If their eponymous last record wasn’t enough proof already, the Gallows of the 2010’s are not the same Gallows that released Orchestra Of Wolves or Grey Britain, and if I wasn’t a huge fan of both those records I wouldn’t even mention them in this review. I have to though, because after a masterpiece like Grey Britain I was sceptical about the future when Frank left, and after 2012’s self-titled I felt foolish for feeling that way. Desolation Sounds makes me the village idiot then, because after hearing single Bonfire Season I still had my doubts, even though I’d enjoyed the bands previous outing, On their fourth record however, the now-four-piece have released a record which continues their ever-constant evolution, and does so with a venomous, slick intensity in the vein of a new direction. Granted, people will doubtless write Desolation Sounds off solely because of the featured personnel, as they did with Gallows, and that’s a shame considering how good the record is. Frank was not the only member of Gallows, neither was the more recently departed Steph Carter, and with album no.2 it’s probably fair that we forget about those two members for now and focus on those still making some great music under the moniker. Desolation Sounds is indeed great, and yes, it’s different, but that doesn’t necessarily diminish the records quality, of which there is plenty.
At ten tracks and thirty-six minutes long, Desolation Sounds offers a fair amount, and it does so with a spirited energy and willingness to experiment. Guitarist Laurent Barnard put it well in a recent interview with Noisey (where you can also stream the record if still available), in which he said: ‘If a stranger were to ask me what Gallows sound like now I’d probably describe the band as an acid fuelled S&M party in audio form. The music is raw and violent at times but psychedelic waves of beauty and colour burst out of the chaos.’ That’s fair, because Desolation Sounds is sleazy and heavy at times, but there are moments of striking clarity between savage selections, and it makes for a listen which is as rewarding as it is frequently brutal. In slight contrast to the more raucously channelled self-titled record, there are a few interesting, calmer shifts in dynamic here, namely on aforementioned track Bonfire Season and the thoughtful, haunting Cease To Exist, both of which suit MacNeil’s slower, cleaner vocals, particularly on the echoing latter, which features the lines ‘If I told you this was killing me, would you stop?’ It reminded me of his criminally underrated side-project, Black Lungs, and there’s certainly a feel of that band to Bonfire Season, which bristles and teases. There’s a radio friendly menace to it, and even with that menace it remains one of the tamer tracks on Desolation Sounds.
The same can’t be said of Mystic Death, which begins the record with foreboding guitars and then delivers on that sense of un ease, an excellent riff fuelling a storming opener which is every bit as anthemic as several of the songs on Gallows and just as pissed off. It’s an emphatic opener, and if it had featured on Gallows it would’ve fit right in, unlike some of the other songs here, with the first example of such a track coming in the form of second selection and psychedelic Desolation Sounds, which showcases MacNeil’s range and Gallows’ willingness to explore their own sound. Elsewhere the furious Chains is a roaring highlight, starting sombre with vocal accompaniment from Helena Coan of Dios Mio, and then erupting, bombastic and destructive as MacNeil shouts ‘Don’t need another violent summer of sham rock and roll / sham rock and roll’ over a pounding and crushing backdrop. With immense third track Leviathan Rot every bit as monstrous as its namesake these songs mark a very strong first half – the better half of the record.
Desolation Sounds, for all of its merits, does occasionally lose steam, particularly in its second half, in which 93/93 passes by fairly anonymously, and its odd that the track most reminiscent of that early Gallows sound makes the least impact, at least for me personally. It does so a few tracks before closer Swan Song falls slightly short of a grand finish, choosing to build and then fizzle out prematurely; In the minute or so before it fades it’s suitably huge, but leaves a somewhat sour taste in the mouth when it opts to avoid one final assault. The record starts strong with Mystic Death, and continues so, but it’s a shame to see it end on a weak note, detracting marginally from the experience preceding the tenth track. Alongside pensive Cease To Exist, Death Valley Blue is the highlight of this marginally flawed second half, and the latter song is by far the catchiest thing Gallows have ever written, opting for hooks instead of heaviness, sticking around long after its finished thanks to a chorus which is tough to shake. The former does the same through different means, and it’s arguably the most poignant track the band have released to date, an emotionally haunting daydream offering reflection towards the records death.
Small niggles aside, be it in the rock and roll of the title track, the heavy metal of Chains or the punk rock / shoegaze crossover of Leather Crown, Gallows sound like a band more confident than ever, and on Desolation Sounds they’ve made a record which does things simply however the fuck it wants to, and despite its blackened, charred feel there are plenty of positive signs here, all pointing towards Gallows being the band that each member wants them to be. It’s hard to imagine anymore members leaving anytime soon, because Desolation Sounds sounds happy in whatever way a record this pessimistic can potentially sound. It’s happy behind the scenes perhaps, if that makes any kind of sense, it might not, and that contentment seems to show in the songs.
With their fourth record (as was the case with their first, second and third) Gallows, regardless of their line-up, are still one of the most important bands in British punk, and Desolation Sounds sees them branch out further to darker, murkier terrain, and still leave it spat out golden. Viewing the record as a post-Wade sophomore release it tops the debut, and only continues the fine form that Barnard, Gili-Ross and Barratt showcased prior to his arrival. If you like your music heavy, aggressive, and experimental, then Gallows’ latest record is a must-listen; you’ll most likely enjoy it. Here’s to ten more years.
Listen to: Leviathan Rot / Chains / Death Valley Blue