Desolation Sounds ends with a single second of screeching white noise after the soft-picked outro of “Swan Song” has faded. The last breath of the album finds Gallows reminding the listener that they have reign over the noise. This, the band’s second album with a reformed lineup, lives its title’s mission by seeking out emptiness and destruction. What’s more, a sense of defiant pride emanates through the album, as if the sparsity and straining of the songs is worthy of being paraded. The title track finds Wade MacNeil singing a chorus of “There’s hope in desolation / there’s a familiar sound.” It’s this control over the expression of anger and discourse that Desolation Sounds hinges on.
Whereas 2012’s Gallows was a whirlwind of breakneck hardcore track after breakneck hardcore track, Desolation Sounds maneuvers through a number of tones and styles. The band still pull out a few rippers over the course of the album (“Leviathan Rot”, “Leather Crown”, “93/93”) but in between they delve into sludgy, industrial songs (“Bonfire Season”, “Death Valley Blue”), a bonafide dirge (“Cease to Exist”) and a tightly wound exercise in restraint (“Chains”). There’s a clear focus on diversifying, and broadening the lens with which Gallows approach their music. Prior to Desolation Sounds, they hinted at this MO on the B-side of Bonfire Season, where they covered “Scare Me” by Major Lazer, and did a dedicated and engaging job of it. As they moved into 2015, Gallows made their goal of evolving no secret.
Lyrically, Wade MacNeil is heavily focused on consequence this time around, using each song to handle a new internal struggle. Lines like “Even bad dreams are too good for you” (“Mystic Death”) and “God damn the day I was born / I’ve been patient for too long” (“Leather Crown”) convey a theatrical fixation on conflict, while “Chains” is a sharp-tongued indictment of substance-less tenets. What’s disconcerting about Desolation Sounds, though, is how unclear it is what he’s getting at the majority of the time. It feels right to join the chorus of “Burning like a bonfire / until there’s nothing left / I’m losing my desire to be in love with death” on “Bonfire Season,” but this and other lyrics are more rooted in the power of their themes than in their relatable messages. On one hand, it allows the listener to fill in their own meaning along with MacNeil’s involved aggression, but on the other it sometimes feels like he’s not really saying anything at all.
Where Desolation Sounds truly does succeed is in illustrating a band in progress. Track 9 of 10, “Cease to Exist”, takes the band’s penchant for the dramatic and stretches it out over muted drums and meandering guitars before peaking with a slowly shouted chorus. It’s a song that would be out of place on Gallows (or other past LPs) but because of the relative stylistic variety that precedes it, it doesn’t come off too forced or premeditated. The diversity that they’ve strived for here, whether organic or not, allows their chaotic side to flourish as it is used more sparingly. Closer “Swan Song” drives through a syncopated and snarling verse before hitting a gang-sung chorus. With fewer similar moments on the album, the song’s precise rage feels more genuine and less blanketed. Desolation Sounds doesn’t approach perfection, but it shows a band coming into their own and displaying confidence in their ability to push their talents. If they develop a stronger sense of what works at what doesn’t, this shape-shifting, this relentless motion — this could be the new Gallows.