Gnarwolves was always a band on the periphery of my vision. They were a band that came swinging hard with EP after EP (helpfully gathered in Chronicles of Gnarnia); they played skate punk with a bit more hardcore in the mix than usual, with breakdowns and melodies galore. Every Gnarwolves song had that youthful energy where you could imagine them all in a room, riffing hard, trying to make each other smile with what they could pull off. “Melody Has Big Plans,” for me, is the culmination of all their best elements– it is bleak and loud, catchy and aggressive, with earnest twenty-something yearning. Then they released a pretty great full-length that had me nodding along, but also wondering if the best days were already over.
Now, with Outsiders, I wasn’t really expecting anything. As a punk fan, I’ve learned to turn off the part of my brain that expects things. Bands change their sound, topics evolve, all that jazz. When we collectively look back on the mess that was Against Me!’s entire career and subsequent fan response and cringe, we will be thankful level heads prevail in the future. Outsiders is another step in Gnarwolves development as a band, and as a sophomore album it represents a departure from their last album, and an even larger departure from their EPs. In fact, I won’t even bury the lead: Outsiders doesn’t hit for me. It’s competent, for sure, and sometimes it does shine, but the overall takeaway for me was a lot of shrugging.
We have moved into Flatliners territory, we are hanging with the Menzingers. The latter of which I love more than most, but it takes chops to pull off what they do. Slice of life storytelling put to melody– wistful and romantic as it is, can turn to something saccharine or worse, insubstantial, in less deft hands. And that is where part of my apathy to Outsiders originates. Gnarwolves have shifted gears into something different, and that is dandy, but they are not pulling it off. There are moments where it all comes together, for sure, but for the large part, Outsiders passes by without a single moment of recognition, no connection or feeling communicated. The album leaves you struggling to remember a single song. Gnarwolves skate punk anthems have been rounded down into a grey area between the melodic punk they’re taking influence from and the aggression-forward sound that is still their basis. It results in a weird, not very satisfying twilight where the drums are fast and the guitars are trebly, rolled back on both distortion and attitude. If it were dynamic, it would work. Their first album did this, with open note stuff that chimes then explodes into ripping chordage. Here, it is all melded together into something flat and uninspired.
Which is a shame, because Outsiders doesn’t ever really fail. It’s hard to review a band when they do everything right in the execution phase. They play well, the album sounds good, it’s just what they’re choosing to do isn’t particularly interesting. For the most part, the songwriting loses its punch with the instrumentation, but there are songs that do push through and do become memorable on repeat listens. Album opener “Straightjacket” is one of them, and it succeeds through its pop punk veracity, while not necessarily saying anything too interesting. “Argument” is probably the best song on the album, and that’s because of the easy resonation of the pre-chorus refrain of “resist, resist, resist!”
I have absolutely fallen into the punk rock trap of turning on a band that didn’t deliver what I expected. And that’s why this is a hard review to write. I know that for some people, this album will work, but for me, I can’t escape just how middling it is in comparison of the energy and enthusiasm of early Gnarwolves. Their perspective used to be fresh and exciting, and on Outsiders we see it giving way to age and new ideas, but not all of them good. There are ways to age gracefully, but Outsiders makes me wonder if Gnarwolves were a band never destined to grow old.