Forth Wanderers write lovely songs on their Sub Pop debut, but fail to expand upon old formulas

Similar to old music genres, there are limits to old video games. But as younger generations continue to honor and revisit retro culture, the discussion has cropped up anew on the internet. Any corner of YouTube will show you just how much love there is for what was once considered mainstream. A little over a decade ago, one such creator dubbed himself “The Angry Video Game Nerd,” who began tackling the pitfalls and shortcomings of the media that defined his childhood. In an episode where he reviews an overlooked 1988 NES game called Kid Kool, he can’t control his 8-bit character because it’s either going far too fast or far too slow. This phenomenon is jokingly referred to as “two-gear diarrhea” as he asks his audience if their memories stack up against the game’s quality.

Rock and roll is much older than popular video gaming, but is similarly easy to pick apart for its shortcomings. Originating in New Jersey, Forth Wanderers are taking up the antiquated art form and seeing if the wheels still turn. The AVGN reference is a sad corollary to what you’ll find on the band’s second, self-titled record. One tune, “Be My Baby,” stands out as that pleasant first gear. Driving past the scenery of slide guitars and romantic lyrics will have you wanting to return to the journey. Unfortunately the song is nestled deep within 9 other tracks that are the opposite gear: each treble instrument battles the others for attention, rock forms are repeated ad nauseum, and the listening experience is seldom less than exhausting.

Certainly there are rock records that push the extremes of volume while still standing the test of time. The list of relevant ones, in terms of influence for Forth Wanderers, would last a novel’s length. Suffice instead to say that Forth Wanderers camouflages itself among the myriad of rock records available in indie rock’s current idiom. Conversely, their previous EP Slop stood out from the ranks. On the title track, vocalist Ava Trilling bent her impassioned delivery around interlocking drum and guitar patterns. It was euphoric to listen to her drown in the drama of music that so eloquently matched the lyrics. By the end of the track, the five piece were satisfyingly spent.

By the end of Forth Wanderers, however, it’s the listener who is spent. This is clearly the same band, but their lack of varied production, on a Sub Pop debut no less, is glaring. Cymbals and guitars cannibalize one another in the mix of every song where drums are present. Bassist Noah Schifrin’s wonderful playing can be heard in the distance, but it takes quality headphones and a careful ear to pick up on his lines, like trying to sift through a stack of enormous dishes for one spoon.

It’s fairly obvious, however, that Forth Wanderers didn’t want to make a “pretty” album. In many ways the record echoes the basement flair of their first few releases, which is to say the recording and performances are great. Things go sour in the mixing department. The parts feel individually mixed, then chucked together at the end before being being contextualized. The result is a garrulous record where sub-rock instrumentation like keys and slides are lost in translation. To boot there are no less than three tracks that end with someone in the band goofing off in the final seconds. “Tired Games,” an otherwise airtight polyphonic guitar romp is undercut by someone ad-libbing “that was dope” at the end of the take. The only thing worse than inauthentic punk rock is the illusion of punk rock. Which side of the coin the band wanted to be on is unclear even at the album’s end.

Despite the lack of variance from song to song, each of the 10 songs here are finely written candidates for radio. Lead single “Nevermine” is a great way to kick things off, showcasing an acoustic guitar double before Trilling’s tale takes shape: “I’m am the one you think of when you’re with her/And what have you got/Nothing on me,” she relishes. “Not for Me” is another gem where the guitar and vocal echo a shared dissonance. The issue is that it’s not worth it to dig through all 10 of these tracks to find the nuanced intricacies that so frequently play second fiddle to loud rock and roll.

Using the word “diarrhea” to explain Forth Wanderers is harsh, but AVGN’s “two-gear” complaint can’t be stressed enough. “Nevermine”, “Not for Me”, and “Be My Baby” are enough to paint an adequate picture of a band at this juncture. What isn’t adequate is a remaining 7 songs that fail to expand upon those ideas in exchange for sounding like overproduced copycats. If you need to return to Forth Wanderers, try focusing on the base elements of the band - the songwriting, the tales, and the youth of it all. If you’re trying to find expansions on the limitations of rock music, you’ll be accosted by roadblocks at every turn. Just don’t get caught in that high gear when you crash through the bands limited stock of ideas.