At the time, the Savannah trio Black Tusk’s caffeinated sludge felt like the ultimate median between direct punk rock and the region’s slower or proggier acts. 2008’s Passing Through Purgatory, 2010’s Taste the Sin, and 2011’s Set the Dial sounded alive, raw, furious, loud… they’d almost made your face vibrate. More like rocket fuel stockpiles of songs for live shows than (excuse me while I affix my monocle) “albums,” these records always felt like wheel grease for the ass-kicking machine. Alas, I’ve never seen them live to confirm this suspicion, but these records had me convinced there was a stellar act behind them (convince me I’m wrong). Their latest, TCBT, refreshes these memories, assumptions and suspicions, making it feel as if no time has passed at all.
Intro track (yup, one of those) “A Perfect View of Absolutely Nothing” doesn’t deliver a snappy, invigorating opener like those found on previous albums, but Black Tusk are smart to pick things up quickly. Zippy follow-ups “Closed Eye” and “Agali” emphasize the group’s hardcore gaze this time around, and primitive though it may feel, it’s rejuvenating. It’s like the ass-kicking machine just got a new coat of paint and an oil change. There’s nothing fundamentally different about what Black does on TCBT, and that’s kind of the problem with it. For better and worse, this is another collection of songs for the road. The album marks the group’s first new recordings since the passing of founding member Jonathan Athon in 2014. With new bassist/vocalist Corey Barhorst (former Kylesa) in the mix, it makes sense to turn the page, re-up with a fresh stock of riffy scuzz, and begin a new era.
Despite the hardcore focus, brevity and potency escape their gaze. Somewhere in “Lab Rat” is a perfect two-minute ripper, but it’s buried in another two-minute song. Songs regularly become bloated, and it’s a shame because it gets to the point where much of the record blends together. Maybe if accompanied by a couple Blatz tall boys in a greasy dive bar these moments become the keys to unlocking true punk rock transcendence. Maybe. Here, songs tend to get in the way of themselves, pounding their stickier past down into well-trodden, unobtrusive black bubblegum. Shorter tracks fall in line with their punk ethos, but fall to the wayside along their busier neighbors. The mostly four-minute tracks on TCBT feel just plain long, and the group frequently gets caught up in the journey and ignores the destination. Initially, this lends a nice sense of urgency and unpredictability, but repeat listens become static, diluted, and overblown.
Though, there are moments where this ambition pays off. “Scalped” is a well-timed change of pace and the closest they get to reaching the quality of hooks and gritty melodies found on Set the Dial. Dynamic centerpiece “Ghosts Roam” hurls a smattering of speedy riffs with gratifying changes in direction. But with so much of TCBT blazing by, these mid-tempo change-ups are the only things that seem to stick. The perfectly lopsided “Rest With the Dead” shines as it goes full-blown riffasaurus rex but otherwise slithers by anonymously. In essence, the rewarding moments are rarely worth the patience that TCBT demands, especially when taken as a whole. This material seems to better serve a live setting or the occasional surprise on a shuffle playlist. For many, TCBT may be too stripped-down or too familiar. Still, it’s nice to hear Black Tusk chugging along. For others, it’ll be enough to get them to the next show (I’m eying up November 21 in Chicago…), and isn’t that the point here?