Review Summary: A novel approach, or a novelty act?
A couple of months ago I was watching a documentary about Twisted Sister on Netflix and learned that the band, much like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Queen, Rush, Van Halen, and basically every other band from the “classic rock” era, got their start playing covers at school dances and clubs and made their name as an electrifying live cover band while fine tuning their image and sound. This seems to be a forgotten part of the developmental arc of rock bands for a number of reasons that I’m not going to go into here, but the phenomenon of artists establishing themselves as hot commodities by playing covers is a phenomenon that maybe only still thrives on YouTube. And even when an artist gains viral fame for their covers, it’s pretty rare for them to parlay that success and attention into the realm of original music.
This EP is Brass Against’s attempt to make that jump.
If you’ve never heard of them before, Brass Against (formerly known as “Brass Against The Machine”) are a socio-politically conscious collective that complement the standard guitar+drums rock band setup with a brass section. The somewhat gimmicky approach works because they tend to play songs whose underlying funkiness is accentuated nicely by the brass section. They also have the advantage of being fronted by a vocalist with genuine charisma and range in Sophia Urista. I actually went to their first two live shows ever and their repertoire included a lot of RATM, naturally, plus songs by Tool, Living Colour, Led Zep, and Kendrick Lamar, and despite the fact that they were covering well-worn standards, I was impressed with the energy and freshness they brought to the performance. The band blew up online in mere months and, thanks to a steady stream of viral YouTube videos, started booking international tours and festival slots within a year. They’ve even compiled their covers onto three full-length albums. But how does that translate to writing and recording original music?
“Umbra” is a perfect opener to the EP, beginning as it does with a swelling guitar riff joined by the horns and drums which all drop out before coming back in with a full-throated scream from Urista. It’s terrific stuff, and the rest of the song maintains the energy of the intro with Urista’s screamed chorus hook easily being the most immediate highlight of the record. “Pull the Trigger” is driven by jazzy horn arrangements with the guitar mainly adding cathartic power to the choruses. It’s probably the most impressive song on the album from a compositional and songwriting perspective, but it doesn’t quite have the same raw energy as “Umbra”. The final song on the EP, “Blood on the Other”, is a somewhat disappointing conclusion because, apart from the homage to Kashmir mid-way through the song, tends to dip into post-grunge/nu-metal cliché a tad too much and doesn’t sound as fresh and focused as the previous two songs.
The main battle the band has to fight, as I see it, is against expectations. If you’re used to hearing them cover classics then it would be really hard not to compare their originals to the covers and that’s not a battle that the band can realistically be expected to win. They do, however, put up a fight. The riffs aren’t highly original and draw heavily from the Drop-D oeuvre
of Tool and RATM, but they don’t really dominate the proceedings. Guitarist/bandleader Brad Hammonds is the foundation on which the rest of the band builds, and he wisely doesn’t hog the spotlight. He sticks to basics, locking in nicely with drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell, and providing texture and power, while letting the brass section, and saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas’ arrangements, do the heavy lifting in terms of colour. This is why the first two songs on the EP are the best; they sound fresh because they’re not as guitar-driven as “Blood on the Other”. Against the odds, when the band really clicks they manage to bring a novel spin to an otherwise considerably rehashed sound. Now they just have to figure out how to escape being pigeonholed as a novelty act.
"Pull the Trigger": https://youtu.be/wCyepeE6WHw
 Can you imagine people dancing to Rush though?
 Didn’t Justin Beiber get his start that way? I don’t care enough to cross-check.