Analysis of Autumn of the Seraphs

by Jonathan Hust

The likeability of Pinback does not seem to come to one immediately; but after enough listens, it is nearly unavoidable. The same can be said of their newest release, Autumn of the Seraphs.

This record is not nearly as good as it is hypnotizing. Since they have mastered hypnosis, I’m left to wonder if musicians Zach Smith and Rob Crow sit around asking each other, “How good does this really need to be? They are hypnotized, after all.” Their answer seems to be consistent throughout most of the body of their work: that answer falls somewhere between “good enough” and “very good.”

Part of what I believe gives this music its hypnotic effect is a lot of repetition, both vocal and musical. Their use of repetition allows Pinback to build on the foundation of each song “brick by brick,” so to speak. This also allows them to achieve the extremely difficult task of making something very complex feel and sound simple. “Walters” (track 5) is one of the more interesting examples. It starts out sounding very hollow and simple, just a quiet vocal sung over a clean electric guitar riff (possibly a baritone guitar), some delicate acoustic strumming and some conservatively added bass. At about 45 seconds in, the drums make an entrance, continuing to build toward an ingenious key change. “Walters” goes from a wistful ballad in the first verse, takes the aforementioned key change in stride and begins building (note the repetitive octave effect here at the key change) toward a definitive breaking point at the 2:43 mark, where the song hits full throttle. By this time, keyboard and what sounds like percussive breathing have been added to the mix.


“Walters”
beginning


“Walters”
“definitive breaking point”

Knowing this notoriously crafty duo, I would argue that the key change at the 1:44 mark could be a conscious effort to allude to the similar sounding chorus of track 3, “Good to Sea.”


“Walters”
key change


“Good to Sea”
chorus

“Walters,” in my mind, is a perfect example of what makes this band a very good and very interesting one. A key to their continual success is that they consistently make music that is approachable and engaging enough for the casual listener, while simultaneously being complex enough to keep the more critical ears happy.

“They are able to achieve both a quiet, pretty sound and a raucous, loud sound within one song, taking full advantage of the musical real estate in between.”

Pinback covers quite a lot of ground on this record between their frantic opener “From Nothing to Nowhere” and the epic finale “Off by 50.” That being said, there’s not a lot here that they haven’t covered before. They write with the dynamic of their songs in mind. They are able to achieve both a quiet, pretty sound and a raucous, loud sound within one song, taking full advantage of the musical real estate in between. You will seldom hear an artist achieve this diversity throughout the course of an entire album, let alone within specific songs.

The ground they cover sonically on this album is sometimes frantic, as in early era Heatmiser-sounding “From Nothing to Nowhere.” It is melodic: a few of the guitar chords of “Barnes” had me reminiscing about the big, open guitar sound on The Smashing Pumpkins’ guitar masterpiece “Siamese Dream.” It is groovy: “Good to Sea” sounds a bit like Modest Mouse with an even better grasp on rhythm. Sometimes it is calculated: “Devil You Know” is a Gomez-like tune built around a great guitar riff, an area of Pinback’s writing in which they most noticeably excel. Sometimes it is eerie (“Torch”); and, finally, crunchy: the opening riff of “Off by 50” is straight out of The White Stripes playbook, but after showing us they can write an introductory riff every bit as cool as Jack White or Ozzy could, they opt for an epic that sounds more like something you would hear on The Anniversary’s Your Majesty.

“Part of Pinback’s formula is built around the layering not only of their complex instrumentation, but also their overlapping vocal lines, in a very precise and calculated manner.”

Pinback seems to have a formula that they are happy to stick to, and after having had the opportunity to hear them live, I can’t say I blame them, as their music seems to reach even greater heights in a live setting. Their songs seem to be written with live performance in mind; and seeing this band helps reinforce their grasp on the importance of a dynamic, contrasting sound. The reason they are so good live is that the two ends of the dynamic spectrum are pushed even farther apart, making truly epic moments. The dynamic effect I’m referring to is much easier to accomplish with live sound than recorded sound. To achieve the kind of volume on a record that you can get with live sound, you have to compress the hell out of it, which takes away from the breadth of the sound quite a lot. This is one of the more impressive things to me about their record; they are able to get a much more dynamic table of sound than most.

Part of Pinback’s formula is built around the layering not only of their complex instrumentation, but also their overlapping vocal lines, in a very precise and calculated manner. Essentially, they are able to sing an entire album of vocal rounds and harmonies so seamlessly that the vocals are able to take a step back from the spotlight, forcing the listener to take the songs in as a sonic whole. The vocals are really just another gear in Pinback’s hypnosis machine. This tactic proves to be a smart one considering that many times their lyrics seem about as random and incoherent as lyrics get. Their musicianship more than overcomes this incoherence, an undoubtedly rare achievement; and this record, like the band itself, continues to reveal its many layers.

Note: The album title is the name of a song that isn’t on the regular album release, though it is included with the deluxe release.

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TRACK LISTING

  1. From Nothing To Nowhere (3:28)
  2. Barnes (4:17)
  3. Good to Sea (3:12)
  4. How We Breathe (4:07)
  5. Walters (4:00)
  6. Subbing for Eden (3:32)
  7. Devil You Know (3:55)
  8. Blue Harvest (3:34)
  9. Torch (4:34)
  10. Bouquet (5:10)
  11. Off by 50 (4:00)

 


front to back:
Rob Crow, Zach Smith,
Rob Crow, and Zach Smith

CREDITS

Musicians
Rob Crow—synthesizer, guitar (acoustic), piano, bass, violin, guitar (electric), vocals, guitar (12 string), guitar (baritone), drum programming, drums

Zach Smith—synthesizer, bass, vocals, drum programming, guitar (baritone), guitar (electric), piano

Mario Rubalcaba—drums

Chris Prescott—drums

Mark Trombino—mixing

Producers
Rob Crow and Armistead Burwell “Zach” Smith IV

Label
Touch and Go

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