"Alpha Wolf x Dealer = beef."
Featuring former Capture The Crown drummer Joe Abikhair, Codeine King guitarist and main-songwriter Josh Ang, David Wilder from Iconoclast, ex-Northlane bassist Alex "Milo" Milovic, and previous Alpha Wolf vocalist Aidan Holmes, Dealer launched last month with their debut EP, 'Soul Burn'. Yet for all of the buzz surrounding them and this release, the emperor actually wears no clothes.
For one, and because literally no one else has mentioned it (sarcasm), Dealer are instantly comparable to what Alpha Wolf do; beyond sharing a vocalist crossover, but due to Dealer's actual sound as well. As a significant portion of this six-track EP feels like a generic nu-metalcore rip off of Alpha Wolf. Thus, amusingly, making Dealer a copy of what is already a copy of something else; all in the vein of Emmure, Bury Your Dead, and even Barrier too, with how the vocals and instrumentals mix. So expect heaps of drop F chugs, breakdowns, weird pinches and pick scrapes, and whammy pedal love. The similarities even go to the point of this band's aesthetic. For instance, you'll find various Japanese/Kanji slogans printed on most of Alpha Wolf's merch or used someway in that band's branding. As Dealer seem to be really stuck within the shadow of Aidan's previous band, they do something similar. As one example, look at the thumbnail for their 'Grotesque' video, containing various Chinese characters in its title graphic.
This all extends to many other parts of this six-track EP. During the breakdowns, you can almost hear the instrumentals distort somewhat; Dealer trying to artistically use clipping like old metalcore bands from the 2000's and early this decade once did for that added impact. Dealer are also definitely aiming for a dirtier mix at times, but it's not as sonically polished as it perhaps should or could've been. Odd, given that the same guy who mixed and mastered Alpha Wolf's new EP, Lance Prenc, also engineered this EP. Leading me to believe this all stems from how the release was first tracked, and what Dealer's overall tastes were.
Moreover, Dealer also feel like a small fish in a small pond when you step back and look at the rest of the Stay Sick roster. Not even including the metalcore traits of Attila themselves, there's also the moshy likes of Born A New, Notions, and Degrader, to name just three other bands. On one hand, this makes them tailor-made for the Stay Sick family in some way. But on the other, it just pushes them back into the larger, breakdown-loving hardcore herd with little differentiation.
Join the Kill Your Stereo community with our FREE weekly newsletter
There are a couple surprises in store during this EP's barely 20-minute run-time, with Dealer trying to be more than just a mosh band. Which is admirable, and an attempt that I do honestly respect. However, I'm just not sure that they've pulled it off. In fact, the band's Australian distributor, Human Warfare, even made mention to us prior to release that there was variation on 'Soul Burn'. More so when compared with other bands in this genre. While that's true, that variation doesn't go anywhere that useful or meaningful.
First off, the big one: 'You In Frame'. Aidan actually singing was a great change-up for the EP, the song seeing the band shifting gears into a far more melodic, post-hardcore realm. While those overly clicky, snappy tom hits in the song's first half are super distracting and way too loud, this is my favourite song off the whole EP. (Even though that's not saying a great deal.) I think there's more merit in Dealer flipping the script and making music like this, then injecting the odd heavier metalcore moment into the fray. I was actually really about 'You In Frame' until a friend pointed out that it's basically 'Drown' by Bring Me The Horizon as if it was seen through the eyes of Dealer, with slightly different chord progressions and a slower tempo. That might be a leap, but it's there.
Then there's two jarring cuts in 'Melancholy Oxidase' (which features Travis from Varials) and the faster-paced 'Ultima Death' respectively, both of which are odd moments. In the former, the mid-section goes out of character with this vocal-only part where Aidan is singing with what sounds a mic set up outside the door of whatever room they were recording within. (Don't even get me started on that laughable "click, click, boom" line either.) Then there's a cut to an ambient, cleanly-sung outro come the finale of 'Ultima Death', alongside pretty cool distorted electronic drum'n'bass moments earlier in the track. I get what the band were going for by including these moments, keeping people guessing and trying to not stagnate their sound, yet the implementation is off. 'Ultima Death' being the only one that comes out the "best", as these creative parts feel mostly out of place. The previous examples violently jerk you out of the EP's listening experience, as opposed to feeling like necessary or fitting curve-balls.
A great example of a harsh cut is 'Calvin McKenzie', the third song from the greatest album ever written, 'Long Live' by The Chariot. That discordant track, out of nowhere, jumps into Terry Lee Jenkins' 1961 swing-jazz song, 'Atlanta, My Home Town', returns to the feedback-riddled chaos of The Chariot, then ends with said sampled song's outro. There's also no shame in writing a no-bullshit, no-nonsense metalcore record; not when it's done well. Which is ironic, as that's exactly what Alpha Wolf did with their 'Fault' EP. With Dealer, they've tried hard to branch out and be their own thing, but it doesn't pay-off.
For all of the "interesting" moments, it's apparent that the band also maybe ran out of ideas. 'Grotesque' and 'Melancholy Oxidase' have similar outros, re-using rather comparable breakdown-guitar combos. In fact, with the sole exception of 'You In Frame', all of the other songs end with meaty but over-extended breakdowns that go on a little too long. Before that aforementioned, genre-switcheroo for the 'Ultima Death' outro, the band were just moshing away with even more breakdowns. And having that scratchy, high-pitched guitar rake on 'Grotesque' be brought back during 'Pretty Stupid'? Once was enough, lads.
I'd strongly argue that Dealer rushed things. If this was an LP, they could've expanded upon these ideas, maybe also allowing Aidan to extend his lyricism too. Look at it this way: 'Soul Burn' was released around 14 months following Aidan being kicked from Alpha Wolf, yet things maybe should've been held off until the end of 2019 to allow more time to better cultivate songs and specific parts.
'Grotesque' and 'Crooked', as just two examples, are riddled with the typical hardcore vocalist approach of "I've got all these words, so I'm just gonna force them all in." The pair sound like Aidan is going too fast, vocally racing past certain words and syllables as quickly as he can, everything spilling over into the next line; vocal lines that are already stacked on top of each other. The first time I heard 'Grotesque', I listened along with the lyrics, and most words he skips right past. Other vocal phrasings are quite awkward, like that "in this dog eat dog world, you're still the fucking bitch" pit-call on 'Crooked'.
Straight-up, a good mosh-call shouldn't make you double take and rewind the song to make sure you heard it correctly or that it actually gelled with the track and its pacing; it should get you fucking pumped for the next hard-as-shit drop! Which is what the band do on 'Grotesque' with that "cuz suicide is free" line, with Aidan's quicker flow actually being fine on 'Ultima Death'. Basically, it's just so inconsistent, sounding like there was a disconnect between when these glorified mosh songs were recorded and when the vocals were finally tracked. (Oh, and the tough-guy barks at the end of 'Crooked' are lame. It doesn't matter whether you're Spite, Knocked Loose, or Dealer, doing "arf-arfs" is pure cringe.)
It doesn't sound like Aidan has taken care of his voice between getting removed from Alpha Wolf and now. He sounds drier and harsher then when compared with his vocal output on 'Mono', which I went back and listened to after going over this EP. His elocution hasn't gotten much better, either. Besides some quick deathcore-esque screams reminding me of his Enfield days, there's little technique utilised, with nothing but rage and angst guiding his performance forward. While it sounds like the frontman definitely believes what he's saying - I don't think anyone can deny that he's got conviction and self-belief here - that only takes one so far.
Getting into the lyrics, I'm not going to downplay the EP's introspection about suicide and mental illness; having heart-to-hearts with friends and family before killing oneself or trying to survive the "black dog" of depression. As that's reductive when discussing mental health, and I have no doubt the vocalist suffered from depression and some kind of personal dissonance. One day he was in Alpha Wolf, the next day he wasn't. Due to the reasons behind his exit (circumstances that are the only thing that's allowed Dealer to come to fruition), that's manifested in Aidan having a big chip on his shoulder. And he wants everyone to know that he was burned. Which is totally fine on paper; there's nothing wrong with speaking one's own truth. However, that does result in some of these lyrics feeling like big middle-fingers to everyone else, with not much sense of redemption or sympathy present that would indicate change.
Plus, weirdly enough, Aidan doesn't actually back his own case much. On 'Pretty Stupid', other then mentioning his SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and alluding to Alpha Wolf’s 'No. 2' with “I’ve still got blood to bleed”, he talks about how if others will play the hero - IRL or online - that must automatically make him the villain. However, he then doesn't defend his innocence, ending a fast-paced vocal rant about guilt by summarising that if you wanted him dead, then "you should have buried me." It's all basically the argument equivalent of "no, u", which is never - ever - a good basis for one's defence.
What's also frustrating is there's actually a really sick lyric on 'Crooked':"Orwell said there is no distinction between the thought and the deed/so I guess in that case you're all just fucking rot to me". Yet it's been wasted on a sub-par nu-metalcore track such as that. Funnily enough, that particular line was also used on Aidan's unreleased version of 'Black Mamba'. (I'd link that in here, as I was sent the Dropbox link of that version a few months back, but the file has since been removed by whoever originally uploaded it.) So, I also wouldn't be surprised if other lyrical or vocal ideas leftover from Aidan's time in Alpha Wolf were then funnelled into this EP.
Some will praise this Dealer EP because the music is angry and emotional. However, a small child running around a mall screaming and crying can be 'angry' and 'emotional' too, so what's your point? Having these elements in one's music doesn't automatically make it good. I'd argue that something being"emotional" doesn't inherently or suddenly make it contain merit. A distinction that many people miss in order to fall over themselves to praise anything that's in some way honest these days.
There's also another contextual matter when talking about this Dealer release that shouldn't go unmentioned: the "who" behind the band. Quite frankly, if Milo and Aidan weren't in this band, then most people wouldn't give half as much of a shit as they do. This stems from local bands getting around this group because they have something to gain from Dealer existing; guest features, tour supports, and so on. To even how friends, peers and fans comment things like "ThE bOyS aRe BaCk!" or how these really high-scoring reviews are labelling this EP as "creatively unbound". As if countless other bands who do the same fucking thing (and better) or showcase similar ideas don't exist. If you think what this band is doing is unique, in say, the guitar department, then you simply aren't paying enough attention to bands like Vein, Code Orange, Employed To Serve, or gnarlier acts like Frontierer or Sectioned.
Shit, for a band that people sweat so hard as being different or "fresh", all three of Dealer's music videos so far are literally the same goddamn film clip: them "playing" in a dark room, trying to act cool, with nothing else to the visuals other then varying colour schemes.
I've been immensely negative so far, but 'Soul Burn' EP isn't completely terrible; it's not without complete worth. There's solid groove at times, like the intro of 'Grotesque' after that female-automated voice says "dealer", and some of the breakdowns do admittedly go hard, like the one that ends 'Pretty Stupid'. Milo's bass tone on 'Crooked' is killer, 'You In Frame' is a refreshing palette cleanser, and there's definitely that classic Aidan vocal and lyrical angst. But it's never enough; it doesn't translate into a cohesive whole. The release has these smaller moments I dig, but never once as a complete collective.
For all of Dealer's hype, the emperor is revealed to be practically naked with this rather lacking, directionless EP. It's heavy, sure, but it accomplishes nothing beyond that bare minimum. Try as it might to be different sounding at times. A full-length LP, where Dealer had twice the songs and twice the run-time to better expand upon their various creativity and lyricism, would've gone down better, instead of them seemingly rushing into this debut EP. As would Dealer not so pathetically sounding like they're stuck under the thumb and sound of Alpha Wolf. Dealer: you guys trying to do your own thing here, so why not lean much harder into that next time?
'Soul Burn' is out now.