Chavez’s 1996 record Ride the Fader arrived at a time when the punk revival was nearly bursting at the seams. Bands like Chavez, June of ‘44, and Shudder to Think created angular compositions with odd time signatures tied to strange narratives that forced an already hard-wired brain to hear and experience guitar-driven music in new ways. Kentucky’s Slint did its unknowingly best Lewis and Clark impression by exploring hardcore’s undiscovered wilderness. They mapped pathways for many other bands who followed, like Don Caballero, Polvo, and Drive Like Jehu. Then someone somewhere coined the god-awful term “math rock” — rock music’s most conspicuous oxymoron — that made it appealing as vomit step is to EDM.
Chavez’s charm lies in its healthy diet of self-effacement. Their video for “Unreal Is Here” satirized tour videos made famous during the hair metal days, while the video for “Break Up Your Band” clowned the television variety show medium, featuring male strippers during their performance. Lost in the haze of their mockery is how adept and proficient the quartet from New York was. Guitarists Matt Sweeney and Clay Tarver’s riffs exchanged barbs while complimenting each other with bruised melodicism in rhythmic restraints. James Lo violently engaged his kit, pounding offbeat drum patterns that were neither predictable nor unsophisticated. He performs more like Art Blakey and Max Roach than Keith Moon or John Bonham.
The absurdity behind labeling Chavez’s newest offering, Cockfighters, a return following a 20-year hiatus, especially for a band that never officially broke up, plays right into their quirky modus operandi. Bassist Scott Marshall (who’s also Penny Marshall’s nephew) planted himself into the filmmaking industry during the break; Sweeney has played with anyone and everyone, including with Billy Corgan (in his alternative supergroup, Zwan) and the venerable Iggy Pop; and Tarver wrote several episodes for HBO’s caricature of the IT world, Silicon Valley. Therefore, in light of the foursome’s independent successful endeavors, the trio’s decision to construct a three-song EP that clocks in under ten minutes is a bit baffling.
“The Bully Boys” proves that time is an illusion. Twenty years may have passed, but sonically the band picks up where they left off. There’s nothing new under the sun here; distorted guitars, repetitive riffs, space between Marshall’s bass, and Lo’s fitful drumming are all on tap. Unleashed, Lo drives “The Bully Boys” with a double-bass fill that leads toward the song’s underwhelming conclusion. Vocal harmonies remind fans of comfort found in familiarity, but the song’s unfinished veneer prevents it from doing anything more than wanting to revisit their old records.
The subdued opening of “The Singer Lied” lights a fuse that explodes into little more than an overheard conversation bearing little of interest. Certainly, Sweeney and Tarver exchange melodic pleasantries, but they soon run out of energy like an out-of-shape middle-aged man trying to run a mile after two decades of a sedentary lifestyle. As for “Blank in the Blaze”, it’s saved solely by Lo, who tears through the band’s brief nostalgia saunter with the only meaningful performance.
Cockfighters is nothing more than a permanent stain on Chavez’s modest discography. Too unmemorable and brief, it fails to both excite current interest in an otherwise marginal band and do more than prompt questions as to why these three songs — with no connections — were released in the first place.