Gauntlet Hair, the Denver-based noise pop duo consisting of Craig Nice and Andy Rauworth, finds itself asking an inevitable question on its new album: What genre are we? Stills, the follow-up to the pair’s self-titled debut album, explores a variety of sounds and textures that could be found under the “noise pop” umbrella. At the same time, the record finds the group stepping outside predetermined genre lines and stretching the limits of pop to explore more abrasive styles like industrial and grunge. When done properly, in a consistent manner throughout the album, experimentation is a great tool. Gauntlet Hair, however, often finds its auditory chemistry lab running amok.
Gauntlet Hair opens Stills with the album’s lead single, “Human Nature.” The track proves to be a loose anchor that ties the various musical traits founds sporadically throughout the rest of the record. Minimalism inundates the song, from the simple five stanza lyrics, to the repeating gothic synthesizer lurking in the background. Layering repetitive electronic drumbeats and a synth melody alongside Rauworth’s weary vocals produces a powerful and haunting auditory effect. It provides the type of catharsis the band has excelled at in the past.
Contrasting the minimalistic, slower pace of “Human Nature,” the album proceeds to a jangly, upbeat spell on tracks “Spew” and “Simple.” The songs echo the pop friendly characteristics of the album single, but their complexity proves to be a rift in the album’s pace. While the slower, lackadaisical tempo and layering techniques heard on “Human Nature” appear on several tracks throughout the album, “Spew” and “Simple” assert musical energy and force to create an almost danceable energy. The bass line on “Spew” grabs the listener unexpectedly with a groovy, shuffling directness, layering distorted vocals, hollow synth melodies, and bouncy, high-pitch guitar riffs that pervade the remainder of the track.
Having explored jangle pop sounds and murmuring electronic beats, Gauntlet Hair calls it quits with the musical mad science experiment after touching on the dark sounds of industrial rock. “Obey Me,” a short break with one repeated lyric (“I belong to you and those who obey me”), uses clanking piano chords and reverb-drenched guitars to evoke feelings of isolation and fear. Near the end of “Obey Me,” the song begins to transition to the following track with the tinny, guitar riff heard throughout “Heave.” The gothic, metallic sounds of the dual guitar riffs flood the listener; Rauworth’s vocals add to the harsh, factory texture of the track, resembling emotionally charged shouts of angst that complement the track instead of the sleepy, effortless sound found on most of the album.
Stills is undoubtably an attempt to display Gauntlet Hair’s range and ambition. It’s a darker, angrier album and it shows that the duo is adventurous, but the experiments don’t quite cohere. Nice and Rauworth have grabbed from an impressive array of influences, but the results are confusing, leaving the question of “Who is Gauntlet Hair?” unanswered. Hopefully, by album number three Gauntlet Hair will have a more satisfying answer in store.