Pop-punk has been in a rut the past few years. You might even argue that the genre has been in a hangover since the early 2000s, with bands playing similar styles and expressing similar degrees of angst. A few acts have escaped the rut — some by pushing boundaries (The Wonder Years, The Hotelier), others with simply stellar songwriting (Fireworks, State Champs). But for every act looking to stand out, there’s a Neck Deep wannabe lurking in the shadows. As Knuckle Puck continues to grow, the question is where they fit in — or, rather, how they stand out.
In recent years, the Chicago suburbanites have turned heads their way, with 2015’s Copacetic a big reason for that. The record brought a glistening heaviness to pop-punk not seen since The Story So Far’s Under Soil and Dirt, with bright choruses poking out in front of chunky power chords and pulsating melodies. At the same time, though, it’s also brought the follow-up, Shapeshifter, an unfair amount of hype.
It’s not to say the band doesn’t live up to it. The first single, “Gone,” sent expectations through the roof. With nods to The Starting Line, as well as melodic and choral touches that build upon the energy of Copacetic, the anticipation certainly settled in. But, at 10 minutes shorter than its predecessor and full of both hits and misses, album two doesn’t quite size up to album one. This may also be in part because the band scrapped their original recordings to make new songs from scratch. Whether or not it had them scrambling, they eventually decided to return to producer Seth Henderson. The result is a focus more on refinement than refreshment.
This record’s biggest downfall isn’t that it tries too hard to recreate Copacetic; rather, it’s that it doesn’t do enough to live up to it. What it does do is bring a large amount of both bounce and shimmer, and that still manages to accomplish a lot. Naturally, the abrasive and pummeling feel of their debut comes back in full swing, with the guitar-driven “Double Helix” painting a more accurate depiction of Shapeshifter’s identity than the more textural “Gone”. Still, embodying its name, the track fits snugly around its tender foil as the album’s other main standout.
Other heavy tracks don’t quite hit the mark. “Twist” and “Stuck in Our Ways” flaunt high energy, but leave more substance to be desired. There’s also the hardcore-tinged “Everyone Lies to Me”, featuring a chorus that gleans and verses that get lost in an gawky sea of “yeahs” and high-pitched screeches. The band hits gold when they go mid-tempo, though, and they go in such a direction more so than before. With haunting melodies and melancholic lyrics in the vein of Jimmy Eat World, “Want Me Around” is a superb cut; following it, “Conduit” and “Wait” charm with succulent instrumentation and emotional appeal.
Despite its name, Shapeshifter doesn’t find Knuckle Puck changing form. Rather, on their sophomore release, the pop-punk players continue to work on their current sound, and they don’t leave much room for mistakes. While the resulting LP isn’t the heavyweight Copacetic was, it still has its moments — a surprisingly large amount in their melodic leanings. Shapeshifter may not define the pop-punk genre, but it still provides a hearty boost in a time when that’s more than appreciated.
Pop-Punk | Rise Records