Narrow Head are on a mission to fill a void left by today’s lack of hard-hitting guitar-centric music. Motivated by guitarist/vocalist Jacob Duarte’s belief that “nobody has riffs anymore,” the Dallas band’s second full-length release, 12th House Rock, is a no-nonsense, 52-minute crash course in head-banging.
12th House Rock finds the group moving away from the more shoegaze elements they explored on their 2016 debut Satisfaction, swapping out the reverb-soaked chords and affected vocals for crunchy distortion, faster tempos, and a clearer style of singing. The influence of 90s alternative music is in full force and all-encompassing, allowing the album to feel instantly familiar, but still exciting. Songs like lead single “Night Tryst”, with its rolling heavy bass groove and breakneck beat, would sound right at home on Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, while tracks like “Stuttering Stanley” that layer in cleaner guitars with Duarte’s sometimes nasally punk vocals channel Mineral’s The Power of Failing.
The pivot to a more focused, straightforward sound creates more space for Duarte’s lyrics, which touch on heavy themes such as self-deprecation, addiction, and isolation. On “Hard to Swallow”, the guitars are broken up with shrill harmonics and pick rakes, matching the heavy machine-press beat as Duarte sings “crush it up and see”, before he desperately pleads with himself, screaming “cut it out!” during the chorus. The pulverizing and frantic “Crankcase” acts a cynical, blaring alarm clock as Duarte recalls going days without sleep, building to the point of bursting with scorching, panicked guitar solo that screeches to a halt. “Nodding Off” comes off as the crash that follows such a bender, a hypnotically heavy lullaby carried by guitar that impressively sounds shimmering and muddy at the same time.
On the majority of the songs on 12th House Rock, the band demonstrates a tightness and a singleness of purpose that allows the music to match the mood of what seem to be intimately personal lyrics. Narrow Head make you feel like you are sitting in a room with them as they bulldoze their way through the tracklist.
That feeling is temporarily disrupted with “Delano Door”, which features vocalist Erica Miller of Big Bite/Casual Hex on lead vocals for the verses. Clocking in at over six minutes, the plodding bass serves as a nest for Miller’s atonal delivery of bad high school poetry that can’t quite be redeemed by Duarte’s choruses. Perhaps this would have worked as a standalone collaboration, it simply disrupts the personal nature created by the rest of the record, especially because it follows “Wastrel”, the most intimate track on the record that features only Duarte and a sparsely-picked acoustic guitar.
At the end of the day, 12th House Rock hits nearly all of the marks that Narrow Head set out to knock down. It’s a bold move to completely move away from a sound that brought them an audience in the first place, and it could definitely be a jarring experience for fans who thought they would continue to carry the torch for shoegazers into the future. However, the progression definitely pays off, and 12th House Rock is a kick-ass record that channels the spirit of hard-rock greats of the 90s and shows reverence for the eternal power of the riff.