Album Review: Former Critics’ ‘Ring of Salt’

Written by Zac Djamoos

If Former Critics’ debut LP Ring of Salt had dropped a decade ago, it would’ve fit in nicely between the likes of Separation and Youth as a touchstone for the new wave of alt-rock bands cropping up and would likely be held up these days as a classic. Nowadays, other bands call back to that kind of dirty, noisy, post-hardcore-leaning indie rock but at the moment, most alternative DIY seems preoccupied with grunge or shoegaze. Ring of Salt is a welcome reprieve from the sounds dominating underground rock these days.

After blazing through the brief proggy instrumental “Have You Ever Heard of a Scrawntch Machine,” Ring of Salt kicks into gear with lead single “Painted Flowers.” Jess Murray twists melodies into gnarled hooks and howls her way through a metalcore bridge as guitars crumble into dust around her. It makes a hell of an impression, equally ferocious and melodic. “Talk Soon” keeps up the energy, tapping into something like what LS Dunes do on their recent full-length. As charismatic as Murray is as a vocalist, her snarls can sometimes get lost underneath walls of distorted guitars; for some, this might detract, but on these heavy songs, it helps to give the record even more bite.

Unfortunately, on tracks like the following “Candy” and the groovy “Thousand Spiders”—which veer closer to pop-rock than post-hardcore—the dirty production that so benefitted the first couple of tracks can be something of a hindrance, as Murray’s hooks can get lost under the rest of the band hammering away. Admittedly, while these two tracks serve as a bit of a break from the onslaught that preceded them, they do well to help inject some variety and show off the band’s range. The latter, in particular, has a slinky, loose feeling that gives it a special place on the album. 

The back half of Ring of Salt, too, departs a bit from the formula laid down by the first few tracks. Murray turns in a powerful, bluesy performance on “Molasses” over a soaring guitar solo, and “Smile and Decay” burns with the intensity of a hardcore punk track, barreling through chanted hooks to a spoken word bridge. The six-minute finale, “Night Terrors,” embraces progressive rock, landing somewhere between Night Verses and The Receiving End of Sirens. A re-recorded version of a track off their last EP, it’s a great example of how far the band’s come since their first EP in 2016; they’ve gotten louder, heavier, more technical, and above all else, more confident. 

It’s the album’s title track that’s the standout, though. It’s likely the closest song of Ring of Salt to the two EPs they’d put out before, a relatively straightforward alt-rock banger dressed in Murray’s ragged bark and a foreboding riff. The gang vocals in the chorus—contra most uses of gang vocals—help lend the song an eerie weight. It’s a perfect bridge from the material on Heavy-Hearted and Sleeper to this album, a more realized version of the sound they cultivated before and a model showcase of Former Critics’ capabilities.

Score: 7

Zac Djamoos is an editor at The Alternative, and his writing has appeared in Merry-Go-Round Magazine, AbsolutePunk, Funeral Sounds, and more.

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