Artist: Hands Off Gretel
Album: Burn The Beauty Queen
Our Verdict: 8/10
Release date: 16th September
Find it at: Handsoffgretel.co.uk
Review by: Graeme Blackwell
The raging fire of 90’s Riot Grrrl alt-rock returns with a vengeance
Hands Off Gretel’s “World Against She” points directly to the febrile tension at the heart of the band’s explosive debut album, Burn The Beauty Queen. It perfectly illustrates the meticulous and intricate nature of this ferocious set of songs and the way in which it navigates its way through a complex web of human emotion, juxtaposing self-aware strength and total confidence with the weight of the opinion and expectation of others.
“According to these people // That are spying through my pupil // I am never gonna get shit right! // But I know I’m right!… // According to these people // I am worse than every evil // And just maybe I believe they’re right! // But I know I’m right!”
In that tension is an insightful mix of self-knowledge and self-doubt that runs not only through Burn The Beauty Queen’s music and lyrics, but every aspect of Hands Off Gretel’s hugely compelling aesthetic. Drawing heavily upon the influence of the grunge and Riot Grrrl scenes of the 80’s and 90’s, every part of the band’s art takes established and limiting perceptions of the self – often imposed and reinforced by outside influences – and turns them squarely on their head.
The album title that challenges contemporary notions of beauty; the fierce DIY way Hands Off Gretel conduct their business; the painstakingly hand-drawn album and poster art; the stage-wear adopted by frontwoman and creative powerhouse Lauren Tate that points to the tilted darkness at the heart of the fairy-tale dream; Burn The Beauty Queen wants to overturn and upend every lazy and accepted stereotype you’ve ever been boxed in by, and every lie you’ve ever had forced upon you as the truth.
Hands Off Gretel’s journey began in earnest with the songs featured on their EP My Size. Having discovered the likes of L7, Bikini Kill, The Distillers and Hole, and developed her commanding, gravel-toned singing voice through cover versions of her favourite songs, Tate ultimately recorded a solo collection of original material, Reflections, building a band around it in the process. That band developed into Hands Off Gretel and 4 tracks of self-penned, grunge-inflected punk rock that dealt with themes of personal identity, confusion, desire and the letting go of fear.
Photo: Kimberly Bayliss
Months of touring, rehearsing, writing and a line-up change later, Burn The Beauty Queen picks up these threads and develops them into something bewitching and substantial. It is an album that has a brash and energetic immediacy about it, but reveals its careful craft and detail over time and with repeated listens. For every snarling, mid-tempo rager such as the blunt but magnificent “Oh Shit”, there is an equally impressive “Under The Bed”, its rising and falling chord progression bonded to arresting guitar lines that snake their way through the arrangement and take you by stealth and surprise.
Indeed sonically, Burn The Beauty Queen hits that sweet spot that saw grunge dominate the mainstream for much of the 90s. Angry enough to please the punk crowd; heavy enough to catch the ear of the metal cognoscenti; melodic enough that discerning pop fans will sit up and take note. The album never once tries to be all things to all people, but nevertheless has a real cross-over appeal.
It’s a notion borne out by the likes of “Teethin'”, its insistent guitar motif a memorable hook that drives the song to an explosive finale, crowned by an exemplary vocal performance from Tate. And there’s that thrilling underlying juxtaposition again, this time presenting a singular and knowing drive to get what you want in the context of the imagery of a teething child: “I don’t get what I want // And I will not let go // I’ll scream and I’ll scream till it’s mine // And I’m a teethin’ girl // I control my world // I don’t get what I want and I’ll cry.”
“Awfully Miserable” tackles self-sabotaging malaise head-on in visceral terms: “I have this voice under the bed // That says I’m meant for more // Although I do believe // I breakdown to the floor // And bash my brains out // I’m so bored.” The song plays out like the nihilistic cousin of the aforementioned “Under The Bed”, a track which sees its narrator tantalisingly close to something resembling emotional release: “My hands are held // My eyes they roll // And standing right beside the door // The light, the light, the light.”
Those of a cynical disposition might point to the similarities between Hands Off Gretel’s material and that of Tate’s musical heroes such as Courtney Love or Brody Dalle and cry foul. But that would be to miss the point. Hands Off Gretel wear their influences proudly on their sleeve and make no bones about the tradition in which they work. The themes and complexities in their music speak to an audience in the way that the best art always does, allowing for authentic connection, identification and a sense of not being alone, hopefully acting as an agent of change through the empowerment of that same audience. The fact that Hands Off Gretel’s music works so well speaks volumes about their hard work, talent, passion and will to succeed.
If you thought that the kind of grunge-laden alt-rock that drove the 90’s Riot Grrrl scene was long since dead, think again. It transpires that it was only dormant, awaiting a worthy successor to the crown.