Pupil Slicer embrace a ”stronger identity” on new album Blossom
Kate Davies is feeling a little run down today. They’ve not been back on home soil for that long, having just returned from a sprawling three-week jaunt across Europe supporting Japanese experimental metal legends Boris. It’s been the longest run of shows the vocalist and guitarist has spent on the road with Pupil Slicer to date, so naturally, the post-tour sniffles beckon after weeks of travelling, close contact and physical exertion in stiflingly hot rooms.
The Boris tour has been the latest in a golden run of wins for the trio, completed by bassist Luke Fabian and drummer Josh Andrews. It was all made possibly by their excoriating, angular and oftentimes harrowing 2021 debut Mirrors, which landed in the dying days of the third lockdown and making them an underground one to watch. It gave them a faster passage to their dreams than they anticipated.
Josh’s big goal was to play a show with mathcore-turned-post-metal titans Rolo Tomassi – in February 2022, just under a year after Mirrors came out, they did it. Kate wanted to play ArcTanGent – last year, they did it. Their crowd overflowed from the Bristol festival’s smallest tent, despite their set overlapping with headliners Opeth, and they’re coming back for this year’s festival in August.
The impact Mirrors had vastly outweighed Kate’s expectations. “It was quite hard to process really,” they say, their voice thick and furry from illness. “There was quite a long time where it felt surreal that anyone was even listening to us. Even though we started playing gigs and there were loads of people there, I still didn’t feel like anyone was actually interested in seeing us until this year where I was like, ‘Oh, maybe people might want to go and see Pupil Slicer’.”
The band had sat on Mirrors for over a year before it finally came out, so by the time the world heard it, in Kate’s words, it was already “old news” to them. When it came to album number two, however, the turnaround has been much shorter, with the release date coming seven months after the band got the masters back. “I’ve been purposely trying not to listen to it so I’m still excited about it,” Kate says. “I’m really happy with this album, so I want to maintain my excitement for it as much as everyone else’s.”
Image: Gobinder Jhitta
Said album, titled Blossom, is a concept album sitting somewhere between the genres of science fiction and cosmic horror, beginning with its protagonist losing touch with reality beneath a starry night sky in the wake of a profane signal of alien origin. It’s the catalyst for a journey through a mysterious alternate plane of existence where all is not as it seems, but while it seems that our central character is trapped in a loop of destruction, its cathartic ending brings things to a place of serenity, offering a spark of hope.
“I’ve always loved concept albums – The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, Low by Bowie, Parallax II by Between The Buried And Me. I think a concept album is a really cool idea but very hard to pull off,” Kate says. They never strode into the writing process for Blossom with the intention of writing a concept album – it was an idea that came to them by accident. It took root as they were writing the first song for the album, the slowly unfurling, gracefully raging eight-minute epic The Song At Creation’s End, inspired by video games like Final Fantasy 14 and Outer Worlds that they personally found deeply affecting. Kate found that there were more ideas that they wanted to explore, which formed the threads of a narrative throughline that they built into a story.
“There was a lot of stuff borrowed from Bloodborne, Event Horizon, Silent Hill, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” Kate explains. “It’s just my favourite thing to put in Easter eggs with quotes and other little things. It’s still its own thing, but it has loads of references to where I’m coming from.”
What do they love about those specific stories? “There’s a great sense of mystery about the stories, and I think the best part of them is that a lot of them aren’t very clear with their plot and require you to think about it and then in retrospect, figure out what was going on. It’s intentionally obscure, but when you get a grasp on the story, that’s what makes it so much more powerful and engaging.”
Indeed, one of the things that makes Blossom truly special is its attention to the smallest of details, not just in its intertextual references but also in the bare bones of its sound. “I spent hours writing little details and guitar fills, and we’ve got these interesting drum fills and the bass lines are doing interesting things too. There’s electronic elements and strings and piano. There’s always more to get out of it.”
It’s an album that invites participation, to grasp its story’s plot points and piece them together, but there are so many tiny, twinkling flourishes that it’s impossible to notice them all on first listen. Really, however, it’s an advantage – it means there are pleasant surprises for listeners who go back again and again and notice the repetition of a certain riff, and theory nerds might pick up on the significances of a certain chord progression or the change in key from one song to one that follows.
It also means it’s harder for Blossom to lose its lustre. “If there’s less to it, then it’ll get stale quicker,” Kate reasons. “I think that’s what I’m most scared of. Maybe I overcompensate too much in the other direction, especially on Mirrors where I was like, ‘I won’t even play a riff more than once. At least on this album I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can play a riff twice!’”
On Mirrors, Pupil Slicer generally, and somewhat consciously stayed within the boundaries of mathcore. Its final track, the dark, devastating post-rock number Collective Unconscious, almost didn’t make the cut because the band were concerned it didn’t fit with the rest of the album. Then, Kate took a lesson from one of their favourite bands, Converge – “If they can do eight-minute post-rock songs, why can’t we?” Their other favourite bands, they noticed, were unequally unafraid to attempt a huge range of sounds without losing their sense of identity or focus.
Embracing that same sense of ‘why the fuck not?’, Pupil Slicer expanded their sound in magnificent ways. The sounds of post-metal coalesce with shoegaze with a smattering of blast-beats and electronics, with surprises waiting around every corner. Early single No Temple plays with the harsh, silvery industrial vibes of a band like Loathe or Code Orange, while the ebullient closer Blossom serves as arguably Pupil Slicer’s most accessible song to date, with more clean vocals than ever before. Departure In Solitude’s opening lines are slick with AutoTune.
The guitar, Kate observes, is a tool for getting all these ideas across. “I’m more of a songwriter. I’d like to be able to play guitar better, but I don’t really have enough hours in the day to be practicing scales for hours and learning how to sweep pick,” they assert. The main way that they improve their guitar skills, however, is the unconventional practice of writing parts on a computer that are harder that they know they can play, and pushing themself to learn to realise their ideas. “Then I’m like, ‘Oh fuck, I have to spend time learning tapping now’, or something like that. That’s a good way to challenge yourself.”
The main guitar used on Blossom is no slouch however – a Dunable DE R2, on which Kate played most of the album’s chuggier parts. Other parts were tracked on a Telecaster, using an Evertune system to help them work more efficiently. “I pick quite hard, so I end up going out of tune quite quickly,” they explain. “As much as I wanted to use my Dunable for a lot of the album, we were just like, ‘We’re going to save hours if we use the Evertune’, so I ended up using it for a lot of the tracking.”
Image: Gobinder Jhitta
Show Your Working
Even when it comes to the act of playing, their influences are never far away either. They come up frequently in conversation, interjecting when discussing playing The Song At Creation’s End in open B tuning that Oathbreaker also play in that tuning. Practicing songs by the bands formative to their musical education – the aforementioned Converge, Loathe, Code Orange and especially The Dillinger Escape Plan – teaches them new techniques that they didn’t know could be done with a guitar, that “just all go in the bank” of knowledge.
They spent a couple of days in the studio trying to find the perfect tone and initially modelled it off the tone used on Knocked Loose’s A Tear In The Fabric Of Life EP – “We realised that was a bit too beefy for us, because there’s a lot more technicality in [what we do] and more nicer-sounding chords. We took a little bit of the bite off and made it a bit more well balanced.”
But as present as these influences are, Kate sees Blossom as an opportunity for Pupil Slicer to stand apart as individuals more than ever before. “There’s a stronger identity on this compared to Mirrors. Having fewer boundaries on ourselves and being more confident in what we were doing resulted in an album that sounds more like Pupil Slicer. On the first one, it was obviously like ‘Here’s the Axe To Fall-era Converge riff, here’s the Dillinger riff,’ whereas it’s now like, ‘Here’s the Pupil Slicer riff’.”
Pupil Slicer’s Blossom is out now on Prosthetic
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