I’m a strange metalcore fan. I heard Underoath’s “Ø (Disambiguation)” before I heard “They’re Chasing Safety”, Killswitch Engage sounds too clean for me, and I feel embarrassed to tell people how much I love breakdowns. That’s probably because not all bands know how to write a good breakdown. If you want to play riffs that simple, there’s got to be some sort of momentum behind them. It should be a little messy.
Naturally, this is why I enjoyed the ferocious second EP from Austin, TX’s GnarWolf. They’ve been playing house parties and hardcore shows since 2015, and even tongue-in-cheek invited Every Time I Die to an afterparty when they played in Austin.
Their first release arrived in 2014, heavy as an anvil. “Abandon EP” was a solid debut, if a little rote at times. They channeled classic 2000’s Josh Scogin in both vocals and poetry. Tracks like “Become Death (If A Plane Crashes on the Border, Where Do We Barry Manilow?)” featured lines like “Don’t mind us, we shoot from the hip / Arms are open, but not our throats / We can dance this dance, but we can’t float,” echoing Keith Buckley. Though, to be clear, they did an amazing job at capturing that sound. I’ve listened to “Now (You’re Losing Your Marbles And I’m Offended)” over a dozen times, and I still can’t make it through without either tapping my foot, or banging my head. It’s a rager, but it left me a little hungry for a stronger sense of identity from the band itself.
I got my chance when I first heard “Harold: The Hero”, off of “II” which dropped yesterday on an exclusive digital release. Kyle Tomchesson and Jeremy Fowler from Euphonic Productions recorded it live, and Zachary Pierce of Pro State Studios put together a cleaner mix. That eye-popping neowestern artwork came from Martin Hooper of Drifting Creatives.
Despite the impressive credentials, and what turned out to be a phenomenal EP, I wondered for a while how much I would like it. The beginning of “Harold: The Hero” introduces us to clean vocals which sound more than a little like Gerard Way when he sang with Every Time I Die in “Kill the Music”. Was this going to be a retread? Luckily, I was only worried for about 30 seconds, and then I started smiling. A serpentine riff builds up, as the drums escalate. The guitar tone’s different on this EP, leaner and more expressive, letting the ghost of southern rock, first expressed on their “Abandon” EP, grow more flesh. By the time the lead guitar whirled into a series of mathy riffs at 1:00, I was rocking out in my chair again, and this time I didn’t have any reservations.
The background vocals from the “Abandon” EP become much more prominent on “II”, and it adds so much to GnarWolf’s sound. We first hear those vocals midway through “Harold; The Hero”, and it’s so prominent in the mix that it’s practically a 2nd lead vocalist. It’s higher-pitched and spunky deputy to the deeper, more gravelly lead vocals. “Jessie: The Sheriff” brings out that dynamic even better, giving the 2nd vocalist even more lines to work with. The tradeoff adds momentum. When you taken in the tighter production, and riffs that are even angrier and chaotic than they were on “Abandon”, you can’t help but surrender to the kinetic energy.
The band tears through their songs like a pistol shot. The first two tracks are both under two minutes, and the next four feel just as short, because that energy just doesn’t let up. These guys know how to play metalcore. The longer riffs on “Mr. And Mrs. Jenkins: The Mayor and His Wife” are almost a deep breath, before flexing their muscles and forming a pit-worthy climax. The high-pitched chords at the beginning of Anne: The Widow” brings out some atmosphere we haven’t seen on previous tracks. It tinkles with a ragged edge, and it gets you in the perfect mood for the desert-rock riff that rumbles in afterward. The contrast is satisfying. The titular widow (played memorably by doom mistress Ell) sings in a muted layered vocal in the second half, as GnarWolf chugs through a psychosphere of howls and simple ominous chugging. The second vocalist howls more and more, as the track comes to an end.
“Hector: The Foreigner” deepens GnarWolf’s emerging horror movie aesthetic. We get some more of those higher-pitched chords, and a creepy pace. We get memorable lines like, “Bare your teeth and lick your lips / As the full moon reveals itself / And tonight we feast on their hearts / Hell is empty / But the devils are here”. It’s the werewolf song I’ve been waiting for from GnarWolf. References to the full moon and teeth pop up elsewhere on the album, nudging the band closer to the metal side of metalcore. My favorite breakdown might be on this song, right at 1:04. Fluid and neck-snapping, every time it comes back in, it comes with a couple more notes to keep the sinewaves popping.
“Dodge Brothers: The Cowboys” switches up a faint rhythm, building the anticipation before the guitars punch in. The drummer outdoes himself here, as he’s been doing all along. He can play swift and agile mathcore, and just as easily lead the band with a simple hardcore punk beat. It puts a grin on my face. Along the way, we get a story about cowboys hunting werewolves, bringing the cover image to life. “Look onto dusk and you’ll see where they hide,” roars the lead vocalist, “Follow the dust if you’re ready to die.” As the 2nd vocalist kicks in, he’s joined by CJ Duffield from Austin metalheads Bury the Rod. Just a minute after it begins, Ward Roger’s brooding piano closes things out, fusing mosh pit and cinema. It’s a satisfying end to a satisfying release.
With that said, I must acknowledge my biases. I will never, never get tired of southern-fried punk metal, especially when it’s done this well. I’d be interested, though, to hear a full-length GnarWolf LP in the future, and see how it holds up. “II” had more variety than “Abandon”; the highlighted contrast between the main vocalist and the secondary vocalist is one of the best things about this band. Despite the more distinct tone, I still might have mistaken “Harold: The Hero” for a shorter cut from Every Time I Die’s “Gutter Phenomenon” if it wasn’t for that vocal trade-off.
It’s not like I’m dissatisfied with GnarWolf. I freaking love them, but I’m also looking ahead to a changing musical world. 2020 is looming, and with two decades of this genre come and gone, I’d love to see GnarWolf take the unique elements of “II” and develop them on future releases. A concept album, perhaps? I’m biased towards bands like this, and I hope they don’t get overlooked by people who might write them off as a clone without taking a closer look at “II”.
When it comes down to it, though, I’m not too worried. Both of these EPs are incredible entries that swing for the fences and leave splintered wood in their wake. GnarWolf plays metalcore as if they were born with a Norma Jean record in one hand, and a book full of Slayer lyrics in the other. They’re a name that the heavy music community should get familiar with. Let’s kick Falling in Reverse off the ’17 Warped Tour and get these guys on the bill!
BEST TRACKS (“Abandon”): “Now (You’re Losing Your Marbles And I’m Offended)”
BEST TRACKS (“II”): “Hector: The Foreigner”, “Anne: The Widow”, “Jessie: The Sheriff”
Stream/buy the album on Bandcamp and Spotify. You can also snag copies at iTunes!