Aaron Brunto, better known by his moniker Awolnation, impressed on previous records with candid vocal delivery and horse-like stamina, cooking up emo-saturated pop that is as innocently forward as it is uninventive. This wasn’t a bad thing—working within a barren rock landscape, plagued with pop-posers like Fall Out Boy and Imagine Dragons guilty of inspiring a watered-down rock-electronica hybrid, Brunto at least brought his vaguely alt/indie style a safe distance from the music that inspired him, gleefully basking in what amounted to radio jingles with angst-filled nursery rhymes.
Unfortunately, Brunto seems to have run into a wall with Here Come the Runts, on which he conforms to some trending alt-rock stereotypes that ambivalently muddle whatever last ounce of passion was perhaps still present in his music. It’s ironic, considering the second track is literally titled “Passion,” on which Brunto whines the word over a grating drum and guitar pattern that never seems to go anywhere, banging into the ear with incessant and monotone ecstaticism. Brunto’s attempt at a hype-man bravado just showcases the try-hard state of rock-music that is all aesthetic and no content—where references to the bare imprints of a classically bad boy attitude, exhausted of its rebellious significance, settles into the stale impression of what previous acts did much better.
The inert repetition of “passion” continues into the third track, “Sound Witness System,” which employs a white-boy rap verse one could easily imagine on the recent Macklemore record. Bordering on elementary school-rhyme schemes—and definitely not in the cool way that Rakkim did it in the ’80s—one feels a tangible cringe emanating from the terrible GarageBand-tier computer-produced instrumental. Some of the worst lines on the album are present in this first verse, where Brunto nasally compares his jock to “militia troops” and coos, “She wants to add a friend and I’m a gifted mathematician.”
“Miracle Man” is perhaps the biggest offender of Awolnation’s tendency to repeat irritatingly hurried and monotonous choruses. Brunto’s stutter affirms the epileptic party anthem that’s extended to a dizzying duration as an electric guitar mimicking the fuzzy awfulness of a Nine Inch Nails synth grates over the headache-inducing drum pattern. “Jealous Buffoon” falls into a similar problem, trapping the listener in a series of guitar edges that never expand beyond their irksome base melody. Terrible clichés like “cruisin’ your body” and “You can tell that I’m the only elephant in the room” help paint a strange and contradictory picture. Does the narrator feel emasculated by his attraction to the person in question? Does he say he’s “jealous” of her because of some physical inadequacy? While repeating these quirky and parodically simple catch-phrases to oblivion worked well with ’80s bands like Devo, from which Awolnation has probably taken influence, the product here is rather lackluster and inspires nothing we haven’t heard already.
Further evidence of Brunto’s inability to handle the character of a slick and stealthy romantic hero is “Seven Sticks of Dynamite,” where a slowly paced guitar-slap like something from a Bon Jovi record mimics the airy desert environment of cowboy westerns. In his obnoxiously thin voice, Brunto coos some odd, saloon-styled advances that come off as desperate rather than enticing. As in many other cases, he switches from this innocuous presentation to a strained and angst-filled howling, which worked terrifically on previous singles like “Sail.” Here the effort is in vain, now that the lyrical content’s inspiration has drastically dwindled. Brunto’s exclamatory “C’mon!”—shouted toward the end of the record—feels pathetically informed by what one would stereotypically expect of a rockstar—perhaps of a “Cowboy Wanted Dead or Alive”. The final vocal segment even sounds like a parody of Zack de la Rocha on “Killing In The Name Of,” as Brunto’s slurred and spit-filled screaming slathers the track in a palatable edginess.
Despite the issues with Awolnation’s emasculated musical performance and unavailable lyrical content, the record maintains a undeniable consistency. Repeated motifs carry through tracks that are adjacent to one another, as picayune instrumental quirks and variations reappear at sporadic moments that tie together the band’s overall sonic vision. A few standouts that would pass for decent alt-radio listening include “Molasses” and “Table For One,” the latter of which achieves a satisfactory combination of melancholic and pop-friendly tonalities. A frail vocal performance pronounces the instrumental’s sterile gleefulness. We get a sense of wistful wondering as opposed to chauvinistic insecurity.
It is probably fitting that the ending lines of the record are Brunto screaming “I want to get off!” in the context of a speeding train that is a metaphor for his relationship. But the sentiment is equally valid for the audience’s listening experience, after enduring some obnoxious and tastelessly trite cross mix between rock, EDM, and whatever combination of indie-aesthetics is, at the moment, popular. Tiny blips and musical quirks do occasionally surface, recalling the impressive lack of boundaries that animated Awolnation’s previous output. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between the tiresomely uninteresting barrage of thinly-written and poorly mixed pop anthems that reach for animation but achieve only a headache.
Featured Image by Red Bull Records