What’s to like?
The song’s the thing, as heavy rockers Godsticks strip back their sound, raise their game in writing and arranging, and turn in their best album yet.
The low down
Godsticks have been building their presence on the edges of the progressive scene slowly but surely, and things have gathered pace since they signed to the Kscope label a couple of years ago.
When I heard the Emergence album, picked up by Kscope in 2015, I hadn’t realised that this was the culmination of six years and two prior albums, and while I do admire bands for going it alone on their terms, there is definitely advantage in having a supportive record label behind you.
Since signing to Kscope the band have recorded the excellent Faced With Rage (you can read my review of that album here) and their profile has increased through support slots with the likes of The Pineapple Thief. Principal writer, guitarist and singer, Darran Charles also pulled double duty on that tour by helping out Bruce Soord on second guitar.
The band’s music is a mixture of catchy heavy rock guitar riffs mixed with the kind of tricky time signatures and twisting solos more often associated with the technical approach of progressive metal. The trouble is, the prog-metal scene is becoming impossibly crowded these days, so bands like Godsticks have to work ever harder to come up with material that helps them stand out.
However, as soon as I started listening to their new album Inescapable, I could hear a clear progression from the sound and arrangements on the previous album. The heavy chugging guitar riffs are still a core part of the band’s sound, and kick off the opening track Denigrate exactly as you’d expect. But as the song clicks into its groove you start to notice that there’s a more open feel to the sound, and it feels less like you’re being bludgeoned by the riffs and more like being drawn into the song.
Here’s the promo video for Denigrate (careful, it gets messy!):
As the album progressed, and my ears attuned to the audio mixing, I found myself hearing subtle hints of synths in the background to add extra flavour, and greater clarity in the drumming – check out the opening drumstick motif on Relief. There’s improved separation between the two guitarists, and the guitar solos stand out more in this mix; both guitarists contribute to the solos, but you’d be hard-pressed to work out whether it’s Charles or second guitarist Gavin Bushell. Not that it matters, because each solo is carefully integrated within its song, exciting and engaging, but not too technical that it strays into showing off.
The focus on this album is very much on the songs and the singing, which is the other notable difference to previous albums. Charles’ voice is still recognisably the same, but on these nine songs he really seems to be pushing himself in his phrasing and projecting the lyrics. The vocals feel more vital to these songs than perhaps they did in the past, and are more exposed in light of the stripped back sound for the instruments, whereas before they would occasionally feel muted by the heaviness of the guitars.
Some of this can be attributed to the creative input of Kscope’s co-founder Johnny Wilks, who took an active interest in the band’s demos as they were working up the songs for this album, and encouraged Charles to push beyond his comfort zone. It’s clearly paid dividends on the basis of this album, and it’s a nice feeling to hear that the team behind my favourite label has taken time out to mentor and encourage the band to push the envelope of their abilities, when all too often a record company simply demands a new album and focuses exclusively on the marketing angle.
The nine songs take a bit of time to bed in with the listener, but you can quickly engage with the groove and rhythm, and go with the flow. While each player is technically gifted, it all goes into the music, with the majority of songs clocking in at a tight five minutes running time. The one exception is the lengthier Change, but even then, there’s plenty of interesting stuff going on to keep the listener engaged without the band resorting to clichés of throw-away solos and tricky time signatures just for the sake of it.
At this point, I think it’s fair to say that lumping Godsticks into the prog-metal scene isn’t doing their music justice. On the evidence of Inescapable, the band are certainly progressing their song-writing and arranging skills, and clearly they’ve worked hard to make the music sound so focussed and accessible. However, I’m not sure I’d bandy the term ‘metal’ to describe their music. It has plenty of guitar riffing and drive, but then so did the music of bands like Led Zeppelin, and it’s rare for them to be labelled a heavy metal band. Not that I’m suggesting Godsticks are emulating Zeppelin’s music – far from it – but they share a common ability to write songs that can be heavy and simultaneously groove with rhythm.
If that style of rock appeals to you, then you’ll enjoy Inescapable. The guitar riffs quickly draw you in on first listen, and the music reveals more with each successive play; and the lyrics are pleasingly audible, well sung and the sort of introspective subject matter that we can all identify with.
There’s a nice sense of pacing across the album, with the running order flexing from heavy and intense to more reflective, and then back to heavy and intense again, so it’s not as relentless as the previous albums.
And if you’re already a fan, then you’ll find plenty of familiar characteristics from those earlier albums, but with a renewed energy and confidence that suggests Godsticks are ready to reach out to a wider audience.