Stills is an ironic name for Gauntlet Hair’s sophomore album. It brings to mind associations of calm and quiet, something motionless, or transfixed images from a film, frozen in place. But the Denver noise-pop duo bring a whole new range of meanings to Stills; the album is a dark, electronic slew of songs with a grim, industrial aesthetic. But the concept of film stills remains a legitimate metaphor for this short album, where each track seems to exist in isolation from the others, breaking into separate elements that don’t quite flow or coalesce into a cohesive whole.
In 2011, Gauntlet Hair’s debut self-titled album earned them comparisons to Animal Collective, but Stills sounds more like an Animal Collective that climbed into a dingy cave and brooded for two years. You won’t find any sunny, synth-soaked jams here, but heavy, percussive beats and moody melodies abound. “Spew” clutches to a catchy beat, even as it gets lost in a chaotic chorus, and “New To It” features jerky arrhythmical percussion and a mash of sounds. “Obey Me,” likewise, begins in a barrage of ominous synths, ringing keys, and the monotone drone of singer Andy Rauworth’s vocals.
The danger of the disjointed style on Stills, and sometimes of the entire noise-pop genre, is incoherence— and the album does fall prey to it. Tracks like the aforementioned “Obey Me,” “G.I.D.” and “Falling Out,” aren’t easy listening. They test the limits of cogency, mixing muddled vocals, rumbling bass, and abstract synth melodies. The album’s best moments, by far, are its two singles, “Human Nature” and “Bad Apple.” “Human Nature” opens the album with a shuffling beat, muted percussion, and low, wordless vocals punctuated by a thumping bass. It’s drenched in effects, with a shoegaze-type vibe. And “Bad Apple” takes on a cool, ‘80s New Wave sound and industrial-electro feel. The sleek production makes it sound like the most put-together track on the album, by far.
Stills shows Gauntlet Hair making an effort to refine and develop their sound, and there has definitely been a transformation since the release of their guitar-driven debut two years ago. But Stills lacks decisiveness and coherence—it’s the germ of an idea, with brief flashes of clarity on tracks like “Human Nature.” Like any sophomores, Gauntlet Hair have still got some growing up to do.