Glassjaw are a band who tends to divide opinion in extremus. Unfortunately for them, they emerged with their debut full-length on Roadrunner Records during what has become known as one of the darkest chapters of musical history: the nü-metal era. Some nights I wake, drenched in cold sweat, fearful of a world that allows atrocities such as Tommy Lee's Methods of Mayhem to exist. Fearful of my own 14-year-old self for once purchasing, listening to and enjoying this, and many other examples of ex-cock-rockers rapping over neanderthalic, down-tuned riffage. My own personal excuse is that it's all character-building, and I try to convince myself of this daily. Sometimes hourly.
Despite this dubious musical landscape, Glassjaw have endured by releasing music that continues to deconstruct any unfortunate stereotypes that some have attached to them. Their latest, the Coloring Book EP, is a testament to musical creativity and the endearing appeal of cultish behaviour by musicians/bands. Who gives away free vinyl with pizza, or only distributes their new EP at shows? Glassjaw, of course. To me it is weirdly paradoxical how they can remain relevant and popular despite their low-key, creative approach to releasing music. Perhaps it was the timing of their ascent, coinciding with a booming period for myriad forms of heavier, less cerebral music and allowing Glassjaw the opportunity to build a substantial fanbase before taking a hard left turn into unpredictable self-promoting territory.
Our nefarious heroes played two shows in the UK, distributing this new six-track CD to attendees. Printed A4 sheets warned in bold, capital letters that Coloring Book would only be available at the end of the night, but a diverse crowd of hardcore/punk/indie/metal kids circled the merch table like hyenas. Thankfully, no bum-rushes materialised. Opening the show, at the behest of G-jaw, were Napalm Death. Daryl Palumbo would later thank them from the stage, describing them as "one of the most important bands to ever use a distortion pedal." Considering that Glassjaw's (as yet unheard) newest tracks are their most melodic to date, many being keyboard-driven, hindsight turns up another characteristic of the Glassjaw mythos: Their desire for freedom to choose the context in which their music is heard. And, alongside this, the fine art of subtle misdirection.
Maybe the presence of Napalm Death was partially to appease fans of Glassjaw's earlier, heavier material, as their set list ignored Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence with the exception of one song ("Siberian Kiss"). Instead, the audience was treated to tracks from Worship and Tribute, B-sides like "El Mark", "Convectuoso" and "The Number No Good Things Can Come Of". They also performed the five tracks that made up the Our Color Green digital EP. The pit was a sweatless, static non-blur of latent energy, whipped into life by "a kiss in the shape of a bullet." But it was weird: Daryl Palumbo's Jaggerisms were temporarily replaced by a kind of self-conscious, mocking imitation of his own adolescent, angry self. It was captivating, and the only indication present of Glassjaw bowing to the whim of their fans, albeit for about four minutes. Palumbo looked much more comfortable when crooning his way through less aggressive numbers, and us kids sang along with unrequited man (or woman) love in our hearts. Then, boom...lights up, band gone, and some kid shouting for "Motel of the White Locust" repeatedly. But this was a release show, and we'd heard nothing new. It was not the end.
I heard security bolt the doors (not really) and saw them reach under the stage to tool up with tazers (not really either). We were treated to everything new, all at once: No hidden pill in a sloppy pizza, but the whole blister pack to swallow down, no water allowed. It seemed to me that, for half an hour, some of the fans got a little fidgety, expecting a more aggressive sonic barrage and receiving rhythmic, steady beats, looping keyboards and hardly an anguished scream. Coloring Book live was a bold and unexpected move, not completely uncomfortable and performed under the terms dictated by the iconic spliced GJ. Moshers couldn't dance, fanboys couldn't sing along, and yet none of us wanted to leave, partly because of the promise in the promotional setup. It suddenly became apparent that Beck's guitar was strapped so high as a practical ploy to be able to reach his keyboard. We were held in rapture, listening to a new jam which we would later discover was called "Vanilla Poltergeist Snake", as Daryl Palumbo, obviously keyed into the scenario, began singing "no one gets out alive."
The aformentioned jam is the third song on the EP. "Black Nurse" kicks it off with huge, epic drums followed by Daryl Palumbo whooping like he just got a new bike for his birthday. The first verse contains the cursory mention of a motel. The rhythm section propels the song to an abrupt conclusion, maintaining complex and engaging drumming throughout as a jazz bassline weaves in and out of the beats. "Gold" bites off the opener's tail with booming tom flourishes and an unrelenting, single-chord guitar refrain slicing like the blades of a helicopter. Daryl sings "please don't let me down" before the chorus hits. A keyboard loop creates a claustrophobic middle eighth before those monstrous drums take centre stage again.
Hardly a moment elapses in which to digest G-jaw's newly streamlined songwriting as a single guitar growls for a few seconds. A simple but powerful synthesised loop ushers in "Vanilla Poltergeist Snake", maintaining the intense, unrelenting continuity. Palumbo sings in a high, not quite falsetto voice, sounding something like a creepy bearded child from hell. The chorus is great, that single line repeated over anchored, expressive bass playing and a single reverberating keyboard loop. There doesn't appear to be any of Beck's guitar playing in this song at all, his keyboard work adding to both the chorus melody and the powerful weight of the verses and bridge.
A rare moment of brief silence does nothing to halt the momentum before "Miracle in Inches" begins. There is a theme here, in common with the previous tracks: epic drums, beautifully recorded; rolling basslines sitting perfectly in the mix; guitars or keyboards adding a more than satisfactory level of grunt; astonishing choruses led by the vocal melody. The songs are succinct with no extra padding and seem to fly by, uninhibited by unnecessary technical guitar flourishes or complex mathematical time changes. This mature approach suits the songwriting ability of Glassjaw, and leaving the screaming at the practice room door allows the strength of their simplified songcraft to stand out.
"Stations of the New Cross" is the penultimate jam, opening with those helicopter-like guitars before reverting to type for the verse. Palumbo's vocal performance is outstanding on this track; all controlled, nothing too gymnastic, the chorus augmented by some interesting rhythmic work which could be from the synth or the drums, I'm not too sure. The track builds toward its conclusion, embracing some multi-tracked vocal harmonies and a shimmering lead guitar part alongside the constant pulsating bass, which rumbles on alone as a prelude to closer "Daytona White". Gentle keyboards and brushed drumming create a relaxed atmosphere, with the bass nudging its way in alongside Palumbo's chorus refrain: "Daytona White, you're leaving me untied." The song threatens an aggressive progression before settling back into its original steady groove, vocal harmonies shining like jewels as multiple Palumbos sing, "I can't breathe without you." Again the bass is left alone to close the song, and the EP. This is where I pick my (glass)jaw up off the floor and press play again.
Perhaps Glassjaw won't play the traditional industry game because they have built their fanbase and want to survive as a creative force, rather than touring with flavour-of-the-month bands and releasing an album every two years. Maybe they are bored of spewing the same platitudes to the press every album/touring cycle. Going on the evidence presented by their live set and the Coloring Book EP, their music remains progressive and relevant, their attitudes defiant, their aesthetic unique. They exist on their own terms, creating scenarios where it is a privilege being introduced to their newest recordings, and Coloring Book is a testament to the niche they have carved for themselves. Existing somewhere in between hardcore punk and mainstream metal despite sounding like neither, Glassjaw remain an exciting prospect because no one knows what they are going to do next. Whatever it may be, the strength of their latest bunch of songs is guaranteed to keep fans entertained, and their cultish behaviour will surely keep even casual observers interested, too.