Monday, 25 June 2018

Album Review: Never Gonna Die by Pennywise (by Richard Mair)

Taking 2014’s Yesterdays out of the equation due to it containing older songs from the band’s early years and the Zoli led “All Or Nothing”, “Never Gonna Die” is the first new material released by the skate punk veterans with their vocal lynchpin Jim Lindberg in 10 years!

Whilst 2012’s All Or Nothing is more than a curiosity in the band’s back catalogue and many fans liking the slight variation Zoli brings from the past formula, at times it felt like the difference between say the Descendents and All. Given Pennywise’s reluctance to play the songs live following Lindberg’s rejoining of the band, it’s obvious that the band have an enormous amount of pressure on them with the new material; it needs to show they are still relevant, show some growth but ultimately it must feel like a Pennywise album. Thankfully “Never Gonna Die” is not only an excellent addition to their back-catalogue I’d go out on a limb and say it’s possibly their finest release since 1999’s Straight Ahead.

Existing fans will undoubtedly love it. It looks and sounds exactly like a Pennywise album, yet underneath it shows a slight mellowing in the sound and a willingness to play around with more pop-punk elements; making it feel at times like The Offsping’s follow up to their own skate punk masterpiece with it evoking some elements of say “Ixnay on the Hombre” or perhaps more accurately having moments akin to the finest songs from Bad Religion’s Geffen era.

Kicking off with a slow guitar intro that has a sense of foreboding before the crashing drums ratchet up the tempo, title track “Never Gonna Die” kicks things off in typical Pennywise fashion – with driving machine-gun style guitars complemented by Jim’s familiar machine-gun style vocals. It all sounds very Pennywise and is perhaps the safest song on the album for that traditional classic “Pennywise” sound. In fact, I’d argue as an album opener it’s very reminiscent of “Greed” from “Straight Ahead”; instantly you’re on safe ground and the last 10 years of uncertainty with Pennywise wash away with each and every drum roll or anthemic sing-a-long lyric. Acting like a statement of intent, “Never Gonna Die” is somewhat of a rebirth for the band and an excellent way to kick things off; its metal tinged rhythms transporting me right back to the late ’90s in the best way possible!

“American Lies” is a pretty much straight up melodic hardcore song and maybe the most traditional hardcore sounding song on the album with its incessant beat and pace. Whilst it may seem one dimensional it’s still a blast and at 2 minutes in length doesn’t outlive its welcome! It’s clear their disenfranchisement with American politics has been a real catalyst with the band, their most vitriolic and passionate when lambasting Trump or challenging inequality; perhaps this feeling of needing to get these arguments across has helped focus Lindberg so that the songs feel punchy and angry in all the right ways.

The third and fourth songs inject more melody into proceedings. “Keep Moving On” in particular feels like a very early Pennywise song and it’s easy to see why so many people have drawn parallels with this album and one of their career highlights, “About Time”. It’s also one of the songs that reminded me of my favourite Bad Religion songs with the backing vocal “whoa-whoas” providing some depth alongside Lindberg’s snappy vocals. Complete with a nice guitar solo in the mid-section and some excellent drumming, it’s the first real standout. It’s followed by what I’d argue is their poppiest song yet. “Live While You Can” has a chorus many bands would die to write; complete with instantly classic sing-a-long vocals. It’s a proper ear worm and shows that amongst the very familiar sounding songs they are prepared to take a few risks. Again maybe an intentional nod back to “About Time”, the mantra of “I’ve got a time bomb ticking in my head” instantly conjures images of the albums cover. It’s these little touches that make the album stand out. Yes it at times feels nostalgic but also has a freshness to it.

The mid-section sees no let-up in pace; “We Set Fire” is typical of a Pennywise political class divide tune, its chugging guitars driving the main body of the song. Whilst “She Said” has a real feel of the anthem “Alien” to it, perhaps lacking the killer chorus and the anger that make it so iconic; nevertheless it’s again a reminder that this is Pennywise doing what they do best.

“Goodbye Bad Times” is another real traditional Pennywise song albeit one of the slowest on the album, its beat and melody showing a balladry-ness not traditionally associated with them but despite this it feels remarkably familiar as a Pennywise song. Maybe it’s the guitar work, maybe it’s Jim’s vocals, I don’t know. Either way it helps manage the pace of the album well, acting as a fulcrum on which the faster songs bookend it. The song also feels like recognition that the troubles of the last 10 years are over.

This is followed by “Can I Get A Little Hope”; another “true” Pennywise song. It’s another catchy song with a brilliant chorus and feels much like a song you’ve heard Pennywise commit to record many times over the years; much like the following song “Won’t Give Up The Fight”, with the most Pennywise introduction ever. Complete with gang vocals, typical us-against-the-world lyrics and an anti-establishment rhetoric, it’s a true classic and an inevitable fan favourite.

Missteps are few and far between. “Can’t Save You Now” is possibly the weakest song on the album due to its all-round generic-ness. It’s not a bad song by any stretch but doesn’t add to the album and I’d argue it would be a near flawless record without its inclusion. Likewise “All The Ways U Can Die” feels a little forced and possibly the weakest track in terms of lyrics.

The closing two tracks start with “Listen”, another hardcore banger which ups the ante with its dirty sounding guitars and Jim at his preachy best, while final song “Something New” is another socio-political rant. The irony being that this isn’t something new, it’s exactly the type of song Pennywise have built a career on – and a great closer.

“Never Gonna Die” seems a more than apt title for the album; this feels exactly like a Pennywise album should feel. Over recent years, established legendary bands such as The Descendents, Good Riddance, Millencolin and 88 Fingers Louie have released statements demonstrating how relevant they still are. This is no different. Pennywise will always have a place in many punks hearts with their instantly identifiable and iconic sound. They may have had a blip but after 10 long years of an uncertain future they are back with a bang… Never gonna die? Let’s hope so!

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This review was written by Richard Mair.

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