The lineage of Petrol Girls is one that’s been riding a distinct upward curve for some time. Their early EPs definitely showed promise as an incendiary force in feminist punk, taking cues from angular post-hardcore and fronted by Ren Aldridge’s barbed, breathless diatribes, but their 2016 debut full-length Talk Of Violence is where real assertions could be made of this band being legitimate world-beaters. That album saw all of their rage and progressive force crystallise into a body of work lean and incisive enough to be considered genuinely fantastic, and with the subsequent slew of live appearances and signing to Hassle Records, it still arguably stands as Petrol Girls’ most definitive moment to date. And that’s part of what fuels a certain apprehension when going into sophomore effort Cut & Stitch, an album openly described as taking a ‘patchwork’ approach to represent an ever-changing, ever-continuing vision that’s instilled in both their music and their view of the world. It’s an interesting idea, sure, but it’s also distinctly similar to some of the get-out clauses that other bands have tossed out to justify how messy their albums can be. That’s not to say that Petrol Girls are doing the same thing – they’ve always came across as far too intelligent to have to resort to tactics like that – but it causes the instability that’s always been a selling point of this band’s work to feel slightly less positive, at least on the surface.

Thankfully, a lot of those worries prove to be unfounded (this is a Petrol Girls album, after all), but on the whole, Cut & Stitch is a less focused album, and because of that, it’s weakness do feel a little more pronounced. It’s hardly a major flaw, especially when the band continue to dual-wield the ever-winning combination of jagged forcefulness and gnashing social morality, but the niggling feeling that this isn’t as direct or potent as some of their past work is rather consistent, and it holds Cut & Stitch back from being a great album overall. It’s still really good and the efforts to throw something new into the mix without displacing the old is noticeable, but this does feel like a transitional album for Petrol Girls, and it can be difficult to overlook that.

It’s not hard to isolate why that’s the case either, namely in the fact that Cut & Stitch feels considerably more bloated than a lot of Petrol Girls’ past material. It’s not like that’s always the case, particularly when tracks like The Sound and Big Mouth establish rather early on that the core sound has remained relatively intact, but it’s in the number of perfunctory interludes that segments this album when it really doesn’t need it, or a track like Rootless which might be bold in Aldridge’s dip into solemn spoken-word poetry. They feel like unnecessary empty calories that really don’t amount to much, and to the extent which the fragmented, patchwork execution is part of the point, the tautness that took an album like Talk Of Violence so far is largely removed, often for the worse. That then leaves isolated moments to provide the most effective listening experiences, and honesty, that ends up feeling like the ideal way to take in what Petrol Girls are doing here, especially when they’ve still got a fair number of instances that adhere to the lightning-in-a-bottle formula they’ve become known for. As previously mentioned, both The Sound and Big Mouth present themselves as the clearest standouts in terms of direct, punchy punk, but the adrenalised qualities of the warping Burn and Talk In Tongues feel like a cogent step forward in incorporating some more off-kilter elements, and work especially well with Aldridge’s bloodshot shrieks. As disappointing as it can be for Cut & Stitch to feel as bitty as it is, there’s still an ample number of moments that has Petrols Girls firing on all cylinders, and that shouldn’t be overlooked.

And besides, when it comes to the anger and righteousness that’s always been integral to this band’s sound, it’s hardly as if that was ever going to go anywhere. If anything, such starkly progressive writing feels even more suited to their patchwork method, if only to cover the wider ground that’s the best fit for a delivery hinging on distinct, direct emotionality. That might sound like a pejorative, but it really isn’t; Petrol Girls know how to make the most of this technique, and while The Sound’s wide-ranging call to action might feel like a notably broad take on the concept, it feels about right as an introduction, if only to foreshadow the bigger concepts that are explored and tackled. As ever, feminism plays a key role in Petrol Girls’ arsenal, presented here in Big Mouth which rallies for the voices of silenced women to be heard (as well as the interpolation of X Ray Spex’s Oh Bondage Up Yours! that just gets better with every listen) and Talk In Tongues as an exploration of the difficulties faced by men to open up and express their own emotions, but Cut & Stitch sees a much wider range of targets come into view than before, from the snarling rebuttal to domestic political incompetence on No Love For A Nation, to an increased embrace of vulnerability on the tribute to a dead pet on Skye. As blunt as Petrol Girls can be, they’ve positioned variety as a suitable alternative to greater nuance, and carry it out to the point where it feels natural. It feels distinctly human in its lack of real cohesion and focus, and for as much as that can hinder it as a full body of work, it gives Cut & Stitch the legs and the impetus to really move forward and try something new.

With that in mind, this is far from a failure even if it can feel like a slight step down. Petrol Girls have often resided in a well-marked corner of punk, and to see them breaking out and moving into some new territory is definitely a positive sign, even if this doesn’t feel like the finished product of those ambitions just yet. Still, there’s more than enough drive here to get them there, as Cut & Stitch looks to rebuild the core concept of Petrol Girls into something more fluid and vibrant without losing any of their edge. To achieve that, there’s still some work to be done, but the fact that Cut & Stitch has already taken them a decent way in is a good sign, and it’s something that only looks to get better with time.

7/10

For fans of: At The Drive In, War On Women, Gouge Away
Words by Luke Nuttall

‘Cut & Stitch’ by Petrol Girls is released on 24th May on Hassle Records.

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