Eighth Round Knockout
It's hard to escape your past, even harder if you're a musician. There are very few fresh starts, if only because there are old albums to refer to, hazy memories of live performances. New projects are defined in terms of abandoned ones, contrasted and compared even if it isn't warranted. So whether the members of The Mag Seven or 12Lb. Test want to be associated with the bands on their respective résumés or not, it's almost unavoidable. After all, The Mag Seven's lineup has played with Reverend Horton Heat, Ronnie Dawson, and Hagfish, and members of 12Lb. Test have been in Slobberbone, the Baptist Generals, and the Nick Brisco Band, among others. And since both groups don't exactly stray too far from the bands their members used to play in, it makes dodging those comparisons that much more difficult.
The Mag Seven has a tough time of eluding its past on Eighth Round Knockout, mainly because it also has to contend with its present; guitarist Dan Phillips and drummer Scott Brayfield are still playing with another band, Slowride, and bassist Doni Blair's former outfit, Hagfish, continues to put out records and perform occasionally. The disc trades almost exclusively in surf-punk instrumentals that sound as though they could have been backing tracks for any of its members' other bands, making them come off as unfinished at times. Not that it is without its charms; "Sevens" proves that not every song needs a singer, and "A Lullaby for Eden" finds an unexpected soft spot. Still, save for the handful of songs (most notably "Paco's Revenge" and "Peso Party Girls") that appropriate Jim Heath's growling Gretsch guitar licks, there isn't much that can be said about Eighth Round Knockout that can't be said about most instrumental bands: No matter how good it might be, it's too easy to ignore, destined to be heard in the background while you're doing something else.
On its debut, 12Lb. Test doesn't acquit itself much better, sounding so much like singer-guitarist Michael Hill's former band, Slobberbone, that it's hard not to wonder what it would sound like if Brent Best were singing these songs instead of Hill. The bulk of Harm's Way might well have been material Hill wrote for Slobberbone that was rejected and that he took with him when he quit the band a few years ago. If so, you can hear why, as each of the disc's dozen tracks is a watered-down take on the got-real-drunk songs that Best excels at writing, with music that is more Gin Blossoms than Uncle Tupelo. ("Square One" is the best example, but any of the others would do just fine.) If Hill is smart, he'll welcome comparisons to Slobberbone, because otherwise, 12Lb. Test doesn't really do much to deserve being included in such company.