Stick To Your Guns – Spectre
Released: July 29, 2022
Jesse Barnett // vocals
Andrew Rose // bassist
George Schmitz // drums
Chris Rawson // guitar
Josh James // guitar
So you understand where I’m coming from with Stick To Your Guns’ seventh album, I’ve been following them for almost 11 years now. Hell, I spent much of the final writing and editing of this review in my Diamond athletic hoodie that I’ve had for like a decade. In the lead-up to Spectre this week, I went back and revisited their discography, especially their more recent releases, to see how they stack up and reaffirm footing with where the band was and where they’re at in 2022.
Those first two records, For What It’s Worth (2005) and Comes From The Heart (2008), while indeed rough around the edges, do have their moments. Disobedient (2015), I liked upon its original release, but now find that ‘To Whom It May Concern‘ onwards is all that I enjoy off it. The Better Ash Than Dust EP, often hailed as one of their best works, only grabs me with its titular opener and awesome, climactic closer (‘The Suspend‘). Then there’s True View (2017), and while a very personal record for frontman Jesse Barnett, it always came off contrived and repetitive in its choruses. However, between these releases, reside Stick To Your Guns’ two top records: The Hope Division (2010) and Diamond (2012). Literally, two of the sickest hardcore releases from their respective years. The compassionate and enlightening mindset of the former, with its high level of musical aggression, is just so powerful; the more reflective philosophical stance of the latter, with all of its polished heaviness and catchiness, is a feat the band has yet to beat in my eyes.
So what of Spectre? S’okay. Produced by Drew Fulk (Wzrd Bld), this is by and large just another Stick To Your Guns experience, that’s as on-the-nose as any other release. Taken by itself, Spectre may sound heavier or more aggro than usual for STYG. It is both of those things, yes, but not any more so than what the band have offered us previously, maybe excluding one song. Spectre is about the “spectres” – from historical figures, those they know personally, as told by the eighth track ‘The Shine’ – that have informed the beliefs and the world views of frontman Jesse Barnett and his bandmates. It’s a record that really takes to heart their very name. In how it is the U.S. five-piece sticking to their political guns, and in how it’s a very on-brand sounding album for them with its songwriting. The former I really back them for, though the latter of which had mixed results for me here.
For starters, ‘(My Heart Is A…)’ is thirty-eight seconds of acoustic strums and rising drums and amp distortion, a brief interlude before ‘Weapon’ properly kicks off the LP. Though once the dynamic peak of this introductory song hits, things transition with a whimper: the primary vocal and guitar hook of ‘Weapon’ overlaid with a radio EQ with the lows and highs rolled off. It’s a momentum killer, and I’m left wondering why the album didn’t simply start with either said filtered intro or perhaps the following quick percussive blast that actually starts ‘Weapon’.
Anyway, ‘Weapon’ is a fairly decent if totally unsurprising melodic hardcore anthem that overdoes those “wooo-oh” vocals. It’s the kind of anthemic air-puncher that this Orange County act nailed years ago. (Far better examples include: ‘Against Them All‘, ‘We Still Believe‘, and ‘The Crown‘.) All of their t’s are crossed and the i’s all dotted in terms of how these first few songs are played out, but most of the following album, too. From the tempos and riffs, to the breakdowns and the keys used, this is your average Stick To Your Guns in a nutshell. And I do like that Stick To Your Guns nutshell, but it’s an enjoyment that has waned over the years when it comes to new releases.
‘Who Dares Wins’ samples an amusing quote by American folk-singer/labor organiser Utah Phillips, from the start of ‘The Preacher and the Slave‘, and both are pro-unionization and worker solidarity tracks aligned with the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World.) Based! So there’s real relevance to these new songs. According to the band from their now apparently taken-down podcast, this album was supposedly finished about two to three years ago, but a pro-union song is extremely timely at this exact moment. Look to the sweeping worker unionizations being made across the U.S. this year – companies such as Starbucks will still fire union leaders, mind you – or over in the U.K., where historic railway strikes have been underway.
Though notice how nothing in the preceding 100-plus words was ever about the music of ‘Who Dares Wins’? Because there is nothing to say, honestly, not in its hooks or in its mosh parts. I knew how it would sound before I heard it, and if you’re reading this review, you can take an educated guess, even if you’re only familiar with the last couple STYG releases. Certainly, an issue of Spectre for me is that WHAT these songs are about is much more interesting than how they actually sound.
Lifted off a popular Karl Marx quote from The Communist Manifesto, we have the heavy Ignite-worship of ‘A World To Win’, which is heavily inspired by that particular 1848 text. It also (less effectively in my mind) uses a Charlie Brown quote – “how can we lose when we’re so sincere?” – to help further the band’s point that it’s time to fight back and lose our chains. I do agree with that sentiment, I just wish it was via some actually riveting hardcore music. Comrades, we won’t win off the backs of offensively mid-melodic hardcore tunes that don’t ever stand out from a pack of similar songs released by the very same band over a decade plus worth of releases.
Next up, ‘Liberate’ is a straight-forward, somewhat mindless heavy number overall, one whose safety in its writing feels kinda antithetical to its core message of complete overhaul and utter revolution. That message is made abundantly obvious by the phrase “with the spirit of the Upright Man” and the end of the song sampling a speech by Thomas Sankara (said Upright Man), who was the former Marxist and pan-Africanist president of Burkina Faso from his coup in 1983 up until his assassination in 1987. Here’s an enlightening doco about his revolution, rise and leadership, and demise that’s seriously worth a watch if you’ve got a spare 50-minutes.
Later in the record, we get ‘Instruments of the End’, which repeats the line “society is hell” near the end of its runtime. Yes, it absolutely can be, Joker memes and all, but what parts of it, in excess or of smaller scale, are so hellish? That’s up for us to fill in the blanks. Very little mention of these “instruments” either, outside of casual inference. This happens a few times on Spectre, where the band somehow manages to say very little despite how much they’re obviously trying to say. That’s the best way I can put it. It’s so bizarre coming from a group supposedly this politically minded. It was just never like this on ‘No Cover’ or ‘Faith in the Untamed’; it was never like this on ‘Life In A Box’ or ‘Bringing You Down’. Those songs of theirs I pulled at random are each crystal clear in what they’re sharing, with no room to be misconstrued; veganism and ethical choices, progressivism over tradition, anti-homophobia, and crippling poverty, respectively. Here though, the band is either directly honed in on what they sharing or are lazily putting in the bare minimum.
The album’s finale comes in the form of a delicate acoustic number about family and life from Barnett called ‘No Way To Live’. Admittedly, after last year’s wonderful Trade Wind album, a song like this isn’t going to light up my world when it comes to this alternate side of Barnett, though it sure has its charm. It’s a quiet little acoustic jangle, yet one that features the cleverest lyric of the whole bloody record: “Those of us with gods, would you mind asking where the hell they have been?” Really, it’s a pretty sad track, about being hung out to dry by your own country, “this illusion of choice,” and how giving everything you have just to get by is definitely no way to live. It’s a good send-off, and despite how reserved it all sounds, is one of the better moments of off Spectre.
On another positive, ‘Father’ is THE musical and emotional standout of Spectre. Maybe I just resonate with this track more because my old man has had health issues lately, or because I’m a father too now, but I think it’s great. Dedicated to guitarist Christopher Rawson’s father, who sadly passed away in 2019, it’s a song about freedom and death, and how the two intertwine: “The true freedom of death. True freedom of death. True freedom is dead. Freedom is dead” goes the middle portion of the track. With a poetic tagline – “We are fortunate. We were given a warning” – to fittingly bookend the composition, arguably the most dynamic song off Spectre is also its most compelling. Everything about it feels earned. That makes it an outlier, as many of these other songs don’t have the same impact or variance. The subject matter to ‘Father’ definitely elevates it, that I can’t deny. Yet its sense of atmosphere, the sparse guitars, their shimmering tones, the reverb-drenched screams, the way it all builds up, the pay-off – the band have a genuinely arresting moment smack dead in the middle of a record that, while never awful, is rarely gripping.
Back to it, ‘Open Up My Head’ shares more in common with a grungy alt-rock track than that of a hardcore song from a band like STYG. In fact, many parts of it feel like it’s been lifted right off Superheaven’s Ours Is Chrome album. Once an American music pal pointed this out to me, and I did some switching between this song and that 2015 record, the point of reference and influence is blatant. (Just insert any 90s rock band here and you’re fine.) It doesn’t do much for me, namely due to Barnett retaining basically the same yelling vocal dynamic throughout the track, so despite its various dynamic and tonal shifts, things feel stagnant, even with its relatively ear-wormy chorus. Though I’m sure many others will get a kick out of it, and like ‘Weapon’, I can see it going off live.
As for what it’s saying, ‘Open Up My Head’ is about people’s mentalities being corrupted by decades-long, uber-conservative politics and the corporate dictatorship in media that’s ensnared America. That’s capitalism for ya, baby! It’s one of those “duh!” messages, and I found its film clip (see below) to be far more effective at conveying said message than the actual song itself. Which just seems ass-backwards.
Let’s go back to the first release from Spectre: ‘More Of Us Than Them’. Released last year, the groovy bass-playing from Andrew Rose is the core highlight of the track. Dude’s tone is wicked! At the time of its release, much was mentioned about the song’s breakdown having been gifted to the band by the late great Tom Searle, who wrote it but didn’t think it would work for Architects. He was right to think so, but by STYG’s own format, it’s a paint-by-numbers section (and song) that wouldn’t have stood out unless the band had mentioned where a segment of it came from.
Once again, the title and meaning of ‘More Of Us Than Them’ is relevant and rings truthful. Look at what’s happening right now in Sri Lanka, when people are pushed to the brink of economic ruin by an uncaring ruling class lead by a single family. Yet the net of this song’s message is cast wide and in such a general sense, how are you to ever criticise it, or even look further into it and learn? It would be like if Silent Planet hadn’t put their sources and references in their own posted lyrics for years.
Obviously, my issue isn’t that this album is “too political” or something so braindead. On the contrary, I’ve always appreciated that about STYG. It’s partly what attracted me to them some eleven years ago to begin with. No, I think the problem is the inconsistency, that sometimes the band are so upfront in what they’re saying and other times, it comes off as an afterthought. For instance, another band who is a lot more consistent on this matter would be their mates in Stray From The Path. As for an Aussie example, take Outright, whose recent LP was excellent.
Sharing its name with the second-best Batman comic ever published and the best Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, what do you think ‘Hush’, the heaviest song on the record, is about? With lyrics like “You’ll answer for what you’ve done with your last breath” and “Your time has come, you can’t outrun the end”, what do you think it’s discussing? I’ll give you a minute. (Those whispered gang shouts of the song’s name are just so funny to me.) Well, it’s squarely about Nazis and telling them to shut up, as Barnett puts it. Good, I say! More than that, and again straight from Barnett, it’s inspired by 17-year-old Serbian girl, Lepa Radić, who was hung for killing Nazi’s during WWII. In her final moments, she refused their offer to spare her life in return for giving up her Communist allies, saying: “I am not a traitor of my people. Those whom you are asking about will reveal themselves when they have succeeded in wiping out all you evildoers, to the last man.”
That final “to the last man” line is used as the final lyric, the only aspect of this double-kick-laden, dissonant song that’s connected to its source. There is no other subtle or overt mention of this brave young woman, her actions, WWII, Nazism or fascism, within the song itself. Ironically, it’s a track whose non-specific nature could even be flipped and used by such people towards leftists who should be silenced. This is how you get ultra-conservatives singing along to Rage songs with zero self-awareness. (Depressing that being anti-Nazi and against fascism isn’t the default these days.)
My whole big point that I’ve not shut up about this entire review is that music like Stick To Your Guns’ must not have any room for misinterpretation. That these ideas be clearly embedded within the songs themselves, and not needing to read an Instagram post by the singer in order to get the full context. It’s just so odd, then, that on Spectre, the band does get this so right at times, but then in other instances barely dips their toes in, feeling super generalised. It’s unbalanced. So much of this album’s messaging is uncontroversial for anyone left-of-centre, and I can’t see it radically shifting the views of the existing fan base. Though, any piece of art or media that helps more people, even one person, understand that we’re in the midst of all-out class warfare cannot be all bad.
Stick To Your Guns – Spectre tracklisting:
1. (My Heart Is A…)
3. Who Dares Wins
5. A World to Win
6. Open up My Head
8. The Shine
9. Instruments of the End
11. More of Us Than Them
12. No Way to Live
Spectre is out Friday July 29th via Pure Noise Records. Pre-order here
Review by Alex Sievers
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