Gel make hardcore for the freaks. That’s a statement of intent, established in the title of the New Jersey band’s 2019 demo and reaffirmed at every sweaty, ecstatic show they’ve played since. Increasingly, over an impressive string of singles and a split with Cold Brats, it’s also become a subgenre of their own making. Gel play a joyously elastic version of hardcore punk that rejects the genre’s tough-guy orthodoxy while retaining its powerful punch. On Only Constant, the band’s 17-minute debut full-length, they lay out their most expansive, iconoclastic vision yet.
Only Constant works so well because it faithfully captures Gel’s energetic live set. They know how to get a room (or a Sonic parking lot) moving and keep it moving, and their recordings rely on that same sense of momentum. On paper, they’re not doing anything revolutionary. A Gel song typically consists of two or three riffs, usually played at a couple of different tempos, with a fat rhythm-section groove underpinning the guitars and vocalist Sami Kaiser unleashing their scorched-earth howl on top of everything. But within that relatively simple formula, Gel have discovered whole universes.
“Honed Blade,” Only Constant’s searing opening track, is one such universe. Its first riff, a chunky little three-chord progression initially played just by guitarist Anthony Webster, emerges out of a brief swell of feedback. Kaiser ad-libs a sardonic “Ha, ha,” which prompts the rest of the band to jump in, with second guitarist Maddi Nave doubling the riff and locking it to a stomping groove. At this point, we’re 12 seconds into the song. For the rest of its 100-second duration, Gel work through a couple of their signature tempo shifts, introducing a second riff that functions more like a variation on the first one and letting Webster rip on a squealing effect that may or may not qualify as a lead. Then it’s over, you wipe the blood from your lip, and “Fortified” kicks in.
Gel maintain the same brisk clip for most of Only Constant’s runtime. They’re on record as being anti-horseshoe: the crowd formation that forces non-moshers to the back and sides while a big empty pit opens in the middle of the room. They want bodies in constant motion, with kids flinging themselves at, onto, and off of the stage. The songs on Only Constant reflect that desire. They’re comfortable dropping into the occasional slower groove, but they elide the kind of ultra-obvious mosh parts that tend to form horseshoes. Even when they do offer a little bit of red meat to the pit, there’s always something texturally interesting going on at the same time—a warped take on a Slayer divebomb, a little power-pop bounce to the chords, or a shuffle drum pattern.
It helps, too, that Kaiser’s vocal style is less drill sergeant and more enthusiastic therapist. They sing about confidence, self-acceptance, and their desire to transcend self-destructive tendencies with a kind of suppliant empathy, urging the listener to make the connections that will draw them in even closer to the music. It’s a far cry from the genre’s stereotypical barking exhortations to “open up this fucking pit.” The most forceful lines come at the end of “Fortified,” when Kaiser roars, “Don’t fucking cower/Stand your ground/Stare right back and be proud.” It’s clear that they’re singing it not only to themself, but to all the other freaks in the room.
The emphasis on community that’s baked into Gel’s premise also yielded Only Constant’s one misstep. “Calling Card” sets a series of fan-submitted voice memos to a simple, echoey guitar line and a skittering drumbeat. The clips tend to be catty and vulgar: “If being assertive makes me a bitch, then I guess I’m a fucking bitch”; “You’re a fucking snake and looking at your face makes me want to throw the fuck up”; etc. “Calling Card” appears midway through the track listing, and it stops the album’s momentum dead in its tracks. Worse, its attempt at inclusiveness comes off as cliquey, suggesting that if you can’t relate to the gossipy gripes of the inner-circle hardcore scene, then the song isn’t for you. Maybe that’s what “hardcore for the freaks” means to some people, but it’s far more persuasive when it sounds like a sweat-choked DIY space being whipped into a euphoric frenzy. Fortunately, the rest of Only Constant understands that.