UK punks Higher Power made the first great rock album of 2020
As a wise band once said, hardcore will never die, but you will. And it's true; there have been good hardcore bands every year since the genre's conception over 40 years ago. But even if it's always alive, there are still times when the genre is thriving more than others, and now is one of those times. The past few years have seen the underground hardcore bubble starting to burst and spread outside of its usual niche, with bands like Code Orange, Turnstile, and Knocked Loose starting to break into rock's current mainstream, and a handful of other bands poised to make similarly big moves or already starting to. And it's not just that more people are paying attention right now than they were five years ago -- although that's surely part of it. It's also that a lot of these bands are really starting to push the envelope, are taking hardcore to places it hasn't been before on both a creative and a conceptual level, and aren't afraid to make things a little more accessible for people who haven't already cut their teeth on ask-a-punk shows and the Lockin' Out Records catalog. One of those bands is Leeds' Higher Power.
If you're unfamiliar, Higher Power emerged out of the currently-thriving UK hardcore scene (the same scene that birthed Violent Reaction, The Flex, Arms Race, and more), and they followed up a promising run of EPs/demos/etc with their great 2017 debut album Soul Structure, released on the trusty hardcore label Flatspot Records. It offered up '90s New York hardcore and alt-metal worship (think Leeway, Life of Agony, etc) and a suggestion of aspirations beyond hardcore, thanks in part to the hint of Perry Farrell in Higher Power vocalist Jimmy Wizard's voice. It helped earn them a still-growing fanbase and eventually lead to them joining the ranks of the aforementioned Code Orange and Turnstile over at Warner's rock/metal label Roadrunner. Now they're finally following Soul Structure with their sophomore album and Roadrunner debut, 27 Miles Underwater, and it goes all in on the bigger, more melodic sound that its predecessor hinted at. It's an album that's still tied to Higher Power's strong hardcore roots, but also one that -- more than most of the band's peers -- could be a new favorite for anyone who listens to loud rock music, hardcore or punk or metal or alternative rock or otherwise.
On 27 Miles Underwater, Jimmy Wizard doesn't just sound a little like Perry Farrell; Higher Power have jam-packed the album with mountain-sized choruses that give Jane's Addiction a run for their money. They've got soaring, shoegaze-tinged alt-rock hooks that can recall anything from The Smashing Pumpkins to Deftones. They've got a knack for combining chugging hardcore with radio-friendly choruses in a way that recalls early 2000s Roadrunner faves Glassjaw. It feels like the modern-day equivalent of the moment when NYHC-born bands like Gorilla Biscuits offshoot CIV and Youth of Today offshoot Shelter got a taste of major label/MTV success in the '90s and even scored minor hits like "Can't Wait One Minute More" and "Here We Go" (respectively). For an actually modern comparison, 27 Miles Underwater is kinda like if their current labelmates Turnstile made a record where every song was like "Moon" or the second half of "Generator," or if Title Fight had given in to their alt-rock desires without going full shoegaze.
To help them achieve their alt-rock dreams, Higher Power tapped veteran producer Gil Norton, a lifer whose credits like Pixies' Doolittle, Foo Fighters' The Colour and the Shape, The Distillers' Coral Fang, and Jimmy Eat World's Futures make him an undeniably perfect match for this album, and Gil's touch clearly helps elevate Higher Power from the rawer sounds of their earlier work to a gargantuan-sounding rock band. But also part of what makes 27 Miles Underwater special is that it's not just a clean pivot to alternative rock. It retains all the grit and energy of their earlier work, and it finds Higher Power fusing their newfound knack for singalong choruses with the kinds of chugs and grooves that you just don't hear outside of hardcore. For all the very warranted Jane's Addiction and Smashing Pumpkins comparisons on 27 Miles, you'd still never hear those bands offering up something as bludgeoning as the riffage on "Shedding Skin" or as chugging and thrashy as that of "Rewire (101)." And even those songs still explode into choruses as universally approachable and satisfying as the greatest hits of the grunge era, without sounding disconnected from the songs' heavier parts. "Staring At The Sun" has a riff that sounds like "Master of Puppets" and a chorus that sounds like Hum, and Higher Power blend those seemingly disparate things and make them sound... seamless.
Even more impressive than all the album's badassery, though, is Higher Power's ability to pull off a song like "In The Meantime," an acoustic guitar-fueled ballad that is neither a Helmet or Spacehog cover, but sounds like the middle ground between "Jane Says" and "Disarm." It's arguably even harder to do this kind of thing without sounding too limp or too cheesy than it is to churn out heavy riffs, and Higher Power have already mastered it. When done right (as in the cases of "Jane Says" and "Disarm"), this kind of song isn't just "the ballad" but often the band's biggest crossover hit. With the right exposure, I could see it being Higher Power's too.
Higher Power aren't the first band in recent memory to recall the grunge era, but they do it in a way that's just different enough from their peers and recent predecessors that 27 Miles Underwater feels like a worthy addition to the ongoing trend of '90s revivalism. I do wonder if people will say they sound too derivative or dated, if hardcore kids will say they sold out, and if "kids" in general even like this kind of music or just think it sounds like it belongs in their parents' record collection. (Here's your scary reminder that grunge is now as old as, like, "Love Me Do" was in the grunge era.) I'm not a psychic or a teenager so I can't say for sure if this band will get big or if kids will like them, but I think 27 Miles Underwater is good enough to transcend that kind of cynicism. I think it can be the kind of album that brings hungry music fans together with the '90s rock lovers who don't really check out new bands anymore. Higher Power's strong ties to punk make them more fiery and youthful than whatever alt-rock industry plants open Foo Fighters and QOTSA tours, and their ability to really sing and really write melodies gives them an edge over the dime-a-dozen Weezer-loving punks who already tried and failed at an album like this. I can't know for sure if this record will actually become the grand slam that it sounds like it can be, but either way, kudos to Higher Power for swinging for the fences.
Higher Power's new album is out now on Roadrunner Records. Stream it and watch some videos from it below, and catch Higher Power on tour soon.