Male Bonding are very talented. I don’t really know how else to put it. Their music is immediately arresting – upbeat punk tracks that surge forward with an unhinged grittiness but in no way forfeit the blatant pop structure and influence that steadily guides each one. Last year’s Nothing Hurts undercut all of that with just the right amount of jittery excitement you’d expect from a debut. In under thirty minutes Nothing Hurts threw precision punches and hardly ever took a moment to step back and admire the toothless grins of its willing victims because it was already onto the next song. The London trio’s follow-up, Endless Now, sounds like both an apt successor as well as something completely out of the blue. The tunes remain as excellent and enjoyable as ever, but immediately it’s clear things have changed.
Leading up to the release of Endless Now Male Bonding said they were looking to shake the lo-fi label of Nothing Hurts; and to do so they hunkered down in Dreamland Studios, a converted church in Woodstock, New York, with studio vet John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, among many, many others). Compared to Nothing Hurts, Endless Now sounds like the band spent the past year vigorously scrubbing away all the grit and grime and then decided to dowse the masters in Clorox just to make sure. Hyperbolic? Yeah – it’s not like Male Bonding are no longer sound like a punk band. But still, though the rubbery bass line of “Tame The Sun,” which kicks off Endless Now, is quick and crackles just enough, when the rest of the band bursts in the pace seems to slow the slightest bit, the drums steady and almost cautious, the space between each strum of the guitar greater. At first it sounds sloppy and dull. At first all I could think was: ‘Damnit, this is gonna be a serious bummer.’
But what Male Bonding sacrifice in frenzied inhibition and garage aesthetics, they make up for in confidence and clear cohesion. Here the vocals and harmonies are pushed forward so that they waft calmly, sweetly, over the ruckus underneath; John Arthur Webb’s scuzzy guitar is given the room it deserves to breathe; and perhaps best of all, the superb drumming of Robin Silas Christian has been unleashed – there are few things more satisfying on this record than the myriad metallic pops of Christian’s snare rolls, especially those that build from mush to single distinct cracks.
From the wailing guitar licks that pierce through “Tame The Sun” to the rumbling bass and tom-toms during the verse of “Mysteries” that sporadically give way to quick guitar skronks before bursting into one of the record’s biggest choruses, it’s hard not to get lost in Endless Now. The epic first single “Bones” swirls restlessly for over six-minutes, and though it’s far from the record’s most exhilarating track, the mesmerizing, reverb-soaked haze and, again, those distant, swooning vocals wash over you and undoubtedly set the tone for the rest of the record. Even at its most vigorous, like hook-riddled highlights “What’s That Scene?” and “Channeling Your Fears” there’s this ennui that holds steady throughout Endless Now, whether its the band descending into a dissonant, minimal bridge, or the generally slower pace (again, compared specifically to Nothing Hurts), or simply the fact that you can only pick out about half the lyrics while you convince yourself that you totally understand the rest. It can be frustrating at times, almost as if you feel like you could will the band to make this line clearer here or turn up the distortion a bit more there.
But then you get the pure pop-punk gold of “Dig You,” which ends in a vamp of detached joy: The lyrical hook – “Know that it won’t go / Know that it won’t go” – sung over and over complete with harmonized guitar licks and freaking hand claps, until finally the song comes to its logical conclusion, that incomplete phrase landing solidly, expectantly, wonderfully, “Know that it won’t goooo awayyyy.” And, of course, it’s these moments of pop clarity that truly make Male Bonding a unique band, but also put them in a peculiar position with Endless Now. As wonderful as this record is, there are points where you can’t help but feel it’s missing something, that it might just be the slightest bit better if it had the anxious tumult of their first record. But to want that is to want Male Bonding to not progress as a band, to not push themselves further. So think of Endless Now as a sturdy yet slightly uncertain move forward, but a step in the right direction nonetheless.