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Gnarwhal - "Crucial" | Album Review

by Mike LeSuer

Toeing the line between brass-less free jazz and an unchaperoned field trip to Guitar Center, modern math rock is a particularly difficult dialect of sonic narrative to interpret. In its present iteration the genre relies on the arhythmic instrumentation of prattling guitars and high-strung percussion to embody each track’s punning title, while some mathematicians continue to hypothesize methods of re-inserting vocals into the increasingly-spastic equation. Groups like Tera Melos line their output with unassertive lyrics per the genre’s forefathers’ Constitution, as their catawampus counterparts harmonize guitar and vocals in the tradition of post-hardcore’s early 2000s influence. 

Meanwhile, recent developments out of Tennessee make the revival sound a bit more strenuous. The vocal vexations of Nashville duo Gnarwhal bring a charismatic element of conflict to the table: Chappy Hull’s frantic bellows sound more functional than formal, as if the vocalist is trying to relate calamitous news - perhaps that their bassist is trapped at the bottom of a well somewhere - while being stifled at every turn by Tyler Coburn’s crashing drum kit and his own ill-tempered shredding. With a nearly direct correlation between the intensity of instrumentation and the extent to which Hull’s outside voice is applied, the contradicting crescendos are almost Coen-esque in their tragicomic irony. 

With this errant miscommunication in mind, Crucial, the group’s third record, capitalizes on their cultivated frustrations to deliver their most abrasive statement to date. Condensing the jerky weaving of Duane and the constant ebb-and-flow of Shinerboy, Crucial highlights Gnarwhal’s gravitation to the grungy cabin fever of the Pacific Northwest circa 1996 as its exploratory motifs butt heads with basement aesthetics. The opening “Marathon Ripper” sets a seemingly unsustainable pace with Hull’s furious repetition of chords eliciting a chorus of fifth graders stuttering through times tables, while the imminent complexity of “Cool River” piques the listener to consider whether they may have unwittingly duplicated their Soundcloud tab. It isn’t until mid-album that the record offers a breather - though it isn’t long before the literal purrs of “My Crucial” subside to accommodate the behemoth “Light-Up City,” whose jagged guitar and frantic toms hint at its direct descendance from The Lonesome Crowded West

The title track marks the record’s triumphant finale in which your crucial and my crucial coalesce into objective harmony. It seems the key to such an armistice lies in Chappy’s oral abstinence, providing a playful climate advocated by the likes of Don Caballero in math rock’s heyday. While the ruckus of “Lazy River” illuminates a vast gulf from such meticulous pioneering acts, the genre’s board of directors would likely agree that Hull’s exasperated hollers fit the discourse of math rock’s quirky sense of humor.