Review Summary: An ambitious debut that already showed signs of brilliance.
When it comes to construing your debut record, I’m sure most bands wouldn’t take the direction California’s Pretend took, which is to say, they wouldn’t craft a mammoth record spanning across ten tracks that constitute a duration roughly equalling 77 minutes. Yet, it must also be said that although Pretend is evidently a math-rock outfit, they are more dominantly influenced by another key style of music that would explain their penchant for exceedingly long, meandering compositions. See, generally when attempting to delineate the musical domain of math rock, one would separate at least three different axes. The first, would be the twinkly style of math rock characterised as much by its soft, glistering, fluid guitar sound, often achieved through a tapping-based playstyle, as its indisputably complex use of rhythmical subdivisions and time-signature chances. Bands such as Giraffes? Giraffes!, TTNG and American Football could certainly be seen as being part of this style, and as far as the math-rock side of Pretend is concerned, twinkly yet complex seems like a mostly appropriate descriptor. The second style would be one that is slightly less accessible, slightly more hard-hitting, more percussive and even more instrumentally complex. Groups like Don Caballero might be situated within this subdomain of math rock, and as far as Pretend’s drumming is concerned, I wouldn’t be averse to calling it somewhat ‘Don Caballeroesque’, especially in that takes up a similarly central role in guiding the music forward, with compositions more often than not being constructed around the drumming instead of being merely focused on the twinkly duel-guitar work. The last style of math rock would be the most atonal, dissonant, abrasive and experimental kind, with the most notable group within this style probably being Hella, although bands like Yowie, Sajjanu and Hyrrokkin are also worthy of mention. Pretend rarely reaches the intensity represented by that unique style of math rock, although some moments on Bones in the Soil, Rust in the Oil
do reach a level of sonic intensity and rhythmical density perhaps not usually associated with the more stereotypically twinkly, soft, glistening and angelic sound of most outfits within that subdomain of math-rock music.
That being said, what might be a more appropriate explication of why Pretend’s sound is at least slightly more boisterous and texturally rich than sound of most twinkly math rock bands, an explication that simultaneously sets them apart from most other math-rock bands, is their highly explicit post-rock influences. Far from merely being reflected in Bones in the Soil, Rust in the Oil
exceedingly long running time as well as duration of a certain number of tracks, with special emphasis on tracks two, eight and ten which all last ten-plus minutes, is Pretend’s use of meandering song structures which barely adhere to any concrete compositional restrictions, frequent use of extended, cyclical repetition, continuous layering of instrumentation and last but certainly not least the almighty musical technique known as the crescendo
(which is of course often followed by a climax). This grants the music a type of engrossing atmosphere that quite a lot more individualistic math rock lacks. That being said, these atmospheric sensibilities do not exist at the expense of extravagant displays of instrumental prowess, which are of course present throughout this record. From the frequent use of complex syncopated percussion, to the slick melodic guitar progressions, time-signature changes and mellifluous fusionesque bass lines, those who are looking for impressive displays of instrumental dexterity will not be disappointed. Yet, this needn’t necessarily entail Pretend’s music is typified by ‘musical wankery’ in any manner. The band’s emphasis on texture accords Pretend’s music a sense of cohesiveness that quite a lot math rock lacks. The record’s production style reflects their musical sensibilities quite well: although not as wall-of-sound as the production on a full-blown post-rock might be, the production is far more dense than the average math-rock production job. Although as clean and pristine as is necessary to bring out the record’s polished and meticulously arranged melodic and rhythmic schemes, it nevertheless doesn’t render the music incapable of creating dense layers of sound, where the dual-guitar work, groovy bass lines and scintillating drumming come together in a, not per se uniform, but withal tight-knit and organised manner. The band’s tasteful use of softly-whispered melancholic vocal lines and the extremely snappy snare sound are merely the icing on the cake.
The record isn’t without its faults however. Firstly the run-time of the record is challenging to drudge through in one go, especially considering some of the music, even given its often twinkly and polished character, is nevertheless quite complex and difficult to penetrate at times. The records first track is supposed to serve as an introductory interlude track, but ultimately ends up simply serving as an unnecessary postponement before the commencing seconds of the records actual starting-off point, the gargantuan thirteen-minute title track. It’s almost five-minute long run time does takes totality needless space. Tracks like ‘Dream Shivers’ and ‘Guided Spirits – Guided Souls’, although I would be hesitant to describe them as mere ‘filler’, nevertheless feel like comparatively needless additions to an already somewhat bloated record. Couple this with the records rather stylistically and aesthetically homogenous character and you might find that songs start to blend together at times, certainly when you start to reach the end of album. In this sense Bones in the Soil, Rust in the Oil
can be a deceptively challenging listen, and that is a statement that is certainly not entirely a testament to its instrumental complexity and compositional unpredictability, but also to its unfortunate shortcomings. This notwithstanding, Pretend already shows signs of brilliance on this ambitious although not entirely successful debut effort. Their eventual follow-up, Tapestry’d Life
, can indeed be seen as a math-rock masterpiece, and although this record is by no means worthy of that laudable status, it nevertheless manages to toe the line between the musical domains of math rock and post-rock in a startlingly accomplished manner.