If Burning Desire to Draw Last Breath was an emergence, this is an arrival. On Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress, GULCH are a band that, in three short years, have ascended not only the ladder of success, but the ladder of their own artistic potential. The rate of their growth is dizzying, and the maturity and solidity of their sound belie a band that has so few releases to its name.
Starting with 2017’s Demolition of Human Contstruct (non-label), and especially following 2018’s Burning Desire to Draw Last Breath (Creator-Destructor), Gulch have been an unstoppable train, building a well-deserved reputation as a must-see, must-listen band. Word-of-mouth, particularly surrounding their impossible-to-acquire merch, accelerated their renown. More than the hottest new thing, they’ve become legends in their own time.
Years of accolades bordering on myth-making set a high-bar for a debut LP, but Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress isn’t attempting to live up to any hype. Instead, it is a band fully self-assured in what they have to offer sonically and creatively, a band whose years performing together and in other projects such as Drain, Subtle Violence, Sunami, Lead Dream, Spinebreaker, and Hands of God have gifted them with skills that allow them to take risks that yield great rewards. Without neglecting any of the razor-sharp riffs, rugged breakdowns, and visceral vocals, this new album is more polished, more developed, and more powerful. It shows a band that has found its sound and is poised to use it as a weapon.
Vocalist Elliot is set to be one of the most recognizable voices in hardcore. Alternating between and combining the singing styles of Dylan Walker, JR Hayes, James Trejo, and Johnny Whitney, his screech is the perfect vehicle for his lyrical poetry, which has the brutality that only vulnerability can create, as he sings about mental illness, death, hopelessness, redemption, and metaphysics with a true writer’s touch that is too rare in music of any genre. Compared to previous releases, drummer Sammy has a much more pronounced approach to his kit on this release, with the ping-ing blastbeats of Rob Proctor and the raw d-beat of Gary Maloney. With Christian’s and Cole’s trilling guitars and Mike’s woofing bass, Gulch has found a style of metallic hardcore that integrates death metal and hardcore much in the way that Black Breath, Nails, Year of the Knife, or Like Rats have, but with some more Cursed and post-2000 Converge added to the mix. One will find it hard to make any direct comparisons, though, as their special take on heavy music is what’s made them such an instant favorite for fans across the metal-punk spectrum. Although Gulch may remind you of your favorite band, there is no one who sounds quite like Gulch. Guitarist Christian says, “Our biggest influences are our friends in the bay and all the bands that they play in. Right now is a really hot time for Bay Area hardcore and it really pushes us to be the best we can possibly be. There’s no one particular band that we all try to emulate. We just just do whatever we want and comes out the way it does.”
Burning Desire to Draw Last Breath rightly made Gulch a “band to watch” in every music publication paying attention, and all of the qualities that made that EP such a success have been developed further on this LP. While Burning began with a now-famous ambient noise section, Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress wastes absolutely no time before it reaches through the speakers and tears your eyebrows off. According to Christian, “The approach was very similar. We knew we wanted it to be a short, no-filler songs LP that just crushes the second it starts. It was also very important to us that the album sounded alive and not too ‘clean.’ Jack Shirley at the Atomic Garden in Oakland definitely helped us with that. Everything was tracked live and on tape so it has a real organic feeling to it. When we got there to set up he told us to just plug in and set up how would as if we were about to play live and it was so badass and liberating for me. I would say it’s pretty much a live album and it’s very accurate to the energy we all bring when we play. We tracked it all besides the cover in maybe two takes.”
This all-band approach to recording makes an audible difference on this debut. These songs sound more alive, more organic. There is an electricity, a chemistry between the musicians that transfers to the listener. On this album, it seems as though each of the musicians was given more rein to explore their instrument, and consequently, nothing feels canned. Rather than cuing off a pre-recorded bass-drop–as has become increasingly common in hardcore–breakdowns emerge naturally. One can hear each guitarist’s playing style, and the bass cuts through, complementing rather than imitating the guitars. These are musicians who have earned each other’s respect. Furthermore, Jack Shirley–who has worked with acts like Deafheaven, Jeff Rosenstock, Punch, Crowhurst, and Gouge Away–respected the musicians enough to help them explore and realize their immense sonic potential.
As Christian alluded to, there is no fat on this album. The songs are honed, sharp enough to shave with. “Lie, Deny, Sanctify”– originally released on 2017’s cassette, Demolition of Human Construct–along with “Cries of Pleasure, Heavenly Pain” and “Self-Inflicted Mental Terror”–both of which made up Gulch’s 2019 Promo–all find new life in the context of this album. One would be hard pressed to find a favorite track for this LP. The opening, title track triggers a running-of-the-bulls heart race, right out of the gate, as it were. “Fucking Towards Salvation” (a possible allusion to Yeats’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” perhaps?) is a grooving, stomp-through-the-floorboards riot of a song. “All Fall Down The Well” is the sound of a swarm of those Murder Hornets you’ve been hearing about, pissed, dangerous, and panic-inducing, laying waste to your local ecosystem. “Shallow Reflective Pools of Guilt” is a subterranean bare-knuckle fistfight.
The most surprising, and thus far, most talked-about song on Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is the closing track. Cover songs, especially across genres, are a daring gamble. Sometimes, though, the cover is reinvented in such a way that it becomes, in essence, a new song. This happened when Sinead O’Connor covered Prince, and it happened when Johnny Cash covered, well, anyone, but especially when he covered Nine Inch Nails. Time will tell, but Gulch’s innovative approach to their cover of “Sin in my Heart” is courageous, creative, and, really, brilliant. Christian says, “Elliot wanted to cover Siouxse & the Banshees in his other band Subtle Violence but it just never happened. He brought it up to Cole our guitar player and we just made it happen. We have been wanting to do a cover for a few years so it just made sense being we’re all huge fans of siouxsie and other goth/post punk bands especially Cole, Elliot and I. We all wanted the cover to be different and not just another hardcore/metal cover of a hardcore/metal song.”
It is the perfect way to settle the soul after the pandemonium of the preceding seven tracks. It is understated, particularly as it starts. It is an open ribcage, revealing and inviting pain. Even as the instruments gain distortion and volume, even as the vocals become more agitated, the song never loses its intimacy, as though you’re being held in the confidence of a friend who has been wronged by the world and has only you to tell their sufferings to. Finally, though, the song resolves with a Trap Them-esque eruption that reminds the listener that their listening to one of the most exciting bands in today’s heavy music landscape.
After using his art for their two longest releases, Gulch’s aesthetic may well be associated with the evocative art of tattooist and painter Boone Naka. Christian says, “His style is perfect and we all feel it pairs with our music very well. It’s dark and mysterious and for me it always leaves me with questions about the art. This release with him is special because he’s made art for every single song on the LP and they’re either going on special posters were making and also shirts. I feel that we are extremely fortunate to find an artist who is super nice, talented, and down as fuck for our band and as people. A few members of our band have been tattooed by him. He’s based out of Vancouver BC, Canada. In my opinion a lot of hardcore album covers are lacking. There’s no substance and there’s nothing there that really draws the viewer/listener in, so again, we’re very lucky because I feel the art has helped us as a band.”
California Hardcore has a long, storied history, with legendary bands like Black Flag, Battalion of Saints, Dead Kennedys, Fear, and Suicidal Tendencies playing a large part in establishing the sound that defines the genre today. That legacy of premium California Hardcore is kept alive and well by newer bands like World Peace, Spy, Heckdorlan, Dead Heat, Beyond Pain, Provoke, Khiis, No Right, and Gulch. Even if Gulch are one of the most sought-after bands playing hardcore today, they are unphased by that.They are immune to the hype, even puzzled by it, and remain true to themselves personally and artistically. Christian says, “Gulch has never and never will try to be a specific genre. Obviously we want it to be heavy, fast, and flat out disgusting but we play whatever we want. I’ve seen people say that we’re trying to be metal core, death metal, power violence, grindcore but I can say right now that’s not true. We play whatever the fuck we want how we want. Mosh part? Cool. Circle pit? Cool. Heavy ass slam riffs? Cool. Head banging? Cool. We’re down with everything and anything heavy and have never considered or even tried to be any one thing. Also, we’ve never intended for our merch to be some hot commodity. People go ape shit over it and it’s totally out of our control that everything sells out. I know it could be frustrating for people who want our merch but have a hard time getting it because it sells out within minutes. Anyways we just do and play whatever the fuck we want and if people like it that’s badass, but if not, then we don’t care.”
Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is out through Closed Casket Activities.
Recording by Jack Shirley at Atomic Garden Studios.
Cover art by Boone Naka.