Here’s a band that thrives on nostalgia. When listening to Checkmate, the new album from Italian punk rockers Gonzales, the first thing that comes to mind is “old-school”. This album is a strange marriage of circa 80s punk rock and whiskey-drinking rock ‘n roll. While I will say the mix of styles is pretty seamless, the end result trips over a few hurdles and falls just short of a passing grade.
In fact, Checkmate is so old-school that it sounds like it was recorded in ’85, immediately shot into space, and it didn’t hit shelves until its orbit deteriorated this year. Right off the bat, it’s impossible to ignore how horrible the production job is. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was recorded on a four-track inside a steel cargo container during a torrential downpour. No matter how much I played with my levels, I was never able to eliminate the general twang of the recording and really get a good sound out of my speakers. In all honestly, once you get past the quality of the sound, the actual music is only so-so.
The guitar work is pretty good, albeit extraordinarily generic. The riffs are not all alike, but they’re not all that different either. When the guitars started for track 2, the title track, I was pretty sure it was a continuation of the song before. After “Checkmate”, the variance is a bit better, but you can see the same inherit formula throughout. The solos are pretty good in comparison to the one-two simplicity of the rhythm, but even those all sound strikingly similar when I stop to think about them next to each other. The most horrible show of repetition, however, is found in the drumming. I’m convinced that they used one drum track and sampled it into every song. The only thing that ever changed was the fills, but in the end, at least the drummer was not sloppy. At the same time, I’ve never heard anything so simultaneously flawless and uninteresting. Animal from the Muppets could have played circles around this guy.
The vocals were a bit perplexing due to the fact that this is an Italian band, yet the singer sounds like Keith Flint from The Prodigy, complete with British accent. I mean, maybe I need to start taking better care of my hearing, but I’m fairly certain that he sounded like an Englishman. Overall, the singing wasn’t completely horrible, but there were moments when it was unlistenable. The worst parts for me were when he sang low and there was no way to look past the awkward raspy-ness of it all. Couple this with lyrics that have the emotional capacity of a 4th grader (from what I can tell anyways, as I can’t actually find printed lyrics anywhere on the web) and you’ve got a vocal package that immediately excludes him from the list of singers I admire. I can’t rag on his voice too much more than that though, as it’s pretty much par for the course in the style that Gonzales is going for: dirty, grungy, plaid-clad punk rock.
One track worth noting is “Ring Of Fire”, a cover of the song made famous by Johnny Cash. Half of me wanted to like it for what it was, and the other half of me realized that the man in black was probably rolling over in his grave. Gonzales played the song at their own pace, which meant they sampled that same drum beat into it and doubled the tempo on the guitar. The only other song I found any solace in was “Fiesta”, which had the trademark catchy sing-along chorus that you’d hope for in a punk album.
There were a couple other beacons of hope, such as “Kiss The Sky”, which had a really strong and catchy opening riff that, thankfully, was also used in the chorus, but in the end, nothing could really save this album from drowning in its own mediocrity. I’m sure that Gonzales will find a dedicated fan base somewhere, but I imagine that the majority of listeners will find better albums this year to sink their teeth into. If old-school punk is your favorite part of the gamut, then this might pique your interest. At the same time, beware that Checkmate probably isn’t going to blow up your skirt.
01. Nothing To Lose
03. Kiss The Sky
04. Xtatic Failure
05. Heaven Gone Wrong
07. Ring Of Fire
08. Go To Hell
10. My Son