Chavez were a peculiar band in their day. They weren’t a particularly difficult or confrontational band, nor were they belligerently anti-commercial. Their label, Matador, was already releasing its share of commercially viable(ish) bands by the time they released their debut, 1995′s Gone Glimmering, and the 120 Minutes-aired video it yielded for “Break Up Your Band” was a memorable one, even earning the ’90s-era honor of being mocked by Beavis and Butthead. By 1996′s Ride the Fader, their songs had grown even catchier and more melody-forward, tracks like the bookending “Top Pocket Man” and “You Must Be Stopped” each a kind of post-hardcore-informed guitar-heavy alternate reality alt-rock hit. The thing about Chavez is that they didn’t particularly sound like most alt-rock bands on the radio at the time, and though the hooks were certainly there, Matt Sweeney and Clay Tarver’s twin guitar attack came across almost like a metal band playing power pop. On paper that might sound like grunge. In practice it’s a lot more interesting than that, which may or may not be why they didn’t catch on so quickly during those short couple of years when they were most productive.
Then that was it for 20 years. Chavez never broke up, and periodically they’d re-emerge, lineup intact, to play a series of live shows for festivals like All Tomorrow’s Parties or for Matador’s 21st anniversary concert in Las Vegas. But after two albums in two years, Chavez’s tap had pretty much been turned off. Clay Tarver moved to Los Angeles to focus on a career in film, while singer Matt Sweeney became an in-demand collaborator and sideman for a number of prominent projects, ranging from being a member of Billy Corgan’s short-lived Zwan to touring with Iggy Pop. With minimal warning, however, some years after even playing a live show, Chavez goes and announces their first EP in two decades, Cockfighters, comprising just under nine minutes of new material.
As unexpected nine-minute EPs from bands that have been silent for about a half-decade go, Cockfighters is pretty damn spectacular. With long-delayed returns by dormant or once-disbanded groups, the risk of not being able to live up to past material is always a risk. Cockfighters sounds exactly like a Chavez record, however. It’s the same four musicians, working with the same producer (John Agnello), and it feels very much of a piece with their broader (if not necessarily broad) catalog. The brief jolt of opening track “The Singer Lied” squeals and booms with the same immediacy of “Tight Around the Jaws” or “The Guard Attacks.” And “The Bully Boys,” while playing up the band’s glam-rock and heavy metal influences more explicitly, is a showcase for meaty guitar riffs above all. It’s unapologetically unsubtle, roaring with youthful glory and a surprisingly endearing sense of triumph.
Picking highlights on an EP with three songs, all of them pretty killer, is sort of a pointless exercise. That being said, the showpiece here is second track “Blank in the Blaze,” which shows off the group’s sense of dynamics the best here. It’s both a slow-burner and a high-riser, reaching toward a dynamic climax without starting off a rollercoaster (which Chavez has literally done). It’s a reminder, long after the fact, of the kind of creative heights that Chavez are capable of, as infrequently as they seem to arrive. Cockfighters is a promising sign, however. Chavez’s first release in two decades is a strong return and proof that neither their songwriting nor their volume knobs have diminished. For those still searching for something to be optimistic about right now, start here.