REVIEW ROUND-UP: Conquer Divide, Kvelertak, Mustard Plug, With Honor

Artwork for Conquer Divide’s ‘Slow Burn’

Conquer Divide

Slow Burn

The belief that metalcore is ‘evolving’ is a fundamentally flawed one, because there’s really no evidence that this is a phenomenon based on real purpose. More so, it’s a reaction to the Bad Omens approach gaslighting everyone into believing that this more melodic, overegged sound is the way to go, and as always, everyone gloms onto the trend in the vain hope they might be the most marginal beneficiaries of it. And for the B- and C-tier that never had much of an identity to begin with, it’s way more noticeable. So for Conquer Divide…well, their whole thing was (regrettably) being defined as an all-female metalcore band to begin with, as opposed to a band with a cogent musical identity, so there’s hardly a roadblock stopping them from catching the wave at their earliest convenience.

Thus, Slow Burn is the total archetype of this sort of release, doubly so from a band whose previous release was in 2015 and who are clearly looking to catch up. At thirteen tracks taking up the best part of an hour, Conquer Divide are looking to pack a lot of raw mass into this. Among it is all what you’d expect—dense, crushing guitars; the occasional pop or trap flourish for contemporaneity’s sake; and an impenetrable wall of production that’s entirely futile to even imagine chipping away at. To be fair, there’s more presence to this than an album coated in Joey Sturgis’ fingerprints typically has, which subsequently leads to Slow Burn’s weight actually being used for some good. Hell, Afterthought.wav—for as much as it screams of being the ‘customary heaviest one’—actually sets an upper limit in that stake that isn’t too bad at all.

With everything else though, Conquer Divide’s efforts sit in some very clear-cut moulds. They’re so easy to pinpoint too, seeing as they effectively make up Slow Burn’s entirety. It’s not unusual for Kia Castillo’s clean vocals to have a lot of space to themselves, but when it’s at the expense of Janel Duarte’s screams relegating to glorified garnish, it starts to feel more calculated to sit within the current scene. Even the pacing of the album falls victim to that, where an over-reliance on bigger, slower swings to feign grandiosity can make this such a slog to get through. By the time you’re hitting the strings that lend some clearer brightness to the INVISIBLE, or a couple of pleasantly poppier impulses on OnlyGirl, you’re well past the halfway mark and Conquer Divide have shown almost their entire hand multiple times over by then.

You’d struggle to find much to say lyrically as well, though it’s worth noting the bout of fist-in-the-air tenacity at the very end on gAtEkEePer, where Conquer Divide throw their parting shot by claiming their inclement dominance in the scene, and that everyone holding them back will be forgotten. Except Slow Burn gives no tangible proof of how that could happen, when the assimilation with basically everyone else in metalcore begins from minute one, and barely lets up afterwards. Maybe there should be more going on, if Conquer Divide wish to slough off the reductive ‘all-female’ label that’s still clinging to them. Making music that’s passable but completely shorn of identity is a good way to ensure things aren’t changing in a hurry.

For fans of: The Word Alive, Bad Omens, Annisokay

‘Slow Burn’ by Conquer Divide is released on 8th September on Mascot Records.


Artwork for Kvelertak’s ‘Enderling’

Kvelertak

Enderling

Clearly the wall that Kvelertak hit on 2016’s Nattesferd did quite a number on them, seeing as they still haven’t been able to peel themselves off it. Even with a new singer in Ivar Nikolaisen and a much better follow-up in 2020’s Splid, they’ve yet to properly recover from the negativity around their more classically heavy metal pivot. It’s why Endling seems to have snuck up, with very little hype in stark contrast to how lauded Kvelertak were a decade ago. But it’s worth remembering that they did get back on track; Splid was really good, after all, and even as something of redo of what mightn’t have worked before, Endling is pretty impressive too.

Here, Kvelertak seem less preoccupied with the whole ‘black ‘n’ roll’ thing. There are the faintest grazes on black-metal among the opening tracks Krøterveg Te Helvete and Fredrekult, but generally, this is classically metal fare. The difference comes in a bit more firepower beneath the hood. There’s still a satisfying heaviness and especially a depth in the production, and a general imperiousness, in any form, Kvelertak should really have. They’ll bend US radio-rock and punk and garage-rock to their will on the title track, Paranoia 297 and Svart September respectively; meanwhile, Skoggangr is littered with grand Thin Lizzy-esque guitar flourishes that have never not felt like audio dopamine in any form. All the while, Kvelertak’s essence of this rolling, hoary form of metal stays true, as does their commitment to having fun within it.

That might be the biggest difference this time, actually. Nattesferd felt a lot more straight-laced in trying this; on Endling, Kvelertak rip forth for the best part of an hour with a far greater sense of freedom. Part of that might be an Anglo-centric perspective on lyrics primarily in Norwegian (though knowing them, they’re probably about owls or something), but the sense that Nikolaisen is more along for the ride than anything does transcend the language barrier. He too operates in notably metal spaces, with one foot in heavier screams and the other in barrel-chested bravado that’s an excellent mediator across the board. Despite its length and stylistic shifts, it actually makes Endling a fairly straightforward and coherent album, something that Kvelertak benefit from immeasurably.

Of course, none of that guarantees a resurgence of any kind for these guys, but if their previous album illustrated how deserving of a second chance they were, then Endling certainly does. The degree to which Kvelertak operate in burly, plus-sized metal has an impressive amount of potential behind it, and that deserves to be celebrated when they’re back to living up to it. Add on a sense of how naturally all of this appears to be coming to them, and you’ve got a seriously entertaining package to dig through.

For fans of: Baroness, Mastodon, Turbonegro

‘Enderling’ by Kvelertak is released on 8th September on Rise Records.


Artwork for Mustard Plug’s ‘Where Did All My Friends Go?’

Mustard Plug

Where Did All My Friends Go?

Pro tip for any unaware music almanacs: if a band is described as ‘ska-punk veterans’, that typically means you can expect precisely zero changes from album to album. It’s an inevitability with a genre that has issues with pliability at the best of times, and when it’s not one of the household names that can (debatably) get away with it, you can be in for a real slog. It’s why the fact a band like Mustard Plug being up to their ninth album can be so perplexing. With over thirty years’ worth of career under their belt, you’d hope their listeners would be up for more than the same roundabout version of what they started with.

But right as Where Did My Friends Go? begins with its title track, you just know this is the sort of album that, by the time Mustard Plug get around to their next one—or, more realistically, even sooner than that—it’ll be forgotten. It’s the ephemerality of ska-punk that often proves such an unavoidable downfall, coupled with an album that’s a lot longer than it needs to be, and a sense that flexing a creative muscle is way down the priority list. For what it is, it’s still perfectly fine, and it’s not like Mustard Plug do nothing to combat their own formula’s rigidity. There’s the hornless punk of Another Season Spent In Exile; the Moog that squelches throughout Which Way Is Up?; maybe a third thing.

Yeah, it’s not like there’s a lot to go on here that isn’t reiterating how adherent to ska-punk’s norm Mustard Plug are, right down to tempos and instrumental patterns. At least it still sounds good and energised, if rarely applying that to much. And while there’s probably some radical intent with some of the writing, it’s really only Rebel Youth Face that lands on something about punk commercialism. Amid that, there’s a whole lot of fundamentally fine songs geared towards whatever diehard audience exists, because if this is your first exposure to Mustard Plug, it’s hard to see what would make you seek out more. Especially if you’ve already got your chosen ska-punk bands locked down, Where Did My Friends Go? is hardly making convincing arguments for why it’s worth switching teams.

In other words…it’s a ska-punk album. It’s the way these things often go, and Mustard Plug are in no better or worse position than the scores of others who’ve been nipping at Less Than Jake’s heels for the past couple of decades. You would hope for more though, especially for a longstanding band like Mustard Plug who could afford to try more. The likely strength of their base would allow it, and it’d be more gratifying for newcomers than more of this, warmed over and served back up. As it stands, Where Did All My Friends Go? is a fans-only affair, like the overwhelming majority of what this scene produces.

For fans of: Less Than Jake, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, any assortment of other ska-punk bands

‘Where Did All My Friends Go?’ by Mustard Plug is released on 8th September on Bad Time Records.


Artwork for With Honor’s ‘Boundless’

With Honor

Boundless

It’s a tale as old as time—a slightly older, larger inactive hardcore band chooses to make a comeback to build on a small but well-liked body of work. And more often than not, the results are okay. Maybe a little derivative of the wider scene since, but often likable enough to get the job done. So that’s a handy jumping-off point to go into With Honor’s Boundless, their first released since 2005’s This Is Our Revenge, and an album that…is a little derivative of the wider scene since, but often likable enough to get the job done.

Yeah, so it’s not like With Honor are bucking a trend that’s firmly established across the board by now. If anything, this might be one of the more definitive examples, where the tighter runtime is more emblematic of punk and hardcore that’s a lot tighter. With Honor still have the energy to pull it off though; they aren’t flagging in the same way that older bands often can, attempting to recapture some youthful angst and sounding way out of their depth. In With Honor’s case, Todd Mackey has the voice for punk, raucous and shouty with a propensity for melody still. And between the likes of Trees and Nonviolent Redemption that opt for short hardcore claps round the temple, and Open Hands that pulls off one of the album’s stickier choruses, the range is punk approached is seldom an issue either.

So maybe there’s something there to lift them up a bit, but on the whole, Boundless is just With Honor being the next in line to make their comeback. Production-wise, the firm carapace that’s a staple of returns like this is present and accounted for, without marginalising a certain amount of pounce. The writing is also the usual, particularly when it comes from an older, family-oriented perspective; it’s all the usual variations on a theme. It’s all fair in how it’s done, but it’d be nice for one of these albums to not feel like a recycled form of the swathes that came previously. Put Boundless next to its predecessor in second-go-around hardcore, and it’s on par with little deviation; put it next to anyone with significant influence or a pool of ideas, and it begins to shrink pretty rapidly.

Of course, that’s a playing field that an album like this just isn’t meant for. Boundless is here to rebuild a foundation, woo back some previous fans, and generally stick to that. And that’s fine, particularly when With Honor are generally competent of all aspects of it. But it also reaches a point where so many albums like this can be difficult to tell apart, within a space that probably wasn’t designed to hold them all at once. That’s not to say there isn’t enjoyment to be found from Boundless, but maybe not a whole lot on a long-term basis. For an album with that title, With Honor certainly aren’t coy about their limitations.

For fans of: Stick To Your Guns. Strike Anywhere, Stick To Your Guns

‘Boundless’ by With Honor is released on 8th September on Pure Noise Records.


Words by Luke Nuttall

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