Earlier this spring I was exposed (thanks to a wonderful split put out by Topshelf) to two emo/math rock bands, thus fueling my recent rush to find the best and brightest amongst a genre which requires poignant complexity and the utmost care to not disinterest by overflowing ears with too much noise. Thanks to a combination of charming qualities, as well as mathematical ones, Del Paxton and Gulfer (the duo from the aforementioned split) have quickly made their way into my everyday listens. To my complete surprise and astonishment, I would be graced to hear more from Gulfer this year in the form of a debut album. To say that ‘What Gives?’ was written, recorded, and released quickly is the understatement of the year. Armed with a cheap Montreal apartment, the support of Texas Is Funny Records, and some of the best math rock influences just a short trip over the border, this Canadian band went to creating a debut the likes of which may not be seen for awhile.
Following the trend of their recent split, especially in the frantic nature of “F’real for Real,” Gulfer employed all of their inner emotional core and weaved together seven wholesome and true songs, of which my first listen came from the final track, “Almost Sterling.” It starts off in instrumental fashion, complementing the previous “Altalalaval” (which is one of the most clever song names ever) and serves to showcase the very talented noodling that these math-rockers are known for. But instead of exploding into a pummeling chorus and ending immediately, Gulfer holds back and maintains a calmer repose for the second half. It all pays off beautifully without the necessity of an explosion, as the guitars and vocals stay the course, only building slowly until the final utterance in a near-scream: “I never thought this place would take a piece of me//It’s been a year, I’ve buried all I care for.” This ability to control such complex and emotionally driven music is one which Gulfer excels at, and is a theme throughout the record given the brief pauses of two instrumentals.
Don’t let the short 25-minute run time on an LP fool you, ‘What Gives?’ is dense and carefully constructed to take the listener on a journey that is both concise and expressive. Starting off strong with “Bloody Lookin’,” a song to remind us of the power and essence a trumpet can bring to a middle-eight section as well as how driven Gulfer’s lyrics are from the get-go: “Everybody’s got some faces to hide.” What follows is a tap-heavy and almost funky break, armed with a frenzy of cymbal hits and backing vocals that echo traits of Snowing. The myriad of influences and symbolism (ranging from the Japanese toe to the American-midwest of American Football to the dystopian Fugazi) included in these tracks clearly left Gulfer with a slew of paths to take, of which they said fuck it and did it their way. There’s not a single song or riff that sounds alike, nor are there currently any better emo math-rock bands that could release an album quite like this one.
Armed with an amazing exposition and talent at-the-ready, it’s no surprise that Gulfer have some noise of their own to make. And sure they do, showcased effectively on the build-up and release of “Getting Hit By Parked Cars.” The song itself is already fast-paced, but nothing quite prepares you for the brilliance of the ending: “Oh your hands shook by your heart, lost track of love.” It’s catharsis in the best possible way, as you can feel the emotional weight (about a parked cars’ amount) of the words being sung at you while the band explodes beneath in pure instrumental freedom. The placement of the two instrumentals also adds to this feeling, as “Post-Molly” allows the listener some time to reflect on the previous three songs, all of which are absolutely bonkers and require a pause in the action from a rather impressive and enigmatic debut. It’s the complexity and mystery that aids in Gulfer’s brand of music, but having an emotional capacity thanks to excellent lyricism never hurt either.
From the false ending of “Trim It Short” to the calm beginnings of “Battlefield (Most of My Time),” Gulfer’s accomplishments on ‘What Gives?’ prove just how serious this four-piece is. Maybe it’s because they originally hail from New Jersey, or maybe it’s the sheer talent they bring with every riff and vocal melody, or even the infinitesimally small window for them to write and record it, but there’s something very special going on here. I may have stumbled upon this band given the shininess and appeal of a promising Topshelf split featuring a genre I had long but forgotten about, but I am definitely glad I took notice. You should be too. 4.5/5