Militarie Gun originally started as a solo side project for Ian Shelton, the drummer and vocalist for the Seattle powerviolence group Regional Justice Center. Across three early EPs, it felt as if Shelton was stuck in a state of perpetual metamorphosis. It was tough-guy-sounding punk songs injected with brief sections of jangly acoustic guitar or gentle harmonics, at times sounding like several insoluble ideas trying to be whisked together.
But increasingly, he had his sights on inverting the formula in pushing pop to the forefront. He got a band together—including guitarist Nick Cogan from Drug Church and drummer Vince Nguyen from Modern Color—that finally does just that on Militarie Gun's debut full-length. Life Under the Gun explodes out of the basement show without abandoning its energy and essence. The noise of their earlier EPs has become rich and lush, their rhythm section tight and crisp. It’s the first time Shelton’s voice is allowed to completely seep through—cracked, damaged, and sweetly heartbreaking.
The epiphany appears to date back to the band’s collaboration with James Goodson’s project Dazy last spring on the song “Pressure Cooker.” It’s an airy pop gem that deftly balances a Stone Roses-style rhythm section, grungy guitar licks, and an anthemic earworm of a chorus punctuated by Shelton’s signature “ooh ooh” grunt. He still wields a primal growl when necessary, but he is even more effective when his voice has some melody to it. Goodson is all over Life Under the Gun as a background singer, subtly lifting Shelton up, whispering in his ear that it’s sometimes OK to smash the off button on the Big Muff pedal.
The evolution is most easily heard in “Big Disappointment,” re-recorded for the full-length after first appearing on the EP All Roads Lead to the Gun II. It charts a similar course: a mid-tempo, chug-filled rock song that employs a bass drum stutter to hammer home Shelton’s frustrations—“Addicted to rage/Can’t get out of the way”—with a brief, spacey interlude before raging to a close. The repeated closing line, “And it stains,” sounds punctuated with a question mark on the EP. Here, Shelton confidently tosses on a couple exclamation points for emphasis, his last word encompassing a second, lower note instead of being shouted flatly. Even the “burned, beaten, bludgeoned brain” that Shelton describes in his staccato yelp glows vividly in the mind’s eye.
There are moments when Life Under the Gun feels a bit too simple for its own good, as if the pendulum swung back too far. Whereas most of the record employs shimmery, dense melodies, “Seizure of Assets,” a lament about the narrator’s car being repossessed, sounds a little stripped for parts. Luckily, detours like this are rather brief and are vastly overshadowed by something like “My Friends Are Having a Hard Time,” the album’s centerpiece, and thesis for the new big beefy Militarie Gun. “I can’t do anything/For anyone, not me” Shelton sings in the chorus alongside Goodson. The song tumbles toward, the harmonies expand, the time signature gets weird, the guitars and bass volley riffs back and forth. Goodson returns to the chorus and Shelton plows forward, singing “I wish I could help,” his fatalism at an all-time high. It’s heart-rending, arresting, a sound and feel that Militarie Gun can finally call their own.
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