With bone-shattering guitars, earth-shaking drums, and a larger than life vocal presence, it is abundantly clear that dark-pop band RIVALS are coming out of the gate all guns blazing. The Los Angeles based band was formed back in 2014, with Kalie Wolfe as lead vocalist, Micket Woodle as guitarist, and Sebastian Chamberlain as bassist. The band released their debut EP entitled Haunted / Hunted in 2015, and released a cover of twenty one pilots’ “Heathens” the following year, which has racked up over a quarter of a million views on YouTube. After signing to Smartpunk records, the band is finally set to release their debut full length album, entitled Damned Soul, on February 2nd.
From the first moments of the record to the last, the band creates an palpable sense of dark and aggressive melancholy, masked by unmistakably catchy pop hooks, explosive guitar shredding, and layer upon layer of charisma. Frontwoman Kalie Wolfe is an absolutely stunning presence behind the mic, with vocals that shift from soft and emotive to hard and aggressive with ease. Her impassioned delivery makes her every word carry weight; even some of the more cliché lines come across as sincere and heartfelt. It’s a shame that on several occasions her voice is buried in a sea of monstrous instrumentation, making her words barely audible. However, Wolfe’s charisma and vocal presence is usually more than enough to pierce even the most overpowering electric guitars on the album.
From an instrumental standpoint, the electric guitar is an ever present force throughout the album, that is clearly the band’s signature. However, there are also some more unexpected production choices that prove the band isn’t afraid of taking risks and stepping out of a typical pop punk mold. The punchy synth backing during the drum solo on “Keep Going”, the soft and glitzy opening on “To: Leila”, and the funky, pitch shifted synths on the chorus of the title track are all pleasant surprises, that perfectly embody these risks. The only instrumental faults come from the aforementioned electric guitar, which at times proves to be a little overbearing. Moments such as the bombastic guitar shredding and screaming that occupies much of the last half of “To: Leila” is a bit grating, and the guitar solos on “Reflection” and “Wild Things” feel a little redundant, considering just how present it is throughout the rest of the album. These moments are a minority however, as the guitar feels fresh and essential throughout the majority of the album.
Much of the album comes to a similar musical conclusion, with more restrained verses, which lead up to explosive and electrifying choruses where the band gets to blow the lid off. Each of these tracks however has a uniquely captivating pop sensibility to it, keeping the album distinct and interesting from track to track. The choruses on “Wild Things”, “Over It”, and “Misery Memory” are among the best on the album, and the pre-choruses on “Low”, “Gunslinger”, and “Moonlit” are infectious in their own right, perfectly teeing up their grandiose choruses. All in all, Damned Soul is a stunningly cohesive debut, with energy and passion bursting from every seam.
Download: “Over It”, “Gunslinger”, and “Wild Things”