, so I started holding chords with my left hand and tapping out melodies with my right. I felt like that was kind of niche-y and I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed into being a ‘math-rock’ band or anything. Adam moved in with me right after we dropped the first record, and our styles meshed well, so I took it as an opportunity to do less. These songs as a result felt very minimal to us.”
Butcher It is a striking album, signaled from the beginning with “Eyes for Strangers” and its dagger sharp guitar notes. As the band’s music has shifted, it remains engaging. Aggressive and moody, it retains a low-key resonance, no matter how bombastic things might get (see the frenzy of “Under the Casino”). This is owed to two years within the band in which they went through singers and the band evolving in the process.
“The band did feel a bit new,” Evans said of the ¡pretend surprise! today. “When Zac Nobles came in, it clicked very quickly. We were just really anxious to get this more subdued, more ‘mature’ music out. Having it done and out there is an amazing feeling. The recording process was the most incredible experience we’ve had together. We spent a week in Sanford, N.C. in February hashing out these songs we had been working on for six to eight months. We recorded eighteen hour days and drank all the coffee in the universe.”
The band’s music has evolved in an interesting and arresting fashion, illustrated by shadowy guitar work at the beginning of “The Actress” and steady heartbeat drumming throughout from Bobby Armstrong. It’s a song that features high and low, but always intense, emotions, like the lyric where Nobles sings from a gritty place – “I traded my girlfriend for an actress.”
The song moves from explosive to calm tonalities and its final moments feel like peaceful defeat, like the notion of coming to terms with something bad. It’s a mature song indeed, one illustrating musically and lyrically, ¡pretend surprise! is expanding its palette.