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For a very long time, Melbourne’s Alpha Wolf were one of the most written-off punching bags of the Australian heavy music scene for many, myself most certainly included.
See, they weren’t the local underdog’s paying their dues well enough, their music wasn’t that engaging nor that inspiring, and they weren’t the golden standard to look up to; they were merely the punch line of an even shittier joke. And one that really needed to end sooner rather than later. This was all due to their utterly mundane and boring debut EP (2014’s ‘Origin’) and a short but subpar two-track (2015’s ‘Dark Soul’), both of which came nowhere near close enough to be even remotely impressive. Oh, and then there was that weird, random ambient track, ‘Blkrchrds‘, that dropped last year, and while decent, still came out of nowhere with seemingly little rhyme or reason behind it.
Odd ambient tunes aside, those older Alpha Wolf songs just weren’t enjoyable tracks to digest; not on record nor in the live setting. This is something that guitarist Sabian Lynch echoed to me in our recent Aussie Feature on the band, with him stating: “I myself will also be the first one to say that our older songs sucked. I honestly don’t know how we got any opportunities based on those releases, as they were atrocious“, and that “they were just never enjoyable for us to play. Especially when you’re looking out to a crowd that also aren’t enjoying the songs.”
You and me both, mate.
However, as the quintet’s main 2016 single ‘Nail Biter‘ first hinted at, the overwhelmingly lacklustre scent hanging around this band has now completely dissipated with ‘Mono’. As this Victorian mosh crew’s 12-track debut is a massive improvement for the band. Of course, in saying all that… taking a mighty big step up from being ‘shit’ and ‘bottom of the barrel’ does only result in Alpha Wolf and their debut album just being ‘good’ or ‘solid’. (I often call this “The Chelsea Grin Effect”). However, that’s more than fine with me, as I’ll happily cop a merely solid effort from Alpha Wolf because ‘Mono‘ goes fuckin’ hard!
Now, there are a couple things that make ‘Mono‘ really work.
First off, the mix supporting the band’s nu-metalcore/beatdown sound is so much clearer and cleaner here than on past releases; the drums swing and snap harder than ever, the low-end is round, punchy and almost overbearing at times, the vocals are far more intelligible and impactful, and the guitars – despite being rather drop-tuned – chug and riff away with real grit and weight to them. Hell, even the band’s sombre and melancholic moments (which I’ll get to later on) really stand out too, with a grand sense of space to each of them.
Secondly, there are the honest and crazed lyrics that drive this Baker’s dozen through a crippling, hellish soundscape and then back again. For the only thing heavier than Alpha Wolf’s breakdowns, aggressive vocal deliveries, guitar tunings and utterly sphincter clenching low-end are the incredibly heavy and personal topics that the lyrics tackle. Lyrical themes range from the nature of family and brotherhood (‘Ward Of The State’), the life-changing moments of parents passing away (‘#104‘, ‘My Untold Memoir‘, ‘Devon Street‘), friends taking their own lives and the aftermath of mourning and emotions that such losses leave us with (the duo of ‘Golden Fate: Water Break’ and ‘Golden Fate: Gut Ache’), personal heartache of both the romantic and friendship kind (‘No.2‘), and more.
Stemming from that, one thing that helps hit all of this home is the sinister, pained vocal delivery of frontman Aidan Ellaz, who used to front Queensland mosh-metallers, Enfield. (Man, ‘Lyssa‘ was such a fucked tune, wasn’t it?) Yet unlike the vocalist’s former band, Ellaz’s voice fits the sound and tone of Alpha Wolf’s music near-perfectly. His occasional yet purposeful voice-breaking moments that add real credence to the song’s emotional weight, the little inflections that he gives off, the varying ranges in his solid screaming, the cleans – it all works gloriously well against the bleak, heavy and rather unhinged backdrop of Alpha Wolf’s music.
Another thing that makes ‘Mono‘ really work is just how oppressive it is at times.
At the risk of sounding even more of a pretentious wanker than I already am, this record is often an immense and unpleasant listening experience due to the fact that the stories and real life experiences that helped to guide its creation were also far from pleasant. For life isn’t always shoulder-crushingly heavy and depressively bleak, but nor is it always quiet, emotional and sombre. As such, ‘Mono‘ is an unflinching reflection of such a life. And it’s this solid coupling of personal trauma, cathartic aggression with dark, atmospheric lulls and seriously tight metalcore and insanely mosh-worthy passages that make ‘Mono’ gel together as one cohesive whole.
Yet despite the sheer, brutal impact of this record’s palpable, self-loathing vocals and lyrics and its heavy, crushing sonics, the generic nature of this record does hold it back. Like me, if you’re very familiar with the likes of Emmure, Cane Hill, Darke Complex, Sylar, Sworn In, ‘Black Label’-era Ocean Grove, The Gloom In The Corner – *takes breath* – Void Of Vision, Apate, Spite, Graves, and The Sign Of Four then ‘Mono‘ is simply nothing new musically nor will it hold any surprises for you. It’s indeed more of the same from a seemingly never-ending genre of similar bands.
As such, I’m weary of this sound and I am indeed a holder of the belief that there is too much of a good thing. After all, this kind of heavy music is as trite as deathcore bands thinking they can wake people up to the horrors and hypocrisy of religion with their cliche, edgy lyrics. Now, as for the case of ‘Mono‘, the tunings, the dissonant intervals and panic chords used, the instrumental rhythms, the structuring of their breakdowns, the overall songwriting tropes; it’s all so very nu-metalcore. (Shut up, it’s basically a genre now since every second heavy band these days listened to far too much Korn and Slipknot as a kid and now wants to write heavy grooves with their seven and eight string guitars).
Of course, is this sound something special for Alpha Wolf as a band now in 2017? Yes! But for the wider genre that this band’s music exists within? No.
However, that’s not at all a final nail in the coffin of ‘Mono’ nor does it result in an instant fail against this record’s quality, as such generic nature could never hope to undermine the pure honesty and debilitating emotion behind these 12 solid songs. And to be fair, Alpha Wolf merges their low-tuned metalcore and beatdown elements with subtle yet solid nu-metal influences more than well enough. In fact, they do it better than some of the bands I mentioned above (Cane Hill and Spite, for instance), with brutally cutthroat tracks like ‘Failvre‘ and ‘Promise Stays‘, as well as the mental breakdowns that match the earth-shaking musical breakdowns of ‘Epiphobia‘ and the crushing, deeply personal album closer of ‘Devon Street‘.
While Alpha Wolf more than hit their breakdown quota well before ‘Mono‘ ends, they prove that such immense, dark and heavy music can contain moments of real melody and that it can also be done superbly well. Case in point, the melodic, clean sung chorus on the heartbreaking album standout ‘Golden Fate: Gut Ache’; a moment that shows off Alpha Wolf’s influence and inspiration from old mate Landon Towers of The Plot In You. Elsewhere, the shorter tracks that break up ‘Mono‘ work real wonders for its pacing and impact. For one, there’s the eerie guitars and atmospherics of ‘Shinobi Naku‘ (which is mostly vocally delivered by bassist John Arnold), whose lyrical motif of “it’s live alone and die” is then expanded upon with the following track; the gloriously hard-hitting ‘#104‘. The tone of the record’s encroaching titular track made up of emotive, interweaving strings, guitars and reverberant vocals preludes the moshing brutality of ‘Failvre‘ very well. And the gut-wrenching ‘My Untold Memoir‘ – a true lump in throat moment that’s reinforced by Lynch himself providing heartfelt vocals about his mother’s passing – are all welcomed sonic breaks from the low-tuned, heavy fray.
Ergo, each of these softer songs helps to create a flowing sense of emotional and sonic dynamic to Alpha Wolf’s debut LP; one that without it would surely result in this record falling fathoms deep into more mediocre waters.
Look, for a band that I used to utterly loathe to no end, I am now so happy to be on board with Alpha Wolf. And that’s all because of ‘Mono’. With that being said, I do not think that ‘Mono’ is a perfect or amazing release, nor one that is a wholly unique record either. However, what I do truly think is that ‘Mono’ is a solid debut album from a band that shows so much more genuine promise than they ever have before.
Also, can the dullards that label Alpha Wolf as deathcore – who are also probably the same people that call The Acacia Strain deathcore – stop that utter nonsense, please? The sooner that ends, the better our world will be. Cheers.
1. Ward Of The State
3. Golden Fate: Water Break
4. Shinobi Naku
6. Promise Stays
9. Golden Fate: Gut Ache
10. My Untold Memoir
12. Devon Steet
‘Mono’ is out now Friday, July 14th via Greyscale Records. Pre-order it here. It’s quite good.