HVALROSS – Running The Gauntlet EP

The debut album from Dutch rockers Hvalross introduced listeners to a band with a very distinctive sound. Released in 2020, ‘Cold Dark Rain’ wasn’t afraid to mix styles. Tunes like ‘Finally Repent’ and ‘I Shot My Best Friend’ blended old style melodic rock with light alternative rock tones and semi-bluesy sounds, and the band’s huge approach to backing vocals occasionally hinted at a love of ‘Dog Eat Dog’ era Warrant. ‘As I Am’ leant further towards a prog metal-post grunge hybrid with its contrasting muted riffs and huge blankets of sound, and ‘Death From Above’ showed how Hvalross could weave stoner-ish tones within their riffs and still convey a huge hard rock melody. They didn’t always get it right; the huge, wailing vocal cutting through the middle of ‘The Owl’ proved to be a massive distraction from some potentially enjoyable music, but few records are perfect.

The album was followed by three digital singles in 2023, each of which continued to show off a band with a solid set of talents. For those who missed them, those tracks were compiled as the ‘Running The Gauntlet’ EP at the beginning of 2024, providing an easy way to catch up.

Just as the previous album suggested Hvalross were capable of mixing things up, these tracks also explore different aspects of hard rock with varied results. Unexpectedly, the title cut kicks off with a high octane guitar riff where the shredding edge is a direct callback to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and bands like Tygers of Pan Tang. As you might expect, guitarist Barry Veeke absolutely nails this approach, and during the latter part of the track, the way he underscores a world of raucous gang vocals with a solid, speed driven sound that further shares his love of old 80s metal in a way the previous album never really suggested. Gerben ver Oosterhaut’s vocals, too, rise to the occasion with a higher pitch and some very well judged screams, but he also demonstrates a great ability in holding a great melody when required. The bulk of the number falls between melodic hard rock and classic metal, which is a very natural musical space for Hvalross. Of particular interest is how the band contrast the sharp edges with a strong dual vocal throughout, but in many ways, its the chorus that makes the track with its melodic core contrasting a shouted hook. With a darker middle eight pushing bassist Maarten Vermeulen to the fore, it feels like a hugely varied number, despite clocking in at under four minutes.

The more complex ‘Mercenary Knight’ opens with a quieter, almost folk-like melody from the guitar and, by doing so, it recalls quiet intros by thrash bands of the 80s and 90s. Joined by a dark, crooning vocal, it shows how effortlessly Hvalross add atmosphere to their hard rock. Breaking into a rockier groove, the overall sound here is so much in contrast to ‘Running The Gauntlet’, you could be forgiven for thinking it was the work of different band. It’s just as good in its own way, however. The main riff recalls the hard rock of the debut, allowing Barry to explore more of a classic tone, and Gerben’s retreat back into the vocal style that filled most of the prior album makes this further feel like a natural successor from their earlier work. Their contributions are solid enough, but it’s the rhythm section that are the driving force here. Drummer Marc van Gastel holds down a solid groove throughout, and Maarten fills a lot of space with a very warm tone. It’s something of a slow burning track, but those looking for bigger guitar riffs eventually get their wish somewhere around the mid point, when the main melody grows into something much broader, allowing the classic rock edges to meld with light post-grunge influences. This shows off the whole band finally pulling in the same direction, and with the addition of a bigger vocal, the once simmering melody transitions into something that sounds a little more immediate. As part of this release, it might not seem as impressive as ‘Running The Gauntlet’, but played in tandem with the debut, it sounds like a definite improvement, musically speaking.

‘Helios’ falls somewhere between the two styles, sharing a hard driving riff that occasionally sounds like the backdrop from a Jan Cyrka instrumental interspersed with vaguely post-grunge sounding moments. The busy style suits Hvalross, in that it gives Marc plenty of scope for a crashy rhythm, but also has vague leanings to a prog-metal sound. This allows Maarten to embroider the main chug with some very busy bass fills, and the push and pull between the two musicians creates a suitably rocky backdrop for a sizeable vocal. As with a couple of tunes from the debut, Gerben resorts to overusing long notes that don’t entirely suit the job in hand, but if you can overlook those, there’s plenty of great music here, and it’s hard to find fault with any of the guitar work. Musically, Hvalross display plenty of oomph throughout this number, and the more complex arrangement highlights a band taking great strides in terms of all round confidence.

Individually, the three singles showed further promise, but played together, they show how Hvalross are in possession of some very solid musical ideas and aren’t afraid of variety. As with the previous album, these tracks aren’t always perfect, but the good often outweighs the bad, and should give fans of classic sounding melodic metal plenty to enjoy. It’s worth grabbing this for the 80s metal-tastic title cut, but the many layers that make up ‘Helios’ and ‘Mercenary Knight’ will also bring plenty of entertainment value over time. If it weren’t clear before, this release marks out this Dutch band as having a massive amount of promise.

January 2024