It says a lot about the strength of Arbouretum’s sound that I was disappointed to find that not one track on Song of the Pearl ran over ten minutes. In fact, only one runs over six. How can the band who gave us stoned-loner epics like “Pale Rider Blues” and “The Rise” on their fantastic Rites of Uncovering not follow them up with, say, a meandering 30-minute, Roy Harper-style Side B?
Well, the answer is that Song of the Pearl isn’t about the tumbling guitar solos — and, once the initial disappointment passes, this move mostly works out for the band. Instead of resting on leader singer/shredder Dave Heumann’s towering licks, the band explores the moody, fog-rolling-in side of their sound. Songs like “Down by the Fall Line” work on guitar textures instead of easily defined riffs, and then contain those textures in the tightest song structures we’ve heard from Arbouretum.
Heumann tends to lay an unassuming, faintly distorted layer of guitar under these songs, and then weaves clusters of notes through them. It’s a compelling sound, particularly on “Another Hiding Place,” as Heumann’s thick guitars paw at each other in the verses, and then bark and growl at us on one of the album’s biggest choruses.
The hushed counterpart to the size of “Another Hiding Place” is the devastating quiet of album closer “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.” This one might, at first, feel like half an Arbouretum song. Heumann barely hits his guitar, but the low-end fuzz it makes echoes out into some expanse the players have built around themselves. Once again the singer ponders over a long and solitary life, but the barely there trudge isn’t all hopelessness. Had this song ended with an ear-bursting rock-out, it might have implied a frustration that confirmed the song’s negativity, or a premature freedom from this sad feeling. Instead, Heumann sings in a cracked near-whisper, and the song just drones and drones and then peters out, leaving us and the singer to really feel the heft of that isolation before leaving it behind.
But while these guitar-textured songs work, and put a spotlight on the deep, curling tendrils of Heumann’s voice, it is telling that the best songs here are still built on bruising guitar attacks. “False Spring” is an absolute knock-out. The band layers chainsaw guitars together and lets them build size and inertia until they explode, but still leaves space for some good old shredding. “Infinite Corridors” finds Heumann trying out some more experimental sounds on his axe. The shuffling throb of the track parts so that he can grind away with feedback and notes pulled to the brink of snapping. And just when the song seems to fall apart, the whole band comes together and bashes out their loudest sound while Heumann once again delivers a stunning guitar solo.
These are not only the two longest songs on the record, they are also the two best, so clearly Arbouretum are at their best when they give themselves some space. So while the more textured approach works on Song of the Pearl, and it works very well in spots, alongside these bigger songs it sounds like they sell themselves a little short. They’re right to think they can’t continue to live and die on solos, but by toning those down they don’t have to lose their size and space in the bargain. Song of the Pearl marks a nice transition for these guys, but it ends up sounding like it could have been more.