Critical Hooks, Amirite?
Metal and hard rock isn’t a genre that trades in subtlety, more often than not. Sure, the Baronesses and Pallbearers of the world can indulge their artsier side, but they’ve bought that leeway with sludge and doom, respectively. Gygax are not Baroness or Pallbearer, and for once that’s okay. On Critical Hits, they call back to an era of metal which allowed it to become a classic rock staple. From the moment opener “Lesser Magick” begins, one is struck by two comparisons – Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy. You can evince Ritchie Blackmore’s technical prowess, the dual guitars summon the spirit of Gary Moore and Brian Robertson. However, the most remarkable trait of this record is it’s ability to summon the cocksure swagger of these 70’s guitar icons, while also tapping in to Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy’s most important feature: the hook.
Hookiness is an overlooked trait in metal and hard rock. But it’s a staple of their most formidabble incarnations. Would you deny that the riffs to “Iron Man” or “Smoke on the Water” are great hooks? Thin Lizzy could write an uptempo rocker with a title like “Suicide” but Phil Lynott could also sell the pub rock strains of “The Boys Are Back in Town” or “Jailbreak.” And do we really need to try to sell our readers on the mighty hooks of David Lee Roth-era Van Halen (which Gygax summons at times in their structurally taut songs, swing, sometimes tossed-off vocal phrasing, and impressive guitar work). “The Rope of Shadow” is one of Critical Hits strongest cuts because it so admirably blends these disparate features and adds in a bit of Blackmore’s other project, Rainbow, in the more mid-tempo riffage and the somewhat more epic pose (minus Dio’s skyscraper-sized vocal flights)—the harmonic minor solos call to mind such Rainbow tunes as “Stargazer” while maintaining all of the hooks and confidence of their somewhat more straight-forward cuts.
Sure Van Halen (“Chain Lightning” begins as if it might be a lost track off of Fair Warning or Diver Down), Deep Purple, Rainbow, Thin Lizzy: None of these references inspire a sense of lyrical heft or ornate artistry. But that’s not why we love rock n’ roll in its purest form, anyway. It’s the swagger, the enthusiasm, the aggressiveness—all features which Critical Hits wields admirably without sacrificing hooks or melody. Gygax aren’t re-inventing the wheel here. But they don’t need to. They’ve made us a record that reminds us that rock n’ roll can be accessible and catchy and still be worth our time. They may not be doing much more than recuperating some of the often unjustly-maligned catalogue of classic rock, but it’s no easy feat (plenty have tried and failed—Wolfmother, anyone). Critical Hits has the goods, even if it’s not the next Sgt. Pepper’s. Not every record needs to be. It’s good to be reminded of that. Thanks, Gygax.