There was a brief window of time when record executives thought they could achieve instant nirvana by unearthing, well, instant Nirvana — and bands in burgs big and small sought to position themselves under just enough of a grunge layer to at least give off a Seattle aroma. To be fair, this Lawrence, Kansas quartet developed its angst-ridden proto-metal sound far enough in advance of Nevermind‘s arrival (and far enough removed from hipster ground zero to walk around sporting old-fashioned beards instead of de rigueur goatees) that they can’t really be called cash-in artists. Unfortunately, from the titanic triteness that permeates their records, they can’t exactly be called trailblazers, either.
Paw’s debut gives a wide berth to vocalist Mark Hennessy’s raw-rubbed rasp, an instrument that proves most effective in putting across the high plains drift of squalid tales like “Gasoline” and “Pansy.” His credibility as a backwoodsman isn’t all that high — unless you view the University of Kansas as being on a par with Leavenworth in terms of its hardening quality. Much of the quartet’s sonic heft emanates from the formidable drum-pounding of Peter Fitch, whose brother Grant hammers out echo-drenched guitar riffs that revisit a limited number of arena-rock clichés with alarming frequency.
Death to Traitors curbs the metallic agitation to a large degree: that’s both its greatest strength and biggest failing. With the intensity turned down a notch, Hennessy has more room to maneuver vocally, which endows “Hope I Die Tonight” with a good deal of passion. In the process, however, Paw surrenders the anthemic attributes that helped mask the emptiness beneath the cavernous shells of their songs — proof that bigger isn’t always better.