REVIEW ROUND-UP: Black Map, Fights & Fires, NOBRO, Bitter Branches

A giant woman hunched over in water with a snake wrapped around her

Black Map


Contrary to popular belief (and to the state it’s been in for some time), it is actually possible to make radio-ready hard rock that’s intelligent and accessible. Black Map have been doing a fair job at it for a good while, taking the atmosphere one would expect from a band borne from members of Far and dredg, and crafting a decent, loftier brand of rock from it. Or in another way, imagine Deftones reshaped to fit the radio-rock rubric, in which their most interesting qualities are truthfully cut back, but what’s left still has a solid amount of appeal to it nonetheless. Melodoria therefore finds itself most in line with a band like Chevelle, more philosophically concept-driven with a lot of melody and expanse to back it up. It’d help if it was a bit more direct though, the area that brings Melodoria down by the most critical amount. Black Map’s focus on bringing forth their enormity is commendable, especially when songs like Capture The Flag and Burnout (Do You Mind?) have the means of peeling out in tandem and using restraint to its advantage, but it’s not the most dynamic course of action across an entire album. Where that can work for a band like, again, Deftones, that’s more a result of not being too heavily bound by format; Black Map, meanwhile, are still adherent to hard rock’s structure, and the mid-section between the two extremes for them isn’t so clearly workable across a full album. It’s a shame too, because this is fundamentally strong for how it breaks away from the limitations placed on a more straightforward brand of rock. The fact that it’s allowed to be more languid and deliberate gives it breathing room that similar bands won’t have, where the bass can show off how prominent and sinuous it is, and the guitars pack some muscle that isn’t exclusively held by volume. Along with Ben Flanagan being a strong, expressive vocalist, the central conceit of Melodoria feels watertight overall, only spoiled by how it alone doesn’t stand up to long stretches that well. It does mean that a lot of this bleeds together, not in an unpleasant fashion given how this is all generally good, but in a way that’s still noticeable. At least Black Map are aiming quite a bit higher than others on pretty much all fronts, and there ambition does show; the music they make feels more free-flowing and generally engaging, and their ear for a progressive melody shines through. But the issues with pacing and dynamism hold Melodoria back a fair bit, keeping potential greatness away and, for now, locking Black Map in a position where their potential doesn’t quite match the evidence. Still, it’s an alternative to interchangeable radio-chuds that could realistically have the same appeal; that alone has to count for something, right?


For fans of: Deftones, Chevelle, Highly Suspect

‘Melodoria’ by Black Map is released on 18th February on Minus Head Records.

A view looking downwards at a drink and lots of ice cubes spilled on the pavement

Fights & Fires

Future Plans And The Things That Ruin Them

As far as titles go, that seems to be a very apt summation of the past two years, and pretty much the exact direction one would expect from a band like Fights & Fires. They’ve been around the Brit-punk underground for nearly 15 years now, best known for reliable music that can overlap more than a bit with unremarkable. Live Life Like A Tourist was good in 2017, but the swathes of gruff, populist punk that have come since haven’t helped the band find their footing. Even more so on this new EP now that their hardcore leanings have been diminished even more, Fights & Fires feel like a band in search of an identity; Disposable Dogs and Shitty Year highlight a solid grasp on the sound that bands like Hot Water Music have effectively perfected over the years, but little more in addition. It doesn’t help that Philip Cox’s vocals are mixed with curiously little body to them—it’s noticeable when it improves somewhat on Pocket Full Of Flowers—and when he’s able to split the difference between purposeful bellows and a quiver straight out of the Spanish Love Songs playbook of emotionality, it’s a shame that he’s not given the opportunity to show it off properly. That’s more or less the case with the whole EP; Fights & Fires are definitely locked-in and determined across the board, but you’re always waiting for the extra step to really blow the doors open like so many of their touchstones frequently will. Their best quality is how unflinchingly street-level their understanding of punk is, in conflating the consequences of the pandemic and uncaring political system that treats everyday people as a commodity without giving them respect. The songwriting on Disposable Dogs and Up, Down, Labour, Conservative, A, B, Start is impressively direct, indicative of a band who’ve hewn their craft over the years and capable of the specificity that can sometimes go amiss. Coupled with how catchy all five of these tracks are, Future Plans…’ perfectly fits the bill of a decent extension that still isn’t pushing much wider. It could afford to, and Fights & Fires definitely have the experience and talent to produce something great and move out of their heroes’ long shadows, but they’re clearly playing the long game to get there. Just saying, it’d be great to see this band really show off their potential firepower some more before it’s too late.


For fans of: Hot Water Music, The Menzingers, A Loss For Words

‘Future Plans And The Things That Ruin Them’ by Fights & Fires is released on 18th February on Lockjaw Records.

NOBRO performing onstage with their logo emboldened above them


Live Your Truth Shred Some Gnar

It’s no shock that within NOBRO’s sound comes shades of fellow Canadian punks like PUP and METZ (all with all-caps names, when you think about it), but that’s hardly a detriment however it’s spun. That sort of shabby, acerbic garage-punk has always been quick to find an audience, an idea that NOBRO have been quick to run with and get a lot out of on this new EP. They’ve got the ‘90s sensibilities down to a T, for a start, in the disillusionment that colours Better Each Day and Not Myself and seeps through Kathryn McCaughey’s bark, tied to a wit and earnestness on Eat Slay Chardonnay and Get With U that’s a handy foil to have. Call it stylised to the era if you want, but there’s a genuine passion and resilience that earmarks NOBRO as a lot more than that, for them to barrel through with reckless abandon and find a clear place for themselves within punk. There’s such an undeniable appeal simply in the sound, with all the rocketed-out guitars and chunky basslines, and drums that have the propulsion if not always the presence in the mix to match up. Other than that though, the balancing here is much more agreeable than garage-rock’s usual tactic of smearing everything in fuzz to an almost crippling degree. Here, it’s done a lot more artfully, more for the purposes of texture rather than outright suffocation that still leaves room for ear-catching moments of synth and bongos to expand the sonic pool further, or a hulking rock riff to anchor Not Myself, or even a credible acoustic grunge closer in Life Is A Voyage. Considering creativity is often the antithesis of the garage-rock way, NOBRO’s sprinkling in of new ideas adds up considerably, kind of reminiscent of when FIDLAR became good on their later work, but still with their own spin. Honestly, this would be something really cool to hear how far NOBRO could go in that particular direction; even if this doesn’t feel like the peak of their abilities just yet, they’re already displaying a malleability away from the norm that’ll be a lot kinder to them in the future. Simply for how clear the possibility of more is, it’s well worth getting onboard early.


For fans of: PUP, FIDLAR, Jay Reatard

‘Live Your Truth Shred Some Gnar’ by NOBRO is released on 23rd February on Big Scary Monsters.

A drawing of a house with huge plumes of smoke coming from its roof

Bitter Branches

Your Neighbors Are Failures

Right now, the best thing that can probably be said about Bitter Branches is that they’re interesting, and not much else. They fit the most spurious definition of a supergroup by coming together from various hardcore punk outfits (most notable for the presence of bassist Dan Yemin from Kid Dynamite and Paint It Black), but this is more its own thing, as opposed to a redo of the same sound that tends to come from projects in this field. It’s where Your Neighbors Are Failures’ greatest assets lie, in how wiry and unstable the guitars are in front of the seething, quaking bass tone, and how Tim Singer sounds like he’s recording in a room that’s slowly closing in and being drained of oxygen in how panicked his voice is. And yet, more often than not, Bitter Branches give off the impression that they’ll have to rely on the brownie points for a cool idea here, to pick up the slack when the execution is so consistently askew. These aren’t necessarily compositions that move forward, but rather find whatever way possible to coil up and gain tension, which seldom feels satisfyingly release. Maybe it’s the runoff from an angle on hardcore punk that veers from straight-up speed or precision, and so when there is that supposed released on Along Came A Bastard or Sorry You’re Not A Winner (no, not that one), it isn’t packing the weight it needs to. Show Me Yours is the closest the album comes to real punk vigour, the last-ditch payoff the sticks the landing, but works in spite of the prolonged buildup rather than because of it; it’s just welcome to have a full moment of power that’s mostly skirted around. It doesn’t help when the production is so unaccomodating to that side of Bitter Branches’ music, in that it’s suitably no frills but, outside of the consistently excellent bass work, the opportunities to roar just aren’t there, at least not to the extent hope for. And that similarly affects a lyrical angle that just isn’t that impressive when purest out, rooted in nihilism and nervy energy that’s okay for a brief thrill (see The Man Who Never Cries for probably the strongest example), but unspooling it to a degree like on Monsters Among Us is an easy way to lose the perceived thorniness fast. You can see what they’re trying to do—especially from how heavily an intensity is being pushed when Singer’s mic often sounds fully inside his mouth—and that’s ultimately part of the problem when it doesn’t come naturally. The intent might be natural, sure, but the way it’s structured and executed feels consciously mapped out to yield what should work instead of what does. And that’s just difficult to look past most of all; it’d be great to see Bitter Branches succeed and prune down what they have to make that so, but right now, this ain’t that.


For fans of: The Hope Conspiracy, Deadguy, No Escape

‘Your Neighbors Are Failures’ by Bitter Branches is released on 25th February on Rude Records.

Words by Luke Nuttall

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