Album Review: wolves & wolves & wolves & wolves – “The Cross and the Switchblade”

wolves&wolves&wolves&wolves is one of the most well rounded punk acts to hit the scene in the past five years. Their rustic, honest approach to both their songwriting as well as music composition is probably their hallmark and most certainly sets them apart from the majority of their peers, often displaying a level of sophistication and skill, typically reserved for more veteran acts. That same trait is also a contributing factor to their expeditious raise through the ranks of relatively new bands, where they have (rightly) been near the top for the past couple years. Now, the Wolves from Winston-Salem are back with their second LP, The Cross and the Switchblade which is set to release on September 16th through Wiretap Records. The only thing I ever feared was that because the caliber of music was so high, that they may have reached a ceiling. That notion was put to rest after one listen, as this LP has only proven to solidify their pole position among up and coming acts. If anything, it has only further embedded them into that spot. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one impressed as there is talk from a few insiders already about considering this one for their Album of the Year lists. Check out my full review below!

When talking with guitarist, Rion Clark regarding this newest ten track endeavor, he said that they went into the studio with a “back to basics” mindset, stripping down some existing songs from previous EPs and adding new tracks, with simplicity in mind. “Stripped down” for this quartet from the Tarheel State is still way more technically sound than most traditional punk albums due to the incredibly high standards this act has exhibited during their relatively short life span, but you can hear a difference in the remastered songs. While the music may have been simplified somewhat, the songwriting is intricate and fleshed out. When asked about their last full length release Subtle Serpents,  front man Brian Woodall said “I had written so much about other people, I decided to turn the microscope on me, where I’ve fucked up and went wrong.” That theme of inward reflection continues with Cross and the Switchblade, intimately following his personal journey away from religion, all expertly told through his distinctive form of storytelling.

The opening track, “Give Me Conviction” starts with the sound of a passing locomotive, almost announcing this figurative departure and kicking off the exodus towards the secular. It’s not long until the signature, unrelenting power that these guys are known for can be felt. When the blaring, metal guitars kick in with the diesel infused, ‘Gainesville Growl’ of Mr. Woodall following shortly after as the odyssey begins. The overall mood of the album reminded me of something John Mellencamp would’ve released back before he dropped the “Cougar”, except way more unrelenting. It’s bucolic and tangible, so much so that almost everyone can find something to relate to. This track sets that mood perfectly.

“Bad Name” which was first featured on the EP Scorched Earth 2014, quickly became one of my favorites. Although it’s an existing song, the vocals have changed significantly, imbuing a lot more soul, enriching them from their more rudimentary state. The tone of the song also seems a little different now, being put in to context with the rest of the album. Which brings me to my next point, even though it’s a pre-existing song, it was reworked, ever so slightly, so that it was congruent with the themes of this album. Another remastered track, the closing song “Cathedral”, also featured on Scorched Earth, is probably the most divergent from the original, getting filled in a little more and getting the ‘church organ treatment’ to help add to the overall tapestry. The extra backing vocals added to the chorus is also a subtle little touch of finesse.

The title track, “The Cross and the Switchblade” was previously featured on the EP Scars and was already my personal favorite going in. That opinion was crystallized after listening to this new version. The visuals are so concrete, eliciting vivid  memories of backwoods Pentecostal Churches as the preacher closed out his sermon on a muggy summer, Sunday afternoon, the organ at a gentle, steady hum, barely audible in the background. You can almost smell the musty old bibles, perched in their shelves on the back of the wooden pews. While the sound is hollowed out a little from it’s predecessor, it doesn’t differ too much, which is fine by me! What I Bleedwas also ripped from 2015’s Scars and probably has the catchiest chorus of all the songs. It’s also a great track to spotlight the impeccable drumming of Kyle Woodall (Brian’s little brother). It’s highly evocative and passionate, and I think best exemplifies the point that Rion made about the more rudimentary approach taken to this album, sounding emptier and less produced than it’s parent track.

While it’s fun listening the remastered tracks trying to spot differences, the new tracks are where we get to see the progression of the band. A few of the most notable of the newer tracks also continued to show the candid nature of their author, making reference to some bands that influenced him. “Always the Rebel” gives a nod to West Coast, hardcore legends, Black Flag (Always the rebel/ Always the black sheep, out of step). Off all the tracks, the drumming of the younger Woodall stands out in this most. The beat throughout is unorthodox and has some pretty tidy little transitions and stutters. Another new song that spotlights some of the band’s influence is “Can’t Say I Quit” although this time, the reference is even more explicit, quoting directly from skate punk legends NOFX (‘Reputation/gained through/intimidation’/Oh, without question you should’ve guessed I’d know that line by heart/Despite my thoughts and your dedication, I saw this coming/right form the start). The personal nature of the writing, is on display in this one, seeming like you just happened upon a couple having a conversation. Continuing with the new material “Hallelujah” comes in with the quickest time of all the tracks with garishly, sick guitar breakdowns before the choruses proving that the talents of the furry front man go beyond just writing. Anytime you want to debunk the “Punk is just three stupid chords” myth, play this track.

The only negative here is when it comes to speaking about the material itself. Namely, the fact that four of the ten tracks are re-releases. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say it’s a ‘negative’, but it did come into play when scoring. Despite that fact, however, the remastered tracks were different enough that the deductions were mitigated. The fact that they were willing to take time and redo the songs to make them fit so perfectly with the motif also helped buffer the blow a little. Not only is this a top notch album, it also solidifies the reputation these guys have earned for their work ethic and diligence. I’m not sure how long it will be included, but I agree with the pundits and have penciled this epic album into my Top Ten for 2016.

4/5 Stars

FFO: Hot Water Music; Red City Radio; Nothington

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