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Gauntlet Hair, ‘Stills’ – Album Review

Today’s confusing, simultaneously pop- and fringe-leaning musical landscape spells bad news for a number of styles and subgenres that, as recently as five or 10 years ago, were thriving.

In 2009, following the success of Animal Collective‘s ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion,’ the future looked bright for bands like Gauntlet Hair. But by 2011, the indie scene had become over-saturated with their style of semi-psychedelic, lyrically ambiguous, visceral music. Now, the very concept of an independent music culture is in question.

What does this mean for Gauntlet Hair’s sophomore LP, ‘Stills?’ Well, like a host of other bands, Gauntlet Hair must either be excellent (and possibly be overlooked) or adapt. ‘Stills’ arrives amid a kind of indie recession, and were it a person, it might be better off going to graduate school than looking for work.

To its credit, ‘Stills’ bravely looks for work, and Gauntlet Hair gussy up its resume by packing the album with sonic ideas. ‘Simple’ is practically an industrial survey, teasing elements of sound from ’80s-era Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. Unfortunately, Gauntlet Hair are satisfied enough with their harsh textures to think they can skimp on the songwriting, and the result is something akin to a more psychedelic Marilyn Manson. (‘Obey Me’ could easily be mistaken for a Manson tune.)

As it turns out, the band was actually going for that — they’ve cited Manson specifically — and in that sense, the album is a a success. Unfortunately, it also plays like series of poor decisions, as the songs lack cohesion, and the combination of influences feels messy.

It would be a more commendable project to modernize or re-imagine the dark sounds of the past, as they do on opener ‘Human Nature,’ a standout. With its vocal samples and cavernous effects, the song subtly ushers in the retro snare snaps in such a way that listeners need not raise an eyebrow. But ‘Human Nature’ is not indicative of what follows. On ‘Heave,’ a later album track, the group succeeds by sheer will alone, pushing volume and chaos in a belligerent and obnoxious fit. Elsewhere, the album simply lacks bright spots, literally and figuratively.

Mostly, ‘Stills’ is exactly what you’d expect from a NIN-inspired record made without the genius of Trent Reznor. There is no complexity of emotion — just harsh tones that cause the listener to flinch rather than to feel. If anything, ‘Stills’ is a cavalier album that makes the industrial music that inspired it easier to appreciate. Simply getting some of the sounds and textures right is not enough. Gauntlet Hair have shown they possess the right tools, but they haven’t figured out how to use them to create a coherent or engaging product.

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