Review Summary: His Black Teeth trades the names to see if the colors will change, and they do...sometimes.
When The Republic of Wolves first busted onto the indie scene in 2009, their breakthrough came as an accident; songs from their debut EP His Old Branches were mistakenly labelled as demos from Brand New’s then-forthcoming Daisy and eagerly eaten up by ravenous unsuspecting fans. To be fair, the groups’ musical characteristics were uncannily similar, and Mason Maggio’s lyricism was packed with multifaceted metaphor and sensual verbosity akin to Jesse Lacey’s. Though the confusion was a blessing in disguise, one that gave the young band a solid starting direction, The Republic of Wolves have since moved further and further away from the dissonant murky post-hardcore of His Old Branches and Varuna, lately embracing a more polished alternative rock sound infused with clear elements of folk. On His Black Teeth, the group decides to take a trip down memory lane and revisit their earliest material, borrowing the seven tracks from His Old Branches and reshaping their arrangements to match the band's most recent sonic identity. It’s not a grand new addition or a career-defining release for The Republic of Wolves and they know it; this is just a little bonus fun to accompany a re-release of their debut EP.
Even taking that into consideration, the results are frustratingly mixed. Not heeding their own advice, cuts like “Holy Weight,” (the reworked version of “Spill”) show that there’s truly sometimes a tree you cannot cut - or at least one that would be better left standing upright without an axe taken to its branches. “Spill” was a track whose brooding atmosphere sold its performance; when its chorus crashed in with that desperate shout of “you can’t blame anyone for what you’ve done,” the sense of helplessness it set out to convey felt real. It was harrowing. Legitimately menacing even. “Holy Weight” robs its impact though, turning the dread into just another moment that passively flows in one ear and out the other, one that’s so watered down and bland it downgrades His Old Branches’ highlight into the worst song here. Admittedly, “Spill” was borderline incompatible with the band's sonic goal for His Black Teeth to begin with; the long story short is that “Holy Weight” doesn’t work because The Republic of Wolves didn’t do enough to mold the style of their original song to fit the small shape of His Black Teeth's vision. “Fire Light” and “Chasing After My Bones” meet similar fates. Not quite as strong as “A Weather Vane” or “Through Windows,” the two closing tracks on this version of the EP are acceptable songs on their own but disappointing attempts at reinvention.
Thankfully, the other tracks here fare much better. “Between His Black Teeth” discards the lurking unease its counterpart “For His Old Branches” capitalized on, but somehow feels none the worse for it, reinterpreting the original’s dire warning as a retrospective fable that (while not surpassing the original’s quality) is certainly capable of standing on its own two feet. “Awake” adapts the EP’s ghostly introduction with surprising success, swapping “Done Haunting Houses’” formless reverb for grainy lo-fi percussion and folk-oriented guitar plucking. And it’s not as if every offering on His Black Teeth is trapped in His Old Branches’ shadow either; “Slide” and “Monument” reimagine “Cardinals” and “The Clouds” as more tender and intimate, easily the two best tracks on here, and not only that, but shining moments in The Republic of Wolves’ entire catalogue. “Slide” thrives with a completely revised approach featuring stirring strings, sparser percussion, and smoother vocals, while “Monument” opts for bare acoustics and lovely vocal harmonization. Those two tracks single-handedly upgrade His Black Teeth from an average, passable release to one that’s worth hearing even if it’s not going to turn any heads and is still largely a lesser version of His Old Branches.
Despite featuring a couple great moments like those, I can’t help but feel like The Republic of Wolves best hit the nail on the head with their album art this time. Set in a snowy forest that appears calmer than it should, the corpse of a man and a deer lay in the background while their ghosts casually sit around a campfire. Neither the man nor the deer appear particularly enthused with their situation, and understandably so. Why would they be" Since when do ghosts feel heat" The body that was The Republic of Wolves’ aggressive side died out in the years leading up to this release, and while the band’s soul remains, the resuscitation they try to accomplish on this EP only breathed new life into their old ideas half of the time. I understand there were no major stakes in this recording process, but it can’t go unnoticed that on His Black Teeth, the screaming of the wind has been reduced to an inside voice. That’s kind of frustrating, and sometimes the softer tone fits and sometimes it doesn’t, but as long as it’s not a whimper, I’ll carry my hope that in the future The Republic of Wolves won’t just amount to misshapen teeth uprooting themselves.