2016 is a year of firsts for Stick To Your Guns. Aside from signing with new (and frankly, better fitting) label, Pure Noise Records, Better Ash Than Dust is the first release from the band to be an EP rather than a full-length. Fans may be bummed that they aren’t getting ten or eleven new songs instead, but the five songs they do get provide more than enough depth to warrant repeated spins.
Despite being a group known for their aggression and power, this release doesn’t begin with an out-of-the-gate thrasher. Instead, there’s more of a focus on setting a somber mood as vocalist Jesse Barnett declares “Nights like these, they make me think about the person I once was and the person I’ll become.” He’s singing about not only his own progression, but the progression of time affecting his bandmates and the world around them. Fittingly, the age and wear can be heard in his voice when compared to previous performances which only makes the words hit harder.
Age, as a matter of fact, is a constant in the opening title track. The noise builds up with more melody and then crashes in before revealing a calmer texture via the form of a post-rock ambient section that leads into one of the best choruses to-date in a Stick To Your Guns song. The focus in this song isn’t to crush or devastate, rather it’s more emotional and reflective and works exceptionally as an opener. In particular, Jesse sings in a grittier style exclusive to this track and it works well. Title tracks can be indicative of a record’s overall experience and what can be taken from this particular track is an approach that causes the listener to feel and to think..
That is, until “Universal Language” kicks in with one of the most headbang-worthy riffs in the history of the band. It’s a defiant track that has a similar anthemic quality to “Nobody” off the Disobedient record but with slightly better execution. In fact, this EP feels like a nice book-end to Disobedient’s direction. Similar to “Nobody”, Andrew Rose’s bass takes center in the verses. The obvious topic in this song is speaking out against racial inequality, characteristically vocal for the band. “Universal Language” will appeal to fans of the more recent direction Stick To Your Guns have taken, complete with a massive chorus and destructive breakdown.
The EP shifts into another gear entirely with “No Tolerance”, a fast-paced rager that throws back to Diamond that will throw mosh pits everywhere into a frenzy. Naturally, it speaks to a world that only wants to take and push its inhabitants. It’s the angriest and meanest track on the EP sonically and goes until it burns out in a little under two-and-a-half minutes. Leave to Chris Rawson and Josh James to reliably produce chaotic riffs.
It’s in “The Never-Ending Story” that the entire band is firing on all cylinders. Melody, emotion and chemistry are all present and accounted for. The guitars crunch, the rhythms, particularly George Schmitz’s usage of cymbals, are interesting and the chorus contrasts the pissed-off verses and especially the simple but outspoken call of “Just give a fuck about something, motherfucker!” that ignites a heavier portion of the song. Apathy clearly isn’t something endorsed by this band.
“The Suspend” is where things get more intimate and personal. The moodier approach from the album opening returns and is headed by an alternative-rock melody. A song that details Jesse’s upbringing and what possessed his desire to be in a band, the idea of dynamics is really expanded upon and shows a different style of songwriting for the band. There’s no chorus, just a bout of storytelling that is accented at its most impactful moments with huge atmospheric melodic pieces and emotional declarations of persistence.
Even with cleaner production, this record still feels heavy. Holding Stick To Your Guns as strictly a punk band isn’t accurate to who they are anymore and maybe it never was. The burly guitar tone and raucous double kicks patterns of a song like “Universal Language” feel closer to metallic hardcore than age-old punk, but when things do get faster and choppier, this is a band just as hyper as any punk band brought to mind. The inclusion of emotive and huge choruses are what make STYG hard to classify and all the more an interesting band for it. It’s a personal preference, but I’m glad they sacrifice no aspects of their musical interests to fit a mold. They aren’t rock, metal or punk; They’re Stick To Your Guns.
Taken as a whole, Better Ash Than Dust feels like the most complete work to ever have the Stick To Your Guns name to it. Clearly, the musicians have learned how to structure and layer a record which is exciting for their future projects. By releasing more personal matters in his other band, Trade Wind, Jesse has learned to utilize more range and catharsis in Stick To Your Guns’ music, making him all the more formidable of a vocalist. Somehow too, his bandmates know how to express their love for other types of music than punk and flesh out their sonic palette of approaches, especially Josh and Chris as guitarists. Simultaneously, the passion for what goes on around them and the direction the world is heading still sounds attention-grabbing and important. What this all means is that the Stick To Your Guns in 2016 know how stick to their own guns while also exploring subtle new territory. It’s incredible how vital they still sound after so many years gone by. They better not be going out anytime soon.