Citing influences from the likes of Michael Jackson to Madonna, to Prince and Nirvana, lead vocalist and frontman Aaron Bruno’s ever-shifting style throughout his many projects, consistently dropping older ideas in favor of a newer approach when possible, can perhaps best be described as similar behavior to the famous idiom, a ‘moth drawn to the flame’. From punk rock 90s effort, Insurgence, through to alt-rock groups Home Town Hero and Under the Influence of Giants, Bruno’s continual search for a dedicated musical outlet finally grounded itself in 2010, in the form of AWOLNATION.
While Aaron Bruno’s continual experimentation and stylistic shifts has remained evident throughout debut and sophomore AWOLNATION releases, Megalithic Symphony in 2011, and Run in 2015, much of the group’s output has typically pushed aside previous punk/rock influences, in favor of the sounds and style far more akin to an electro-pop, electronic rock production. This being said, historically AWOLNATION’s roster of members is consistently shifting, leaving only Bruno as the central, founding member of the project. Alongside fresh faces Issac Carpenter, Zach Irons and Daniel Saslow in the latest incarnation of the group, and the apparent cacophony of curiosity Bruno’s mindset often yields, it comes as little surprise that 2018 release, Here Come The Runts, should once again completely deviate from the formula of old.
Indeed, following multiple comments from Bruno that the latest AWOLNATION release would feature a markedly decisive shift into newer territory, title and opening track, ‘Here Come The Runts’, immediately establishes the record as a far more organic, acoustically driven effort. With an oddly hollowed percussion opening, ‘Here Come The Runts’ wastes little time to dive into an unusually charming combination of fuzzy bass stabs, encouraging horns, shifting time signatures, and low end galloping guitar riffage, not at all dissimilar to the likes of System of a Down’s Daron Malakian. It’s a strange, eccentric opening track, but happily establishes Aaron Bruno’s prerogative; this isn’t going to be what came before.
If it wasn’t obvious enough, following track and debut single, ‘Passion’, certainly makes it so; casually utilizing more receptive radio rock elements to boost the track’s fun, lively vibe, it’s a relatively straightforward track. What makes things more interesting is the fact that ‘Passion’ is twinned with following hip-hop infused ‘Sound Witness System’, a sudden jarring shift in direction that enters something far more unsettling, ending with Aaron Bruno aggressively growling “a sound witness system, tweaking in your ear. A sound witness system tweaking in your, tweaking in your ear.”
Much of Here Comes The Runts follows a similar formula, entering one genre before immediately changing direction and going for something else entirely; ‘Miracle Man’ playfully leaps into an odd combination of modern alt-rock, mixed with the dance infused backbone and vocal style more akin to 60s disco and soul, while following track ‘Handyman’ immediately disregards this entirely for an acoustic pop-rock approach. Meanwhile, the subsequent ‘Jealous Buffoon’ easily stands as one of the album’s most intriguing tracks; Aaron Bruno’s range on full display, ‘Jealous Buffoon’ sees light pop-rock vocals blended with gorgeous guitar textures, steady rock instrumentation, and some charmingly childish percussion that crops up throughout the track.
And thus, the trend is continued until the end; the album happily skips along, from short and sweet acoustic interlude, ‘A Little Luck and a Couple of Dogs’, through to 70s punk rock-esque ‘Cannonball’. ‘Tall, Tall Tale’ steps into mid-tempo, classic rock territory, crunchy riffs and some of Bruno’s most aggressive vocals of the album on full display, while ‘The Buffoon’ poses just shy of two minutes eerie, strange instrumental, peppered with light synthesizer lines before gradually descending into an ominous pit of nothingness.
Finale ‘Stop That Train’ acts as something of a multi-faceted ending to the journey, initially utilizing fairly run-of-the-mill rock instrumentation, before the time signature abruptly shifts; Aaron Bruno’s delivery morphing into haunting, reverb heavy vocals, beautiful strings enter the fray alongside Zach Irons’ glittering delayed guitar lines. It lasts for very little, however, as once again the track shifts itself into a galloping rock section similar to the title track, drummer Issac Carpenter charging forward with huge blasts alongside Bruno’s desperate roars of “stop that train, I want to get off. Stop that train, I want to get off.”
Stylistically, Here Come The Runts’ wonderfully chaotic assortment of ideas and textures makes for an incredibly captivating, intriguing body of work, the endless experimentation bringing forward some truly magnificent results; highlights ‘Miracle Man’, ‘Jealous Buffoon’ and ‘Stop That Train’ all stand as perfect testaments to the rewards of doing things just a little bit differently. Here Come The Runts’ only true weakness coincides with its greatest strength, on occasion losing momentum in favor of an idea that perhaps doesn’t quite come to fruition. That being said, the album is a gorgeous compilation of material, it’s very inconsistencies being precisely what makes it so captivating, and whatever the future of AWOLNATION may be, describing Here Come The Runts as a ‘magnum opus’ really wouldn’t be straying too far from the truth.