Perhaps it may have been a bit premature to say that 2017 hasn’t been a good year for pop-punk. After all, since that statement was made, virtually every major album in the genre has either been a considerable step-up from its predecessor or just generally great all around, and even looking back, this year has produced its fair share of quality releases. With Knuckle Puck though, the hammer comes down harder on them than for most, as they’re one of the few actually expected to pull out something good. Seeing the lengths their 2015 debut Copacetic took them to would do that, placing them right at the front of pop-punk’s angrier, more mature wave with a sound that rang heavy with tones of emo and classic post-hardcore for a beta Wonder Years of sorts. Naturally people sat up and took notice, not just for the sound but for writing that delved into deeper, darker straits than many who came before them. For as many bands are emptily dubbed “the most exciting new pop-punk band on the planet”, for a time, Knuckle Puck genuinely were that band.
And one of their biggest advantages on Shapeshifter is that there’s really no one in line vying to take their mantle, meaning that the Chicago quintet can essentially go on unobstructed. And make no mistake, this is a fantastic album, but that’s more for what Knuckle Puck don’t do than what they do. In a time when so many pop-punk bands are content with embracing the pop more than the punk, removing any and all imperfections and phoning in real emotional depth, Shapeshifter is the antidote to that, an album that not only nails its desire for rough, rousing melody, but comes brimming with the intelligence, spirit and heart that so many other bands have done away with.
That all might sound a bit loaded – after all, pop-punk has never had its roots in high-concept works or pushing boundaries and likely never will – and Knuckle Puck aren’t revolutionising a sound, rather embracing it in droves and coming out swinging on the other side. It’s not even that difficult to pull off; a bit more meat on the bones just goes a long way, exemplified by virtually everything on offer here. There’s greater tension and complexity in the guitars and drums on the likes of Twist and Everyone Lies To Me, and Want Me Around and Conduit make full use of the band’s emo influence with more minor, chilly tones that show an admirable flexibility in terms of what Knuckle Puck can do, and do well at that. The main thing is that nothing here feels forced or, conversely, stymied; there’s genuine frustration within a track like Double Helix that’s subsequently shown in faster, thicker drumming and bass work and crunching, iron-tipped guitars, and Joe Taylor rarely feels stifled as a vocalist, making the sort of naturally expressive shifts between singing and borderline screaming on Everyone Lies To Me that flaunts a rawness that’s definitely refreshing to see.
Though as is often the case with Knuckle Puck, the crux of Shapeshifter is what’s being said here, and as has been customary with this band in the past, this is the sort of screaming, unfettered soul-searching that needs to be screamed at the sky at loud as possible to reach its full level of poignancy. And again, even though this isn’t actually new, Knuckle Puck have such an intelligent take on what can be seen as fairly traditional material that it feels powerful regardless. And besides, it’s not as if this isn’t genuine; Double Helix is Taylor standing against his own father and how much he doesn’t want to be like him, the sort of deeply personal, painful sentiment that is usually kept well away from this genre. Granted, Shapeshifter rarely goes as deep as that again, but that’s not to say it’s without weight; Gone and Wait see Taylor looking back to someone in his past and the unreciprocated love he felt for them (a state of loneliness reiterated on the utterly heartbreaking Want Me Around), while Stuck In Our Ways illustrates a disillusionment with life that even recreational drug use is unable to patch up. Things take a turn for the shakier on the muddled social commentary of Everyone Lies To Me which feels a little out of Knuckle Puck’s depth at this point, but that they’re actively pushing themselves in directions like this shows a lack of complacency that so much of pop-punk frequently feels afflicted by.
And while most of the analysis here may feel like distancing Knuckle Puck from their genre’s more recursive shortcomings, Shapeshifter deserves a lot of credit for pulling that off itself with a sound that may be rooted in a very recognisable (albeit fairly nostalgic) sound, with enough dexterity and creative liberties taken to transcend what is often seen as a genre with a flat line when it comes to quality. Even then, you’d be hard pressed to truly class this as pop-punk, more in line with emo and post-hardcore while co-opting passing elements than anything substantial. Still, as long as Knuckle Puck continue to exist in the pop-punk ecosystem, they’ll continue to be amongst the best bands around, especially if they continue releasing albums like this.
For fans of: Movements, Can’t Swim, The Wonder Years
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Shapeshifter’ by Knuckle Puck is released on 13th October on Rise Records.