By Cody Mello-Klein
When I first heard the name Riverboat Gamblers I envisioned a gang of rough-and-tumble turn of the century men fighting in a dimly-lit barroom brawl. However, I eventually learned that they are instead a gang of 21st century brawlers, fighting with distorted guitars and pounding drums instead of fists and broken bottles.
Now as much as I mourned the lack of tavern brawls, the most recent release from this Texas punk-rock quintet was, in many ways, a breath of fresh air in a world where Green Day is considered punk. That is not to say that the Riverboat Gamblers do not draw from bands like Green Day, the Offspring, and others, for they definitely do draw elements from many modern punk and pop-punk bands. However, the Gamblers separate themselves from these more well-known groups by remaining true to the punk rock ethos of creating loud, in your face music even after four or five albums. Where bands like Green Day and the Offspring turned to pop choruses and clean production, the Riverboat Gamblers have maintained a sound that is better-suited to a club performance than a studio recording. Songs like “Good Veins” and “Soliloquy” are bursts of energy that smack you right in the jaw with distorted guitars, fast tempos, and shouted (sometimes sing-spoken) vocals.
This is where the album really shines. It prompts you, or rather grabs you by the shirt and forces you, to get up and just head-bang and move to these energetic songs. The guitars are not too clean, the bass and drums as constantly pounding in the background and the vocals are completely unaffected and devoid of studio effects. Reminiscent of early vocals by Offspring singer Dexter Holland, the vocals of singer Mike Wiebe help to a create very “live” feel to this album.
However, like so many punk albums, the album really falters in its lack of dynamism. Every track, with a few exceptions, is a sonic onslaught. They hit the ears like an asteroid slamming into the side of the Earth. Now, this is effective and awesome for the first three or four tracks; however, soon after that I was left bored and wishing that the band would just take it easy for a bit. The instrumentation doesn’t vary all that much, thus making each song sound a little bit too similar to the last, and after a while it become rather clear that a lot of the sounds on this album are derivative in some way. The vocals are a mixture of Dexter Holland and Iggy Pop, the guitar solos are predictable, and the drums and bass are forgettable (although that is typical of punk).
That is not to say that some tracks don’t vary from this punk-rock drawl. “Gallows Bird” is the slowest and longest track on the album but is also probably the most standout track on here. A lumbering track that is drenched in distortion, “Gallows Bird” is such a dynamic change from the rest of the album that it comes as a breath of fresh air in a constant barrage of fast-tempo songs. It is here that the band also adds a little extra instrumentation, including a tinkling barroom piano in the background that is just enough to make the track unique and interesting. The guitar solo on this song is also standout, as lead guitarist Fadi el-Assad releases each note with a great wrenching tone that makes it seem as though he is forcing those notes out of the guitar.
Unfortunately, this album does not try to follow up this track with any significant dynamic, instrumental, or lyrical experimentation. Instead what we get is an above-average, oftentimes derivative punk album, which, in a world where poppy choruses and clean production equate to punk-rock, is actually a bit of a relief. Maybe they should have had a few more barroom brawls and broken bottles.