Gouge Away are evolving at an accelerated rate. The Fort Lauderdale, Florida band are frequently discussed in the context of being a hardcore band, and two years ago they were. Their 2016 debut album , Dies presented them as an old-school troupe dealing in punk rock at its heaviest and most brutal, balancing slo-mo mosh pit dirges and d-beat gallops in equal measure. When they broke the one-minute barrier, they almost certainly delivered something potent and memorable, but it’s not like they needed all that time. Gouge Away can do plenty of damage without wasting anyone’s precious time, and on , Dies, that was never a concern.
“Only Friend,” the leadoff track on Gouge Away’s second, Deathwish Inc.-released album Burnt Sugar, upsets the band’s status as a “hardcore” band. A noise-rock anthem with a menacing groove and the kinds of dissonant riffs that speak more to the influence of ’90s-era post-hardcore influences such as Unwound and The Jesus Lizard, “Only Friend” is an impressive reintroduction from the band, simultaneously showcasing a more sophisticated style of songwriting while doubling down on their most abrasive elements. Vocalist Christina Michelle sounds at once tormented and distant, personifying her mental health struggle: “Paranoia comes knocking, she’s my only friend.”
Burnt Sugar doesn’t in any way resemble a straightforward punk or hardcore album, and in many ways doesn’t even resemble the band that recorded , Dies just a couple years ago. Gouge Away, named for a particularly great Pixies track, stretching themselves into newly complex melodic territory and stepping outside of hardcore’s most common tropes. What they don’t sacrifice is intensity; Gouge Away rip through the first five tracks without a hitch, laying down one brief, ferocious roar of a song after another. And it’s not just that the songs are heavy, loud and furious—which they all are—but strong, memorable songs individually as well. “Fed Up” builds on the opening track’s nasty groove with a more visceral, full-throated assault, while “Slow Down” builds more darkness and nuance into their rhythmically taut approach and “Hey Mercy” gives Michelle an even stronger showcase for her not-to-be-fucked-with menace, screeching, “You’ll be calling me an artist the way I draw blood!”
An 11-track album full of the kinds of tracks that comprise the first eight minutes would already be remarkable. Yet as Gouge Away transition into the second half of the album, they undergo what seems like yet another transformation, kicking off with the side A closer “Ghost.” The slowest and prettiest song of the album’s first half, it’s dreamy and gorgeously layered, still abrasive yet revealing the kind of intricate passages that a more orthodox hardcore band might not have a place for. Even Michelle’s voice sounds prettier and more restrained, until she lets loose on the chorus, screaming in agony, “It makes me wonder if I’ve passed away or been invisible this whole time.” Amid the Jawbox-like arpeggio dynamics of “Stray/Burnt Sugar,” Michelle even finds some beauty and hope—two qualities that don’t show up that much here—amid a lifestyle that finds her constantly away from home: “Never feel richer than to find/That the most consistent part of this life/Is that the sun will always rise.” But when the band dials the intensity back up on “Wilt (I Won’t)”, they’ve somehow found themselves somewhere even more confrontational and aggressive sounding than where the album began.
Burnt Sugar is the kind of game-changing next-level album that offers a completely different perspective on what kind of band Gouge Away is. And what’s remarkable is how naturally they take to a more nuanced and diverse approach; Gouge Away are naturals at making the transition from hardcore to post-hardcore, and they’ve grown immensely as songwriters. It’s easy to remember a time when a band of Gouge Away’s ilk might have faced a backlash for undergoing such a dramatic progression, but that era, thankfully, seems to remain in the past. Gouge Away’s music always contained the seeds of something truly remarkable, and Burnt Sugar is where they fully come into bloom.