Among all the heavy rock acts to have come and gone in the last decade, among those I’ve been sorriest to see go were the Los Angeles quartet Gypsyhawk. Their 2012 sophomore album Revelry and Resilience, influenced in equal parts by Thin Lizzy and Motörhead, has become my go-to record to play on indefinite repeat during long car journeys, with its stout low-end rhythms easily undercutting the whine of the engine, and its surprisingly articulate and playful lyrics (I will never not love the couplet “should you chance to land a glance/you’ll fall subject to her demands”) engrossing to sing along to.
The bad news is that Gypsyhawk split up for good in 2015, their proposed third album Fortune and Favor seemingly never to be released. The good news is that frontman Eric Harris, having relocated from LA to the comparatively small-town environs of Ventura, CA, has had the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and begin anew with a new roster of bandmates under the name of Gygax, who have wasted no time in getting their debut album Critical Hits to press. And if you recognise a theme to the naming scheme they’ve used thus far, there’s a good chance you’re on the right wavelength to enjoy it.
While Gypsyhawk’s DNA is plainly visible in Gygax’s songwriting, they branch out sufficiently to distinguish themselves as a different entity. Where the original band divided their lyrical subject matter evenly between accounts of fast-living sex, drugs & rock n’ roll and unabashedly nerdy tributes to George R.R. Martin and the like, Gygax put all of their eggs firmly in the latter basket. Correspondingly, the music feels rather less frantic, skewing more towards cheerful and languid in tracks like “World Breaker” or “The Hunter’s Heart” compared to the coke-addled frenzy of previous songs like “Overloaded” or “State Lines.” The vibes are similar to those found in acts like Spiritual Beggars or Grand Magus with a stoic, easygoing attitude towards heavy metal, melodies and hooks being allowed to blossom at a leisurely pace.
The songs are undemanding and familiar, but by the same token they’re consistently robust and satisfying, every riff slotting into the sweet spot in the brain where their expression of energy feels comfortable and relaxing. Guitarist Bryant grooves and weaves with an effortless intuition for the texture of classic ‘70s hard rock, and the sultry, bluesy guitar solos glide elegantly over the mid-paced rhythms. Harris has reigned in the affected croak he put on in Gypsyhawk, but retains a coarse, tactile edge to his melodic, baritone vocal performance. Any fears I might have had of a band named “Gygax” descending into tacky Gloryhammer-esque kitsch were swiftly allayed – some moments like the finger-picked acoustic guitar bookends on “Demons” even sound honest-to-God classy. Gygax are the right kind of retro – the kind whose incorporation of classic influences confers a sense of no-additives wholesomeness, of tried-and-tested validity to the songwriting, without being cripplingly indebted to specific influences.
Critical Hits is not, nor does it particularly attempt to be, a major release – it functions more as an amusing trifle that neither requires nor especially wants a great deal of thought or scrutiny from its listeners. This is not to say that it ought to be undervalued – much like the Gypsyhawk records before it, it’s a terrific road album, a means of making the miles between fuel stops seem to shrink. It will make a fine stablemate alongside Revelry and Resilience in my car stereo.
01) Lesser Magick
02) World Breaker
03) Draw Breath
04) The Rope of Shadow
05) Dirge for a Deposed Duke
06) Chain Lightning
09) The Hunter’s Heart