Even though Crooked Hills lead singer Brett Putz is a noted professional wrestling fan, the jury’s out on if he would approve of the following conclusion: Every song on Crooked Hills’ self-titled debut full-length could very easily — very easily — stand in as a theme song for a professional wrestler.
It’s all there: The riff-tastic crunchy guitars. The precise, double-kick-heavy drums. The unapologetically chugging bass. The intensely snarling vocals. There’s even a moment during “Army Of Phantoms” when Putz growls after an impressively long tom-tom roll, “Burn it down!” Which, of course, also serves as the tag line and title of the theme song for WWE star Seth Rollins. The parallels are too obvious not to note.
But even if you don’t know what a Hell In A Cell is — or, for that matter, if you do, but shrug it off as mindless, irrelevant, idiotic entertainment made for only the lowest of lowbrows — there’s one thing that’s undeniable about this collection of songs: It might just be the best front-to-back hard-rock record to come out of Frederick in 2018. The production is uniquely pristine, the performances are top-shelf and the writing is compelling enough to ensure that these guys don’t fall into a pattern so often abused in this genre, which is the pattern of repetition. Each song is different. Each song is special.
The heavyweight champion of the operation is drummer Marcus Collins, who makes a strong case for best stick-man in town with his performances. There isn’t a song on which he doesn’t shine remarkably bright, his fills flawless, his tempos in check, his imagination present, his chops sharpened. In a band like this — one that straddles the lines that separate metal, hardcore and rock — you need a demonstrative drummer to succeed, and without Collins’ myriad of abilities, it’s hard to imagine Crooked Hills being as triumphant as they are.
That’s to say nothing of the other players here, who also deserve honors for their exceptional offerings. If Collins is holding the title, Putz is right on his heels with his commitment to both the sound and the message. “Loveable Losers,” driven by a 10-ton bass line, is perhaps the best example of the latter, as he demands, “Love your life/love your people/love the process/it’s all we were put on this earth for.” On top of a racing double-kick drum and intense guitars filling out the scene, it’s a dichotomy at which it’s impossible not to smile.
Ditto for opener “Nightmare Synonyms,” which smartly comes out of the gate with a message that turns heads with surprise and intrigue as the narrator confronts a dealer who’s “been giving me the wrong drugs/when all I need is love.” With such a hostile undertone in tact, it’s fun (if not somewhat inspiring) to hear positively optimistic memos being circulated throughout the Crooked Hills camp. And considering the fervor with which the message is presented, you have to think that these guys won’t stop until that hopeful tenor is fully embraced.
Because if it isn’t, songs like “History Repeater” and “Deeper South” suggest that these are people with whom you may not want to mess. The former, sung fiercely by guitarist Ben Jardeleza, is musically angular in exciting ways, the feel relying less on a groove and more on a statement. When the second act commences and the breakdown begins, a refrain like “Learn from history/Are we doomed to repeat ourselves?” plays more like a threat than a question. “Deeper South,” meanwhile, embodies everything these guys — who describe themselves as “dirty heavy Appalachian hill music” — are. Not only does it swing, but it hits you in the face each time you turn around.
Almost everything else here is equally as memorable. “Shadow In The West Woods” evolves like a horror movie, slowly drawing listeners in with its mid-tempo introduction before exploding with a fury of pounding beats from Collins’s feet. “Last Call” turns on a dime as quickly as it starts and features vocals more snarky than anything else preceding it. Better yet, the song even offers a blend of (gasp!) traditional singing once the hook hits, which proves to be a pleasant surprise. And then “Unnatural Disaster” wraps the whole thing up in an epic fashion that’s fit for stadiums around the world with its through-line of tension that emanates as the verses unfold.
In the end, it all combines for an impeccable listen. Making it more memorable is the mere reality that it’s easy for music like this to grow old quickly — turn on any modern rock radio station today that doesn’t rely on the classics and see how long you last — and yet here, Crooked Hills consistently finds ways to keep things interesting. They know their strengths. They have a formula. And they’ve perfected a sound that’s all their own.
So, they can call it hill music if they want. But “Kings of the ring” might be just a bit more veracious.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***