With a debut that was awash with blissful harmonics, smothered vocals and flickering guitars, Denver noise-poppers Gauntlet Hair have never shied away from mining the same deep well of influences as their contemporaries. However, unlike their peers, they've often lost sight of the melodious and rhythmic elements of their sound, disfiguring it under a flood of reverb - a creative choice which divided opinion, leaving what was an ostensibly talented band to serve as 2011's indie also-rans.
For their follow-up, Stills, Craig Nice and Andy R have moved away from their native city, recording in the depths of a overcast Portland winter. This time they've taken cues from the production of Marilyn Manson and White Zombie and offering the promise of exploration into bolder and darker territories: new avenues of sound which might help to unlock what lies beneath their diverting swathe of sonic fuzz. So, it's disappointing when the album opens with little more than a flat homage to the strangled vocals and dirty, industrial grind of Trent Reznor on 'Human Nature', a track which retains an avant-garde pop aesthetic, but speaks more of time spent indoors listening to New Order with the curtains closed and the lights off, than the music of Rob Zombie.
Thankfully when Stills does hit its stride on 'Simple', it brings with it an inspired slice of harmonic pop, one which walks the line between intrigue and obfuscation, coming across like a downbeat Prefab Sprout, played on a cassette that's lost its tension. Bass loops swirl and choral synths harp, as heavy filters add effect to (but never threaten to consume) the vocals. They swiftly follow this with the single 'Bad Apple' and the pleasing 'New To It', and all of a sudden it feels like Gauntlet Hair are letting their guard down. Both tracks skilfully blending the distant shudder of processed drums, the jangle of guitars and a brooding funk that shows, given time, the duo have an ability to enthral without losing coherence.
Unfortunately, by the midway point cracks are beginning to show through the gloom, as these brief highs serve to be an exception, not a rule. 'Obey Me' bleeds into 'Heave', the muffled ambient drone of the former washing over the latter's choppy guitars before losing itself in a haze of distortion. A beguiling hubbub that marks the moment where the album finally runs away with itself, leaving the remaining three tracks to become more indistinguishable with each passing note, songs converging at a point where tenebrous atmosphere and static contortion are mistaken for greater substance.
Stills should have been a vindication for the duo's sound. One which drowned out the polite but uninspiring golf applause that ushered in their debut. Somewhere under all this reverb and murk, Gauntlet Hair may yet have the makings of a fine band, but the album burns out long before they have an opportunity to reveal wether this is true. Instead, it only furthers their position as a frustrating drop in an ocean of more accomplished noise-pop.
4Tom Fenwick's Score