For many who explore the crevasses of extreme music, “rock” is a word that has some not-so-good connotations. Like, “this shit is guaranteed to be boring” connotations. Let’s take a quick look at what’s likely the two biggest offenders to the name of rock. There’s no question that the poor quality of mainstream radio rock colors this view. How’s this for brevity? It just sucks. There’s also disdain for the oft-overpraised and ridiculously broad foundation that is classic rock. That horse, too, has been beat to death, but it isn’t as egregiously offensive as most FM chart-topping rock. Yeah, we get it, there’s certain legacy publications who have an evident backward focus, but don’t let that piss in your Cheerios – there are as many gems to dig up as there are excellent, enormously popular records. The problem isn’t just that the quality is questionable. The world of rock doesn’t have the benefit of a widely-embraced, hyper-specific classification like metal does. Subgenres like alternative, garage, prog, psych, or stoner rock feel a little general in comparison to something like death metal, which has like twenty subgenres unto itself. Categorization shouldn’t be something to get so hung up on, but rock’s bad rap might benefit from a little polish on the nomenclature front. This is why I’m here to lend you my (virtually) fool-proof guide to rock for those disappointed by the current state of things: listen to speed rock. It’s not a new descriptor by any means, but it specifically targets the high-energy end of the spectrum in the era where classic rock first dabbled with punk and metal.
Against the Grain were all-but destined to play this kind of music. After all, this four-piece hails from Detroit rock city. This influence helps Cheated Death become a lot of rock things at once. Fortunately, they wear these all of hats convincingly, albeit with a little more pep in their step. Whether it’s bassist Chris Nowak’s vocal similarities to a mid-register, nearly-hoarse David Lee Roth (“High Heeled Woman”, “Going Down Fast”) or a throaty version of Valient Himself (“Rolling Stone”), the twin-guitar maneuverability that resembles Thin Lizzy and Alice Cooper, the blistering paces of Motörhead and Zeke (“Sacrifice”), or the raucous energy and grit of MC5 and Guns N’ Roses (“Enoughs Not Enough”) – it’s obvious they’re well-versed and have the chops to rip with the best of ‘em. Busting out of the gate with the title track, they make it known that they don’t like to waste time. They plow through some shifty, foot shufflin’ segments, rambling geets accompanied by spitfire vocal delivery, a change-up chorus, and zippy leads within the first minute. It’s a satisfying ride: quick, smart, and wild. They’re frequently playing in the Tee Pee Records-neighborhood of gnarly, ripping rock, akin to acts like Lecherous Gaze or The Atomic Bitchwax, replete with a command of adrenaline-pumping, raw punk energy. With the majority of the album’s tracks in the two-to-four-minute range, they make the absolute most of each moment, tearing through most of the record at fervent will.
Much of this vigor stems from drummer Rob Nowak. He keeps the intensity level high, tirelessly busy-armed when they’re running at a high clip, and delightfully astute when he holds his punches during the album’s few restrained moments. It’s a thing of beauty how he hammers away for the first half of “No Sleep” to snap into bluesy lockstep, only to give it a relentless push to eleven to close out the track. Matched by guitarists Nick Bellomo and Kyle Davis, this nimble-fingered duo that lay waste with a respectable variety of techniques. “Rolling Stone” quickly builds steam, rides out leads and rears its ferocious head. “Going Down Fast” takes a cowpunky chug and morphs it into a harmony-heavy (and a bit Baroness-y) climax by way of heavy stoner rock. “Jaded And Faded” is an interpretation of a Priestess sort of proto-metal through the lens of Slayer. “Last Chance” is a killer modern spin on KISS, complete with backup “ooh’s” in the chorus, whistle-along leads and harmonies, and a full-blown bass solo. They prove that unrelenting tempos and technical wizardry are just as impressive in the rock world. These dudes move so smoothly and creatively through pretty much everything on Cheated Death – it lends an honest and live feel that’s found in the dangerous unpredictability of guitar heroes of yesteryear.
This live feel carries over to the albums imperfections. They sometimes get away from what they do best, falling victim to some typical rock pitfalls. I wouldn’t say they go out of their way to add variety for the sake of variety, but there are a couple decidedly un-speedy numbers on the album. Cheated Death’s second track, “Smoke” tampers the intensity and pace set by the opener. It feels like a sub-par The Sword song, using the most standard arrangement and phrasing on the album, right down to the way the solo creeps in and works a harmony accent. In light of the rest of the album, this feels very traditional and doesn’t live by the seat of its pants. “Devils and Angels” is similarly inessential and out of character. It comes off as a token trip down emotive avenue, a ballad-y obligation, and a bluesy waltz through an elaborate structure littered with solos to compensate for the absence of energy and recklessness. The bones are certainly here to get something like this right in the future, but this take doesn’t seem to do it earnestly enough for it to be effective. I could certainly justify a song like this in a live setting, but like “Smoke,” it breaks up the vibe at an inopportune moment, harshing my speed rock vibe. It just goes to show that Against the Grain is at their absolute best when they’re tearing through segments with disregard, changing directions and throwing solo tags wherever and whenever like a Jackson Pollock painting. These catch-your-breath moments detract from the potency and spontaneity of what makes Cheated Death so fucking good, but aren’t enough to spoil the party at large. Against the Grain are without a doubt one of the most exciting true-blue rock rock acts out there, and Cheated Death is a worthy record for speed junkies of all backgrounds: rock, metal, or punk.
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Cheated Death is available on Ripple Music worldwide on February 9.