Review: Only Thunder – Lower Bounds

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Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy May 4, 2009

Only Thunder? Talk about faulty advertising. Those turning on Lower Bounds, the Denver quintet’s outing on Bermuda Mohawk Productions, will be surprised by the lack of thunder the disc conveys. There’s nothing raw or unsettling about it, nothing that particularly stuns you or shakes you in the place where you stand. One could call Lower Bounds a punk-rock record, to be sure, one of a variety that combines dynamics with volume, but it’s hard to call the proceedings moving. It’s a rock record that knows its boundaries, sometimes loses sight of its finer moments and, surprisingly, plays it rather safe.

The album-opening “Tapestries, Candles, Zima?” and “Back and Forth” set the tone for the 40-odd minutes that follow: a give-and-take between verses of crunching guitar and barked vocals and more fluid, less distortion-soaked passages. Only Thunder features not one, not two, but three guitarists, so there’s plenty of noodling, lots of trebly notes laid over power-chord refrains. That works and sometimes works well but what stands out from the very beginning is how much the songs cling to a pattern – the safe reprise of a verse-chorus-verse mold, or the plotted course of a repeating measure on guitar. On “Back and Forth,” the tangents and departures are what’s best; the too-short instrumental passage halfway through the five-minute song is more articulate than much of the clutter that surrounds it. It’s a shame.

Some songs fare better than others. Parts of “Splatterhouse” and “There Is No Peace on Colfax” are fun and light on their feet, the type of vaguely SoCal-inspired punk-rock moment one finds in a teen movie. The beautifully titled “Fucking Your Way To The Middle” features moments that border on math-rock and others that seem to aspire to paraphrase Tool. The band plays with a similar dynamic on the less beautifully titled “I’m A Witch, Burn Me,” where quiet sections are surprisingly reflective and loud sections display the better parts of the three-guitar assault.

The end of the record is a study in thwarted expectations. Time and again, the group flirts with engaging material, only to toss it aside for more of the same. “Fence Fight” begins with a murmuring bass line, simple percussion and semi-groggy guitars, something off-kilter but inviting, but wastes little time launching right back into louder, more obvious terrain, the singer barking, “Someone please take me home.” The beginning of “Airwolf” roils as guitars weave between and among each other but, again, the group abandons some of that complexity to go for the big refrains. In the song’s closing minutes, the group returns to some of that terrain, albeit with more volume, but then it happens only briefly. When the song passes, instead of being left with the engaging material, we remember the singer shouting “Where are we now?” over a pounding refrain that’s so stereotypical it borders on the humorous.

Lower Bounds seems to aspire to a brand of throttling but controlled punk magic but, unfortunately, doesn’t quite get there. It’s not that they don’t try hard enough. It’s just that they seem to focus on the easily replicated rock moments instead of the more unique passages they scatter throughout the disc. And, maybe, in the end, there’s just not enough thunder.

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