Come Real Close
It’s been a long, weird road for Los Angeles based band The Bronx. Hailing from Los Angeles, the hardcore punk and mariachi band formed in 2002 and have been together ever since. Three of the five current members were original founders, including Matt Caughthran on vocals, Joby Ford on vocals and guitar, and Jorma Vik on drums. Six self-titled albums, two completely different genres, and countless tour dates have created a story for them unlike any other. Their latest release, The Bronx IV, showcases a band more than a decade into its career, still gaining momentum. While the chords are simple and the rhythms are strong, there is more to this hype-free beast of a band than meets the eye.
On record, The Bronx sound intimidating to say the least. The five-piece punk band relies on razor sharp guitar chords to cut the way for vocals that berate the listener, pausing only for brief breaths and crashing interludes. Their first three albums saw them refine their style, from the unbridled energy of The Bronx I to the swagger and boisterousness of The Bronx II and finally to the charging precision of The Bronx III in 2008. Now, almost five years since their last eponymous release, The Bronx IV is another beast itself. In drawing on each of their past albums it seems a triumphant—a celebration of every step they have taken along the way. The path they took to get there was unconventional to say the least. In the years between III and IV, the band re-invented themselves as Mariachi El Bronx, and tried their hand at the traditional Mexican genre. After releasing Mariachi El Bronx I on the heels of The Bronx III they continued to engage listeners and confused the extensive musical database Gracenote with their second mariachi release – Mariachi El Bronx II. The implications of this career decision speak to the band’s aesthetic. The rule-less, defiant tone of their music is echoed by their actions, following their desires rather than external expectations.
At first listen it is clear that their Mariachi El Bronx identities are no gimmick. There is no pretense in the smooth sounds of guitar, trumpet and percussion. Caughthran cites the band’s distaste for rock sounds played on acoustic instruments as the impetus for their alter egos. The band approaches their mariachi music with the same rigid authenticity that they bring to their albums as The Bronx. Caughthran’s throaty shout becomes a smooth croon and Vik’s drumming becomes muted and calculated, allowing the more prominent instruments of the style to shine. With help from multi-instrumentalists Vincent Hidalgo and Ray Suen, the band filled out their sound on Mariachi El Bronx II, drawing praise for their improvement between albums. Simply put, their work as a mariachi group is no marketing tactic or ironic gesture, just damn good music.
So where does that leave them on The Bronx IV? In the shining expression of their mariachi talents it is easy to forget that the band made their name playing loud, fast and angry. To some extent those elements continue to define the punk stylings of the group, but as with their first three albums, they seem uniquely inspired on IV. On opener “The Unholy Hand, ” Caughthran hints at a struggle for security and search for identity, shouting a chorus of, “Are you the antichrist or the holy ghost? / Do you want to die or just come real close?” The lines are triumphant, rather than frightening – as if Caughthran is proud to propose that there is a line to toe. The band always seems a step from the edge, one inch from pushing themselves too far. Yet they always spring back to their feet and deliver challenging new music. They don’t want to die, just to come real close.
If there is one lyrical theme that pervades The Bronx IV, it’s that of impending destiny – almost as if Caughthran is preparing for closure. His lyrics toy with different definitions of the band’s status. At times he is defiant, singing “This spirit world is upside down and inside out / we’ve come too far, we’re too pissed off to turn back now” on the chorus of “Style Over Everything.” On “Torches” he is as poignant as ever, starting the song off with the lines, “You cannot change the life you’re born to live / as you play your part the world will take and give.” All the while the musicians—Vik, guitarists Joby Ford and Ken Horne, and bassist Brad Magers—crash through a wild set of tracks. The energy of their early releases shines strong on “Under the Rabbit” and “Too Many Devils,” while the calculated swagger that they adopted as they grew is never more evident than on the soaring “Valley Heat.” On IV, the band flexes every muscle that it has built.
The familiarity and predictable strengths of their latest album begs the question of how they can develop from here. With two successful personas and six albums under their belt, they are masters of their craft—existing outside of the temporality of the popular music realm. Where other bands would spin wheels in place, The Bronx are constantly pushing the envelope. On “Life Less Ordinary,”IV’s most restrained, toned-down track,Caughthran sings “Some might say there’s a price I’ve paid / for a life less ordinary / welcome to my masquerade.” The band’s career continues to play out like an unpredictable work of performance art. The feeling of an approaching conflict that Caughthran hints at on IV plays more like an invitation. It’s as if the band is welcoming a new challenge and a blank slate to try their hand at. If their aesthetic makes one thing clear, it’s that even if they don’t succeed, they’ll go down swinging.