by Ken Jobe (@booksofjobe)
In 2016, Florida’s Gouge Away released one of the year’s best (and perhaps most overlooked) hardcore albums with , Dies, a 13 song scorcher of a debut that spit sociopolitical fire and venom, and left listeners battered and bruised in its wake. The quartet have spent the intervening years touring with bands like G.L.O.S.S. and Touché Amoré, their sound quickly evolving into something more cohesive, and more than the sum of its parts. The result of that evolution is Burnt Sugar, out September 28—a sophomore effort that finds the band more focused, and poised to be one of the breakout acts of 2018.
Musically, Burnt Sugar reflects a band comfortably embracing all the bands that helped shape them, veering slightly from the pure hardcore fury of their debut and revealing various shades of 90’s noise-rock, post-punk, and grunge: traces of Fugazi, Nirvana, and perhaps most notably, The Jesus Lizard are all evident in some way throughout the album. Songs are still short and to the point, but most stop short of the blast beats and breakneck tempos of , Dies. The band now wears their influences proudly on their sleeve, and one would be hard pressed to say that’s to their detriment.
Equally revelatory on Burnt Sugar is Christina Michelle. The frontwoman has definitely stepped up her game, both in terms of vocal delivery and lyrical content. Taking a step back from the nonstop larynx-shredding shrieks of , Dies, Michelle wisely changes things up—alternating between anguished and angry shouts, the familiar screams prevalent on the debut, and even singing completely clean on a couple of tracks. Her voice is also in an interesting place in the mix, not so much out in front as it is competing to be heard, giving her vocals an immediacy and intensity as she rises above the controlled chaos of the band.
Lyrically, where , Dies was as political an album as one could produce before the current administration took office, here again Michelle subverts expectations, ditching politics entirely in favor of introspective, deeply personal subject matter. Gone are songs about smashing the patriarchy and corporate animal testing, replaced by odes to paranoia, loneliness, and depression. And while the politically charged lyrics on the debut were razor sharp, Michelle’s more personal, intimate verses make the songs on Burnt Sugar inherently more interesting. Take, for example, the closing lines of Hey Mercy, where Michelle shouts, “But you begged god for mercy, just to find that she is me. You’ll be calling me an artist by the way I draw blood.” The line is delivered with such conviction that you don’t doubt her sincerity for a second. Be it physically or emotionally is up to her, but make no mistake—you will bleed.
The evolutional step from , Dies to Burnt Sugar may seem incremental to those outside the world of punk and hardcore, but those with at least one foot in that world will know better. To branch out into more creative and commercially viable territory without losing a shred of intensity or crediblity is huge, and Gouge Away have done so in splendid fashion. Extreme hardcore purists may scoff, but everyone else should rejoice—Burnt Sugar is easily a top contender for Album of the Year.
9/11 Ringing Ears