The Genre has forever been a friend of both critic and consumer alike. It makes things easy to describe, it puts art in these little easily digestible packages. For the artist, however, they can become an enclosure, a prison of vision, if you will, as to just what it is they wish to achieve with their music. Some bands are content to work within a singular framework, and of course this has merits as well – we set our own constrictions. Others attempt to cross the divide with disastrous, copy/paste results (How many Russian power metal bands feel the need to throw a deathcore breakdown into every song before they realize it just doesn’t work?). It’s the few-and-far-between that find ways to use their influences as a toolbox for what it is they are trying to convey rather than a cage. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina’s Sugar Wounds do just this on their sophomore release, a mini-LP by the name of Calico Dreams.
The shimmering, radiant synths are the very first impression, and rightly so. Brilliantly layered throughout the brief twenty-three minutes of Calico Dreams, they are the secret ingredient that holds it all together. Washing against the rocky shores of the more abrasive guitar/drum/vocal backbone, the keys are the sparkling crystals on the blueberry muffin from 7-11 at six a.m. on a hungover Monday morning. “OOM-POW!” The drums kick in and the faint feedback strums of the guitar burst out in an explosion of sprinkles across the soundscape. The syncopated guitar/drum patterns nail the early 00’s vision of post-hardcore: It will be a make-or-break moment for some listeners. Those who choose to stick around will be rewarded with a driving pulse littered with caffeinated twists and turns as the song comes together. The lead guitar, especially, glides across the music as though it were figure skating on a sheet of glacéed cape gooseberries, sheering the upper register in a fluid aurora borealis psychedelia.
All of this talk of sweetness and sugar does the band an injustice – Calico Dreams is just as equally abrasive and violent as it is saccharine and sweet. The extremely brief “Combat Wombat” crams dissonant, chaotic math-rock sensibilities into the mix at a blisteringly breakneck blast of grind from the percussion. The Fugazi-era Ian MacKaye styled half-spoken/half-barked vocal break is one of the few times Sugar Wounds deviate from the burst-neck vein intensity of the static-cloaked screeches that remain constant throughout the release. While the vocals remain fairly static, they are delivered with conviction and a feeling of desperation, and hold the intensity of the release from start to finish. One-dimensional, perhaps, but effective in the short space of time that Calico Dreams demands. Regardless of whatever the hell they’re screamin’ about, those bursts of frustration reverberate across the hollowed emptiness of those otherwise lively outposts of futile joy founded on plastic novelty. I haven’t seen a lyric sheet and have no idea what they’re going on about, but the music is so captivating it begs the imagination to find meaning in it.
“Semi-Burnt Sugar” holds the centerpiece of the record. A cumulation of blasting, mind-bogglingly syncopated, and tastefully overprocessed drum work lays the foundation for a swapping of melodic duties between the subtlety strummed lead chords, the feedbacking wails of the synthesizers, and the intensive onslaught of jagged rhythm guitar. The bass is only noticeable if you look for it, but churns and rumbles along with chunky half and whole notes like a tendon between the muscle and bone of the rhythm/melody dynamic. Playing out in a stargazing abundance of synths allows the ears a restful reprieve before diving in headfirst into the aptly titled angst of “I QUIT.”
The grinding abrasion continues into the the highly energetic and surprisingly decypherable energy of “Kneading Neatly Is Mari’s Nightly Norm.” The scorching comet trails of the guitar, glimmering with delay, paint the soundscape before giving way to some brutal thrash riffing. It finds a groove in those over processed kick drums – even when they’re sounding pretty Sugar Wounds still want to be on the offensive, attacking with every bit of brutal and abrasive offense to the ears.Yet it’s all so fluid – the vicious attack and the sugary sweetness are delivered simultaneously. It presents conflicting emotions in a singular delivery. All of the grindcore, art punk, post-hardcore, shoegaze, or whatever in the world wouldn’t mean dick if Sugar Wounds didn’t have conviction behind album closer “Goodnight Midnight.” The drawn-out, shimmering conclusion behind the onslaught of one-two beat desperation serves as a supporting bookend to the album, providing closure to the experience. It allows the listener to bask for a moment in the sheer intensity of what they just witnessed. With the entirety of the recording being just at twenty-three minutes, it beckons for another trip through the saccharine angst of Calico Dreams.
The great thing about writing about releases that have already come out is it’s easy to chat with friends about them. I’ve heard Sugar Wounds compared to bits of Blood Brothers, Refused, Gridlink, Deafheaven, At The Drive-In, My Bloody Valentine, Discordant Axis, “screamo,” Genghis Tron, Hum, The Plot To Blow Up The Eiffel Tower, The Armed, and Melt Banana, among many others. All of these analogies have merit and argument to back them up, however, when such comparisons are so diverse, it is often the mark of a band that speaks very differently depending on the ears they may find. Calico Dreams sounds like Sugar Wounds, and it’s a fucking blast.