Ghostlimb are that guy you knew in high school who was super smart and naturally athletic; the kind of guy capable of kicking your ass both physically and mentally who went on to play football at Stanford. “Character and cruelty,” Jim Harbaugh called it back when he paced the sidelines in Palo Alto. In that way, Ghostlimb are an uncommon synthesis of two disparate schools of punk: the feral noisecore of Golden Era AmRep as filtered through Greg Giffin’s erudition and ear for hooks.

But these aren’t the “oohs and ahs” of Bad Religion or Naked Raygun. There are no three part harmonies or “whoa-oh-oh” moments in any of Ghostlimb’s previous four albums, and the closest they come on their latest is during “Wall of Books,” where bassist Neal Paul Sharma sings a gruff pop-punk hook over guitarist Justin Smith’s controlled bark. It's a telling track title seeing as Difficult Loves directly references a short story collection from author Italo Calvino (born in Cuba but raised in Italy), giving Ghostlimb the laudable distinction of being the only band on my gym playlist that’s compelled me to consult GoodReads after maxing out on my bench. What’s even more impressive is that I’ve had Ghostlimb’s discography on said playlist for three years, and Difficult Loves fits in seamlessly amongst its predecessors.

It’s not that Ghostlimb rewrite the same song; rather, they’ve developed a style so singular that they can only be themselves. Like a hardcore Bolt Thrower, the evolutions in Ghostlimb’s sound from album to album are nearly imperceptible to someone who hasn’t absorbed their catalog over a playcount in the high triple digits; but that doesn’t mean they aren’t present.

For one, Smith and Co. are more willing to build an entire song around a melody rather than ambush the listener with a hook as they did in their earlier work. It’s a development they started moving towards on 2012’s Confluence, where songs like “Canidae” and “Southeast First” were allowed to see their melodies through to their conclusion, moving towards more cohesive, traditional songwriting in the process. Difficult Loves wastes no time continuing this evolution with opener “A Gobi of Suburbs”’ bouncy central riff, while the aforementioned “Wall of Books” and the title track that follows compose a powerful centerpiece to the album. The former makes good on the “Napalm Death meets Hot Water Music” pull quote bandied about in the band’s press release. The latter slows down in its second half, first to clean guitar then to a piano echoing the same morose notes before the band roars back for the closing seconds.

Difficult Loves is perhaps a misnomer, as this is easily Ghostlimb’s most accessible, consistently hooky album to date. The fury is still there, especially in drummer Alex McLeod’s hyperspeed fills and the occasional surprise blast beats working the band into a grindcore lather on “Brushfire” and “Addressee Relocated to Cemetery.” It’s another addition to the band’s sound they began folding in on Confluence, opting to focus on melody and jump listeners with supercharged BPM on precious few songs rather than vice versa.

It remains to be seen whether they’ll continue to perfect this addition in the future. Right now, Ghostlimb are just trying to be the best Ghostlimb they can be; and on Difficult Loves, that’s pretty damn good. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to approach the bench.

—Greg Majewski



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