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The Pilgrims, 'Joking but Serious'

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Published July 3, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


The Pilgrims - COURTESY
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  • The Pilgrims

(Self-released, digital)

It's impossible not to respect What Doth Life. The folks behind the Windsor-based collective do it all: They run a record label, book shows and festivals, and direct their own music videos. They're a group of Upper Valley friends making some of the most distinctive music in Vermont through a massive roster of incestuous bands. And it's been a damn long time since we've heard from one of What Doth Life's cornerstone acts: the Pilgrims.

I had to double-search the internet to make sure I wasn't missing any LPs. Indeed, it's been seven years since the thick-cut, brain-blasting rock band dropped No Focus, its third studio album. And its latest, the facetiously titled Joking but Serious, is ... whatever the sonic equivalent of a sight to behold is. It evokes intense, sometimes upsetting thoughts, feelings and memories. Yet the band couches its darkness in musical levity and lyrical goofiness.

A lot can happen in seven years. Bassist Brendan Dangelo wrote in an email that the Pilgrims came close to breaking up — but didn't — because "we don't really take ourselves seriously enough to break up." A show billed as the group's last hurrah took place this year on April Fool's Day. Wink, wink.

After No Focus, the band tried to "take advantage of the way music was being consumed ... and capture the short attention span we all seem to have these days" by eschewing traditional albums, guitarist and self-proclaimed cyborg Kiel Alarcon explained by email. (Not joking, very serious: Several years after a spinal cord injury and frustrated with available assistive devices, Alarcon designed his own robotic leg brace.)

A string of singles (and some fantastic accompanying music videos) helped the group maintain momentum but "wasn't very satisfying for us as a band," Alarcon continued. The fellas really wanted that "big-project feeling." And as soon as pandemic-era restrictions eased, the Pilgrims began rehearsing and sifting through material they'd cached while on hiatus.

Writing Joking but Serious had its ups and downs. At times, Alarcon wrote, "too much time and freedom" led to frustration while he produced the record. He wanted the album to sound "like a real band playing live music," because adding overdubs and studio magic can push the sound further away. But the end result achieves the loose, humanistic effect he was going for.

The Pilgrims operate collectively and independently, working together on song structure while leaving specifics up to each instrumentalist. Alarcon said the group's singer and lyricist, Chris "Rosie" Rosenquist, struggled especially to articulate his thoughts, so his bandmates brought him some raw tunes that he eventually cooked through.

The Pilgrims, Joking but Serious - COURTESY
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  • The Pilgrims, Joking but Serious

The head-banging, giggle-inducing and, occasionally, stomach-turning tunes on Joking but Serious balance precision with an anticipatory feeling that just about anything could happen. Dangelo's bass is nimble and rubbery. Davis McGraw's keys bounce with pep and flair. Drummer Chris Egner ranges from meticulous and restrained to monstrously powerful. When he isn't shredding, Alarcon jolts the sound with electrifying sax. And everything comes together under Rosie's raspy, defiant howl.

The singer has a loose, extemporaneous quality, like he's speaking his thoughts as quickly as they come to him. He chokes out bon mots in spurts, then drives home phrases in demented wails.

"Take me to a hospital / I might die soon / well / I slide / I glide / across the floor / the pressure pressure / I needed a hospital!" he cries at the apex of opener "Hot Spittle." The group's punchy, syncopated instrumentation collapses into a raging inferno around the singer's urgent declaration.

"Bustanova" is a rollicking, lightly jazz-inflected track. Its play-on-words title suggests a genre mutation, and the organ-assisted groove makes good on this as it trips and falls into cymbal-thrashing, sax-blasting mayhem.

Insecurity and isolation seem to be running themes. Between non sequiturs and Lomographic recollections, Rosie's self-doubt emerges: "Feels like everybody's out to get me" ("Garfield"); "You didn't even invite me to the party" ("Jacket"); "I was so lonely and sweaty" ("Test Pressing").

"Teeth" is one of the album's most intense cuts. Guitars snarl and seethe, drums and cymbals pop and fizz, and bass buzzes under harsh, unhinged proclamations: "Well call the cops / I just found my whole head in an institution."

Penultimate song "Floater" is dazzling. A muscular foundation of bass and drums shoulders the mid-tempo jam as it expands with cosmic resonance. "This is the age of everything," Rosie sings, sounding something like hopeful.

But nothing matches the unfiltered ramblings of closer "Best Friend." Slowly building in musical intensity with fuzzy guitars and subdued beats, the track features the album's most stunning lyrics. As if unburdening himself, Rosie rambles on, looking back at the tipping point of adolescence, innocence crashing into disillusionment. Some choice excerpts include:

You used to look at me and say, "My dad has a whole bunch of pornos, and he hides them in the kitchen." And I remember how weird your kitchen was. It used to have all sorts of weird shit on the counters in little jars. And your dad always looked like he had just finished fucking something...

You were a good friend to me. We used to lift up our arms to see puberty...

And you cried your eyes out when we prank-called that woman 6,000 times and we had to clean her yard, and we rode our bikes there...

The song concludes the album with a bittersweet, laughing-so-hard-we're-crying-but-maybe-we're-crying-because-we're-sad feeling that courses through the 10 tracks.

This may be the last Pilgrims album, but not in a declarative way. As Dangelo put it, "We're more of a fade away than burn out type" of band. If it is a curtain call, it's a hell of a way to close out a 10-plus-year career.

Joking but Serious is available at pilgrimsvt.bandcamp.com and on major streaming services. Catch the band on Saturday, August 10, at the Monkey House in Winooski.

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