The hissing feedback, the cratering bass, the seething vocals, the harsh textures, all these elements suggest that electro-noise duo Gauntlet Hair is in its comfort zone working with a disorienting, unnerving aesthetic on its sophomore full-length, Stills. Namechecking the likes of White Zombie and Marilyn Manson as influences for Stills, Gauntlet Hair puts a darker, more primal inflection on the intuitive melodies that were deeply embedded in the fuzzed out distortion of the group’s earlier work this time out. Yet, as far as Gauntlet Hair tries to push ahead with a more extreme approach on this go around, there’s something about Stills that makes it feel like the twosome is hedging its bets, often ending up neither here nor there by splitting the difference between giving full expression to its dark side and wading into the subconscious pop instincts buried beneath the sound and fury.
Of those two options, Gauntlet Hair tends to be better off on Stills pursuing the latter, when the pair of singer/guitarist Andy R. and drummer Craig Nice hone and shape the nascent pop chops of its 2011 debut instead of trying to recast themselves as neo-goths. The most impactful offerings on Stills are the ones with the most defined structure to them, where Gauntlet Hair molds its buzzy synth-pop into bold, sinewy songs. That step in the group’s development comes through to powerful effect on the album opener “Human Nature”, which brings to mind an updated take on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s searing barbed-wire kisses. Here, Gauntlet Hair doesn’t shroud itself in the radiating distortion that’s become something of a trademark for the duo, rather harnessing that energy and channeling it into a streamlined arrangement of jagged guitar and jackhammering beats. Likewise, the glammy, guitar-driven “Heave” feels more dynamic because it’s on point with a discernable form to it, as clinky, choppy riffs drive the song and give it some swagger.
It’s just that Stills loses this sense of purpose and intensity when Gauntlet Hair opts for creating the shadowy, haunting atmosphere that settles over the much of the album, with many of the experiments resembling a stylistic jumble that neither showcases the band’s undercover catchiness nor brings out the darker impulses they seem hell bent on exploring. While the DFA-ish single “Bad Apple” works well enough when Gauntlet Hair uses negative space effectively to build tension and drama, the other electro-goth offerings don’t fare as well because there’s little flow or balance between what are ultimately ill-fitting parts. “Spew”, for one, is an odd combination of spry, almost ska-like rhythms and clanging electronics that’s as out of wack as the description seems, and the same can be said for “Falling Out”, which never finds its bearings and footing after a shimmering effect clears the way for mosh-like pummeling in a way that doesn’t draw anything out from either. Somehow more mismatched is the combination of off-key bass, out-of-step synth lines, and eerie choral harmonies on “Simple”, which meanders into a no man’s land between Gauntlet Hair tapping into what it did well in the past and new dark-pop ambitions that need more of a commitment.
Indeed, “Simple” is symptomatic of an effort that comes off feeling underdeveloped, where the tracks feel like they need to do more, but the album on the whole drags on a bit. “New to It” gives you the idea that Gauntlet Hair might be on to something with its slinky, sinister intro, but it ultimately spins its wheels, which is also the case with the cacophonous “Waste Your Art”, as it gives off the appearance of motion and energy though it’s basically repeating the same refrains and patterns instead of redirecting them into something might provide more tension and contrast. More frustratingly, the imposing “G.I.D.” lurches between resounding bass, Andy R.’s almost soulful vocals, and minimal guitar lines to create some interesting juxtapositions, only to pull back then circle back every time you think the song is about break through and push itself compositionally.
That’s a good way to think of Stills as a whole, an effort of fits and starts that has no trouble getting going, but also reflect a band that’s not quite sure where it wants to get to. It’s tempting and natural to account for Stills as a transitional work with a payoff that’s yet to come, but that’s a judgment that’ll depend on where Gauntlet Hair’s confounding hybrid sound ultimately finds itself.