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Gouge Away - Burnt Sugar (Album Review)

Thursday, 04 October 2018 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: David Burns

In sports, a healthy amount of time is given over to understanding how athletes will perform under severe pressure and fatigue. Basically, will they break when it matters?

Florida hardcore band Gouge Away appeared to empty the tank on their 2016 debut LP, ‘, Dies’. It was a brutal, gut-wrenching experience that didn’t let up for 22 minutes, with vocalist Christina Michelle hauling us headfirst into a bug-eyed maelstrom of noise. It wasn’t sustainable, surely?

The band’s follow up, the 7” Swallow b/w Sweat, suggested that any plans to simply do the whole thing over again were quickly tossed out.

It introduced a grinding, unruly mid-tempo version of Gouge Away that dialled down the outright ferocity in favour of the creeping feeling that someone might snap your neck at a moment's notice.

‘Burnt Sugar’ goes further again. Released by hardcore heavyweights Deathwish, this is an album defined by its steely-eyed focus. The band’s rhythm section, bassist Tyler Forsythe and drummer Tommy Cantwell, anchor songs that lurch and howl. Michelle alternates between a feral screech and patient catch and release, turning in a performance that rivals ex-Punch vocalist Meghan O’Neil’s on the band’s sign off ‘They Don't Have to Believe’ for the variety in its angles of attack.

She returns more than once to the ocean as an emblem - of the boundless scope for failure we sometimes imagine for ourselves, plus as a visceral threat to our safety - and describes vividly the sense of inertia that anxiety can create. “One certain hand pushing my back forward,” she yells as Dis s o c i  a  t   i    o     n crashes to its conclusion. “One confident hand pushing my chest back.”

Each lyric cuts through aided by the raw, live sound facilitated by producer Jeremy Bolm and mixer Jack Shirley. Bolm, who fronts Touché Amoré, is something of a hardcore dictionary and has helped bring out Gouge Away’s noise-rock influences (particularly a filthy bass sound) alongside some new flourishes. 

A song like Slow Down, which moves from a halting, melodic riff through bracing D-beat, is a neat encapsulation of what they’ve built together. Shirley, whose work with Deafheaven is often up in lights, helps conjure memories of his old bands Comadre and and Everybody Row with a layer of grit that only serves to highlight the precision of the performances. ‘Burnt Sugar’ feels chaotic and unsanitised, but never like it’s going to fall apart. When it matters, it delivers.

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