[21 July 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
With the exploding popularity of such scene-pandering bands as Biffy Clyro, Rollo Tomasi, Enter Shikari, and Bring Me the Horizon, when it comes to contemporary punk and hardcore, the UK hasn’t exactly been lighting it up as of late. So when a young band comes along and projects a level of ferocity that’s been unmatched by few of its generational peers, it’s easy to understand how the British music media would be quick to pile heaps of hyperbole-laced praise despite the fact that said band is merely mimicking every single punk band in the United States these days. When your senses aren’t dulled by the Warped Tour every summer, even the most unoriginal band can sound fresh if it’s loud and boisterous enough.
Take Gallows, for instance. Their 2007 debut Orchestra of Wolves shamelessly mined the American hardcore sounds of the last quarter-century, from the maniacal, angular approach of Minor Threat to the vitriol-fueled passion of Black Flag, the proto-emocore of Drive Like Jehu, and the monumental riffery of Botch and Converge. However, with frontman Frank Carter screaming out his often honest and perceptive lyrics and the rest of the band tossing in the odd British punk homage (a little Specials here, a little dub there), this was music with charisma, an album that sounded passionate enough to make it easy to let any lack of originality slide.
Two years later, with a big record deal signed, a big recording budget, and big expectations, it’s no surprise at all that Gallows is thinking very, very big on album number two. Now that they’ve won over the punk crowd, the Hertfordshire band is fixated specifically on the mainstream; not to win it over, mind you, but rather to blow the whole thing to smithereens. On Grey Britain they want to instigate, they want to incite, they want to be incendiary, to emulate the raw poetic fury of the Clash while presenting it in a savvy, listener-friendly package a la Never Mind the Bollocks. They are young, ambitious, full of piss and vinegar, and Have Something to Say. However, the deeper we get into this sprawling, epic, 52-minute record, the more Gallows loses sight of the forest for all the trees.
“We have no fear / We have no pity / We hate you / We hate this city!”, Carter hollers during the opening salvos of “London Is the Reason”. Okay, so it’s no “White Riot”, but it’ll do. The scorching performance by the rest of the band makes the ineloquent lyrics sound powerful. Bent notes a la Ian Mackaye, Motörhead-like rock ‘n’ roll flourishes, and the tried-and-true gang vocals all make for a high-energy punk hybrid. And when the band sticks to that approach, Grey Britain destroys, whether it’s the clever riffing on the rampaging “Leeches”, the Hives-style garage rock swing of “Black Eyes”, or the raw fury of “The Great Forgiver”. Proving he’s capable of more than just the usual punk rock bitching and moaning, Carter is downright eloquent on “I Dread the Night”, his lyrics at first unsettling (“Got a burning in my blood that just ain’t right”) and eventually displaying a surprising vulnerability: “If I said I wasn’t scared I’d be a fucking liar…And I want to be / Anyone in the world but me / Trapped in the body of a man defeated / I am the shame of mistakes repeated.”
Unfortunately, it’s not long before the album becomes far too bloated for its own good. The six-minute “The Vulture (Act I and II)” is an unbearably pretentious power ballad reminiscent of the pompous recent work of Green Day and the Used. Its acoustic guitars, strings, clean singing, and overblown metal riffs, while capably performed, have no use being on this record. “The Riverbed” is an empty, four-minute exercise in more heavy riffery, kicking off with an inexplicably long, extended, boring metalcore breakdown. “Queensberry Rules” is built around a limp Black Sabbath riff and palm-muted thrash riffs so flaccid that guitarists Stephen Carter and Laurent Barnard sound completely out of their element, while the near-two minute piano/strings intro of “Misery” is unnecessarily melodramatic.
Thankfully, the aggro returns in a big way on the concluding “Crucifucks” (that is, before the strings and piano come in during the drawn-out outro), but it comes far too late on an album that has no business being as long and drawn out as Grey Britain is. Trimmed down to a good 35-40 minutes, and with a producer like Kurt Ballou instead of the more polished-sounding Garth Richardson, this might have been the provocative, inflammatory second record that Gallows fans had hoped for. Instead we’re left with yet another young band whose reach far exceeds its grasp. For much better, explosive, literate hardcore albums, curious listeners are better off investigating Fucked Up’s Hidden World, Propagandhi’s Potemkin City Limits, and Disfear’s 2008 release Live the Storm, all of which leave these youngsters choking on their dust.