It’s hard to believe that Pardoner is the first time Max Freeland and Trey Flanigan have ever played guitar in a band before. Not only do they seem to have an endless repository of ideas, but they play together like a single unit. Only drummer River van den Berghe has any prior experience, having briefly played in several high school projects before meeting the other members as students at San Francisco State University. A mutual interest in Yo La Tengo and Polvo records sparked their own experiments, and by 2015 they’d started their own band and moved in together, hammering out songs on unplugged electric guitars in their living room. In the two years since then they’ve brought their own version of 90’s alt rock into sharper focus, and made seemingly exponential leaps in songwriting across EP’s. Pausing only briefly from a relentless performance schedule that’s seen the band play several times in the same week, they added Will Mervau on bass and entered the studio to record what would become 2017’s Uncontrollable Salvation.
The 45-minute LP pulls no punches, doubling down on the driving intensity of their earlier work and paying homage to heroes and contemporary experimenters alike (one could make a Sonic Youth and a Dinosaur Jr. comparison and both would be apt). However, there’s a simultaneous disaffection and technical prowess that makes the music distinctly ‘Pardoner’, placing them at the curious intersection of slacker-rock and punk, a space where songs are as fun as they are angst-ridden. On standout tracks like “Blue Hell” and “Hey Rockstar” you get the charming combination of hooky guitar work and goofy, taunting one-liners. Lines like “I’m a good boy today, putting my toys away” and “my boss gave me a raise, money’s healthy for the brain” turn into strangely cathartic sing-alongs at shows. The band move together in pummeling lockstep, only pausing for the proper drum fill to signal their next movement. The albums uncompromising 7-½ minute closing track somehow manages to juxtapose violent guitar riffs with an expansive, rock opera outro before abruptly concluding. Uncontrollable Salvation brims with energy, ideas, and the lurking anxiety of change, but the tension is no match for the right combination of distortion and cathartic drums.