Only Constant by GELRelease date: March 31, 2023
Label: Convulse Records
It’s been a minute since there seemed to be such an anticipated hardcore punk LP landing. By that, I mean a record from the genre that had broken out of its’ internal narrative, beyond the confines of the community through which the band had been built and championed, to be an anticipated album for so, so many.
Only Constant is the debut album from New Jersey natives GEL, a quintet made up of vocalist Sami Kaiser, guitarists Anthony Webster and Madison Nave, bassist Matthew Bobko, and drummer Zach Miller. They surfaced in 2018 with demo and then a promo release the following year dubbed HC for the Freaks. The latter, a two-track limited edition self-released cassette, did its’ job brilliantly – it became an immediate and iconic calling card for the five-piece.
From then on, GEL were known as not only a band to keep an eye on, but a band extolling a different vein of hardcore mentality that had begun to rise and transform the scene in the USA and beyond. Clearly, these things take time, but throughout the punk and metal world, it is impossible not to recognise that the days of “tough guy sh*t” is fading into history; replaced by the central tenets that punk above all else wore with pride. Namely, a rich sense of community, fostering understanding, support, inclusiveness, and personal redemption.
Magnetic frontwoman Sami doesn’t scream about “getting a pit swirling” or “f*cking sh*t up”. Nor do they even focus on the injustice of the world – local, national, or international – that is such a rich vein of hardcore punk. Yes, that reflection and firm-held belief is surely implicitly present, but the band focuses on the self and the communities we can build through music and other similar interests: being proud of yourself, holding strong ethics and principles you hold strong and stand up for, protecting others less strong, confident, fortunate, or privileged than you might be.
Following the two underground demo-esque releases, the band self-released a self-titled cassette, before Blind Rage and To Live a Lie reissued it on the band’s first 7” in 2020. It’s no secret that many of us longest for emotional release, a grand catharsis, during the pandemic, and it led even the more recalcitrant to become music sleuths, suddenly having the time to filter, sift, and imbibe lots more music. Perhaps GEL thrived under this unique conflagration of circumstance; because after their nosiest salvo into the wider scene yet, 2021 bloomed into something even larger. They released another EP, Violent Closure, that year (by Atomic Action and Crew Cuts), which was a paradigm shifting moment for the NJ group. Suddenly, they were on the tips of everyone’s tongues, and as the world opened up, their live performances quickly began to take on legendary status. Pardon the distinctly un-punk parlance, but GEL – seemingly out of nowhere to many – became ‘hot property’.
A fantastic split with Romanian odd-ball punks Cold Brats arrived last year to further fervour and acclaim, before the band announced that, yes, finally, they would be delivering their debut album in 2023. And so, here we are, with Only Constant. Much buzzed about, much hyped, and with a first pressing of vinyl snapped up in record time. So, does it deliver?
The answer is a qualified yes. I dislike inserting myself within reviews, but it should be said that a trait of my reviewing often picked up upon, is my slight obsession with time. This, the vast majority of the time, has nothing to do with the worthiness of the release, but is simply an indicator of my fascination with structure and composition, and how they relate and morph, chameleon-like, when considered in the context of different genres. So, it shouldn’t be a distinct surprise to anyone accustomed to hardcore punk, that despite being dubbed an album and the fact it has ten tracks, Only Constant clocks in at under the seventeen-minute mark.
Let’s the qualified part of the ‘YES!’ out of the way first. At the centre of the album lies a track titled ‘Calling Card’. It is an interlude that has a running time of just shy of two minutes. Short in the world of post-metal, doom, or neoclassical, but quite the statement when it’s longer than two other tracks combined. An interlude on such a short record might raise an eyebrow, but when on, it makes perfect sense. It is – quite literally – a calling card for GEL.
Atop a calm, rolling, lilting guitar line, we get a chorus of spoken word, sourced by the band directly from their fans and close community. Unsurprisingly, given the band’s core message, the best of the words submitted by fans touch upon standing up for yourself and others, being proud of who you are, not accepting bigotry at shows, and finding solace in the underground punk community when what is demanded of you in the day-to-day of work or family life demands a person you don’t recognise as yourself. It finishes with a refrain from Sami herself, the band’s consistent message: “hardcore for the freaks”.
The problem with ‘Calling Card’ isn’t the music or the message itself, but the fact that it disrupts the momentum of Only Constant considerably. I wouldn’t go so far as say it derails it, but it takes another song or two, for the band to whip the listener up into a frenzy again. My argument would be that the tone and tempo shift might not have been felt quite so much, should it not constitute an eighth of the total runtime. I can’t shake the feeling that a more concise version of the interlude OR three to four more tracks in the record’s tracklisting would have lessened the effect. I can’t help but look toward the four songs that are GEL’s contribution to Shock Therapy (the split with Cold Brats) and wish they had been reserved to amalgamate within the structure of Only Constant.
Aside from this niggling frustration, the rest of the LP is classic-in-the-making territory, and still shoots GEL’s debut into an already-congested AOTY debate for me personally. Whereas ‘Calling Card’ felt in need of an edit, the rest of the quintet’s offerings feel boiled down, into furious potency.
‘Horned Blade’ opens up proceedings and within second has gone from a simple, singular grimy riff to Sami clearing her throat with a ravenous, riot-leading ‘ha, ha’ to the second guitar locking into the riff and the bludgeoning rhythm section exploding to life. A minute later and we’re being picked up from the floor (or is that the ceiling?), wondering what the hell just happened. But keen for more, more, more.
‘Attainable’ drills into the skull with the band having an uncanny ability to keep things extraordinarily simple, yet sounding fresh, and crucially vital. Anyone analysing GEL would point to the fact that they aren’t reinventing the wheel whatsoever. But dig a little deeper, and one can prove that resoundingly incorrect. Take the messaging I alluded to later, or the fact that the guitarists aren’t afraid to quickly spotlight a new miniature riff that might feel more comfortable bopping along in a bright pop-punk song, or, conversely, the bass and drums sliding into depressed reverie, and sounding like they’ve swapped projects for a little bit of crust-tinged sludge metal. These Jackson Pollock-like scatterings across the canvas of their more thoroughbred hardcore punk through-and-through, turns GEL into a divine mongrel of a band, with a unique mix of attributes, personality and colour that will surely inspire so many who listen to this record and witness them live to try their hand at a punk rock band. Is it hyperbole that GEL could be this generation’s Nirvana for hardcore punk? I don’t think so.
‘Dicey’ is another clarion call for people to get moving – whether you’re at the front, at the sides or the very back of a crowd, they want you to dance. No blockheaded circle pit here; just a whole place jumping to the sound of punk liberation and the sound of new things to come. ‘The Way Out’ is the only sub one-minute volley blast on the album, but jeez, does it rage. Spitting venom from the mic and with the other four doing their best to deafen us in the hardcore maelstrom, GEL cement themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
They only double down on this with their longest song on Only Constant, the closing “epic” (it’s over three-minutes long, guys!) ‘Composure’. It’s a powerful final hammer to the head, concentrating all that has gone before into a more expansive, but no less dynamic and commanding exiting missive. It finishes with a fade out of the main riff and hails of feedback, completely apt as it completes the sense the recording has managed to attain throughout the record; that of the live experience.
Was the wait worth it? Yes. Is the hype justified. What do you think?!
Punk mentality and the underground community… Forever.