Merit Maker – Judgement Calls – Album Review
Fun related fact for ya…the debate over whether or not it’s spelled ‘judgment’ or ‘judgement’ is one of the hottest grammar battles you can have with wordsmiths out there on the internet today…just sayin.’ Technically-speaking, both are considered to be correct…but I’m not even kidding, look it up on Google & you’ll find that particular word has been raging in debate for years & years regarding which version of its spelling is or isn’t correct. Interesting!
Anyhow. Let’s check out what these Philly-based guys were up to back in 2019 when this album first came out…& keep in mind, if ya like what you hear, they’ve actually got a more recent record out there from just last year when they released the Quarantined EP in 2020. Wonder what inspired that title? All kidding aside…I actually think it’s important to note this kinda stuff. Think about the whole scenario on a macro level for a moment and you’ll realize the story of Merit Maker’s burst into the music-scene is going to be similar to many we’re gonna hear about over the next couple years – you spend all that time, you work that hard, you make that record, you put it out in the summer of 2019 with the sun blazing its heat overhead and LIFE IS GREAT! And then about seven months later, right as that momentum has been surging & building to a roiling boil – the entire world shuts down, well-beyond your control. I cannot express just how many bands & artists have already proclaimed the journey ahead to be too much, and straight-up packed it in. Even though I’m not reviewing the latest record by these guys today, I think it says a lot about the strength of the band to have even put out an EP in 2020; and clearly with the fact that we’re revisiting their record prior today here in review, it’s fairly safe to say these guys are somewhat looking for a decisive re-launch here in 2021…which they truly deserve, 100%.
Having grown up in the era that got to witness Punk Rock morph into Skate Punk through records like the Clerks Soundtrack, bands like Seaweed & Superchunk, and then see it later on twist itself even more in the Emo style that would continue to dominate the years to come – what I really liked about Merit Maker’s debut record was that, yeah it seems like these dudes are young for sure – but it also sounds like they know their shit too. No single label on this crew is gonna quite cut it – and their penchant for diving into actual Hardcore sound gives the whole hybrid combo they’re rockin’ with a solid edge and firm chip on the shoulder of Merit Maker that gives them a noticeably aggressive style overall that’ll help them stand out. There’s plenty of room for the guys to grow & evolve still that gets revealed throughout the lineup of cuts on Judgement Calls – but that’s true of just about every debut known to mankind, and like we say around these pages of ours, always a good thing too. If you accomplished it all on that first time out, there’d likely never even be a second; what I really like about this debut is that you can hear this three-piece has a complete lock on the sound they’ve got & make the very most of it.
Where are my notes here…we need to name-check…hmm…hang on…there they are – drummer Alex DiPasquale. They’ve all got their own strengths, but after a whole bunch of listens through this record, to me it sounded like DiPasquale really sits confidently at the center of the core of their music and supplies impressively tight beats as he pound’em out from the throne – you can rely on this guy’s timing for sure, and he’s really been thundering out some spectacular contributions to the songs you’ll find here. A lot of Punk-based music is always gonna have that grip-it & rip-it pace to it – but you’ll genuinely find Alex has been able to find extremely smart ways to help diversify the overall sound & enormity of these songs with a much more innovative approach that’s obviously unafraid of adding in a bit more than most tend to. It’s always been my opinion that when you’ve got a drummer that ain’t just keepin’ the beat for ya, that you’ve probably got yourself a major advantage over the rest of what’s out there rockin’ a similar sound. Listening to Alex throughout Judgement Calls…I have no problem standing by my previous statements on this – this dude really helps these songs explode with consistent energy.
Dig the opening…”Unbroken” starts out the experience like you’re listening on a tin-can boombox from back in the day, letting the sound develop & thicken around them as the first cut begins. They’ve given themselves ninety-seconds here to get things movin’ – it’d be hard to argue this being the centerpiece of the record, but that ain’t the point of its existence here either. It plays like the quick intro it is, getting Merit Maker up to max volume in order to surge forward, which you’ll find that they will, immediately.
While I’ll admit…there wouldn’t have been quite enough in just that first ninety-second cut alone to have put me fully onboard, mind you, it’s not like I felt like Merit Maker set out to make the world’s most essential opening track either; they played what they played over ninety-seconds cleverly, and it works as an intro, full-stop. Having said that, I probably wasn’t even more than fifteen-seconds into “New Way” when I felt like, ‘yep – this is it – this is what I was looking for’ – and Merit Maker began to really establish their sound & vibe in spectacular ways. Can’t say enough about the tone of Joe Venango’s guitars on this track – I love the solo he’s got in the middle of this cut and never did feel like I could get enough of that sweet-sweet searing melody he latches onto there – it’s still a highlight for me when I listen to Judgement Calls, even after multiple tours through this record now. Chorus-wise, this is where you can really dig into what Merit Maker is capable of when it comes the melodic aspect of their overall intensity…it’s like when you hear bands out there Punk-up a song like “Boys Don’t Cry” by The Cure – that’s the kind of brightness you’ll find in the music, and you’ll hear the lyricism add the depth of contrast to make it all more cohesive to the vibes Merit Maker is creating. They can be righteously uplifting when they wanna be, which you’ll hear in the spirit of these words, and especially right in spots like you hear take place just prior to that aforementioned sweet-sweet solo that Venango will lay down.
“Start Again” is a great example of the hybrid blend between the traditional Hardcore approach and more modern-day Punk/Emo vibes fused together. Joe Stanton loads up on the grit & attitude in his voice as he sings through “Start Again,” sounding like he’s gonna be in need of an oxygen tank to refuel his lungs by the time this track is over. And of course, I mean this in the best of ways – I think you get an explosive performance outta the guy that might even be arguably a better fit than he was even on “New Way” just prior. As Judgement Calls begins, you really get a killer dose of this band at maximum strength over songs two & three…the energy is on-high, the music is intensely vibrant, and the hooks are sharp & found both in the ideas of the instrumentation and the vocals you’ll hear. Lots to dig on here – and with “Start Again” being the only track on the record to push itself over the four-minute mark, Merit Maker has given themselves more of an opportunity to add more into this particular cut & put their chops on display. They absolutely crush and nail the chorus of “Start Again” with one of my favorite unified moments from the band all-around in this lineup of their debut – they sound bulletproof in their energy here, and ready to go out and storm the map as they dominate the charts with a cut like this. I’d still be looking at this as a potential single to be passing around online and spreading everywhere they can – “Start Again” reveals the band at their best early on in their career, and gives you all the right reasons to keep following them from here. If you dig your Punk riotously melodic, turn up for this cut.
They do take on an Offspring-esque vibe every once in a while…usually when you notice it, it springs up in the harmonies of the background on tracks like “Aim High” or hooks to a cut like “Self Recrimination” later-on down the line. Outside of those specific spots, Merit Maker lightens this up just a bit to head more towards Blink 182 similarities here on “Aim High.” These dudes do the whole “whoa-oh-oh” thing really well…not sure what the technical term is for that, but they’ve consistently proven that to work for them over this tune and the last one – it might seem like a weird observation, but it’s actually quite an essential ingredient to a lot of Punk-based tunes if you’re familiar with the genre. You can’t pack in a good “whoa-oh” somewhere along the way and you may as well pack up shop and retire. It’s taken me a long time to really figure out the band that Merit Maker seems to remind me of the most overall – but I’ve finally done it & pinned it down – it’s Lit, at least in this cut. Be CAREFUL with the rhyme-scheme there boys…I get it, I get it – quite often that can be a huge hook in music & it’s definitely worth exploring…but when it’s as on the surface like it is here, we tend to notice the choppiness of the structure even more with the punch being added into those final syllables…as in, it rhymes, yes, we get it…but we kinda don’t want to notice it either, you dig? When that’s what we end up hearing most, it can take us outta the rest of the music a bit and have us focusing on that one specific part of the song, as opposed to the whole thang. Really doesn’t have to be any kind of bad thing, it just depends on what kinda band that Merit Maker wants to go on to be – as far as the Alt-Punk vibes go, ultimately they’re on-point here.
So look. I have my moments where I feel like the most room that this band has to evolve is probably still in the vocal-department…not so much in the performances – I think Joe does a great job with the energy he finds on the mic so consistently with how he sings – it’s more-so about the structuring of the melodies…that’s where the most opportunity exists to make a difference. I listen to a track like “Playing The Part” and my first inclination is to feel like the vocal melody patterns itself just a bit too closely to the design of the music…which I’ve felt at other spots along the way right from the start of “Unbroken” on-forward as well. I don’t blame the band – it’s very much a staple approach to the sound and style they’re rocking – I’m just pointing out the potential places where Merit Maker can go on to separate themselves from the pack by bringing more versatility to that aspect in the future if they want to. Ultimately it becomes a tough observation to make; it’s not like I ain’t enjoying myself in listening to “Playing The Part” – I am! Quite a bit actually. I’m willing to acknowledge it’s not a cut that’s gonna recreate the wheel of Punk-Rock, but it’s really well done and lively and has plenty well worth turning up in the mix for ya – but I’d still be putting my bets down on Merit Maker making the biggest strides in their music & evolution happening from the mic over these next years to follow. I mean really though – I’m making one of the most substantial observations I can make about the band overall, right in the middle of a cut I felt like they really got a lot of magic out of, so I’ll shut up & move on – every time I spun my way through the energy of the uplifting chorus on this cut, I felt like it was another highlight.
“Branching Out” is pretty damn savage. It definitely has that aspect in the vocal pattern that I was just talking about with “Playing The Part” as the verses come out – but also much like that last cut, it really seems to be what’s happening in the chorus of these tunes that’s making a huge difference in the final verdict on each of these tunes. Sometimes it’ll be a major hook like you’ll find on “Playing The Part” – sometimes the hook purely becomes the all-out riotous energy they pump out in a no-holds-barred moment like you’ll find when they hit the switch and punch into the intense sound pouring out of every ounce of “Branching Out.” It’s a genuine audible freak-out and it’s freakin’ fantastic as a result – the chorus is one of my favorites on the record as Merit Maker taps into what becomes a raw Mudhoney-like vibe. Tons of beef & amped-up sound to this short less-than two-minute track on Judgement Calls.
The breakdown around the 2:25 spot on “Self Recrimination” was one of my favorite moments on this entire record, including the bring-back it has as it approaches the resurge into the hooks just prior to the three-minute mark. Love the diversity of ”Self Recrimination” – it seems to be a bit more ambitious in its design than much of the lineup with a more versatility to the sound overall – I’d imagine that’ll help with widening the scope of who’s out there listening just that much more, which is good. All-in-all, I’ve got no real substantial complaints at all about this track…in fact, there was many times where I’d spin through “Self Recrimination” and come out feeling like there’s a lot of their blueprint forward to be found here in the details they’ve put into this cut. “Self Recrimination” is arguably more involved than the majority of the lineup when it comes to its DNA – but you can hear the extra effort completely stacks up to a solid win and a more inventive tune that takes you on a plentiful ride of twists & turns. There was band up here in Canada that rocked for a short amount of time with a similar sound to what you’ll find here…they were called Change Of Heart…probably came out about, say, like something in the realm of ten years before their style of music took over from the Grunge era, but if you listen to their record Steelteeth you’ve find a matching live-wire intensity & bold melody like Merit Maker rocks here. But yeah…honestly it’s tracks like this one that reach out even further beyond the borders from their Punk roots that expands their potential & where they can take their audience in the future to follow.
Stanton’s bass-lines have real memorable highlights and stellar parts in the musicianship throughout “Self Recrimination,” and then he’ll take it even further with the spectacular tone on display coming through “Bridge Burner” to follow. Love the powerful stuttered shots that DiPasquale puts in here – the whole song, even though it’s not even two & a half-minutes long, really gets a solid blend of sound & style out of the band here, and kinda finds its way to being right up there with the best in the lineup of this debut somehow, at least in my opinion. The Hardcore aspect of their sound flares up & rages in-full throughout the verses perfectly, the bass-lines pack in the thick awesomeness you’d find in a freakin’ Mogwai tune, and the melodically inclined chorus slips right back into that Change Of Heart comparison I made just a moment ago, which I’m personally loving when I’m listening to Merit Maker’s music here. Musically, this band has some seriously fantastic spots in this tune surrounding the vocals as well where they’re storming & stomping through non-stop intensity and genuinely captivating instrumentation. You get a killer mix of the hardest of their hard stuff, and the wildness of their melodic side as well – I dig it.
These dudes never quit though do they? “Clear Goals” sounds like they’ve just plugged in all over again, as opposed to showing any signs of starting to fade away towards the final tracks of their debut album – still plenty of juice in the tank here. I know that Joe is pushing the threshold of what the masses will accept tone-wise here to the nth degree with his vocals on “Clear Goals” – he’s riding that line like he’s got property built on it and resides there comfortably – but for those out there that dig on real attitude in the vocals of your Punk-based tunes, you’ll assuredly like what he brings to the mic on this track. Lyrically, it’s an inspired track that you’d have to assume somewhat reflects what’s happening in the band itself – “Clear Goals” is all about going out there at full-force, kicking all the ass & everything in between, and getting everything in gear, focused on what can be achieved. “So many clear goals that are now in reach” might not have started out necessarily as an intentionally poignant observation about their career as a band, but it definitely does become that after listening to what they’ve collectively accomplished throughout their debut record. Merit Maker takes no prisoners when it comes time to get the energy moving – I don’t think anyone would dispute they’ve put everything they’ve got into every track you’ll find on Judgement Calls, you can audibly hear the sweat pouring out of the pores of your speakers as they surge through “Clear Goals,” but it’s truly got an equally endearing thread to it as well.
They really do have a great way of playing together…and I’d be leaning on their unified strength as they move forward from here with their music career. You listen to them hammer & nail the verses of the final track “To Unwind” and the instrumentation throughout this song with the attention it deserves, and you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that they’ve definitely locked into something special between them, which’ll just continue to get even stronger over time & experience as Merit Maker carries on. For a debut – I’m honestly not complaining about a single thing here, even if it seems like I might have had something to say or point out a spot for their potential evolution in the years to come – ultimately, there’s no question that for a first album, they’re slayin’ it hard on Judgement Calls like they were born ready & just waiting for that official OK to push record. Great energy supplied to their finale track – “To Unwind” has gripping instrumentation that proves the band was committed right from the moment you pushed play to the very last seconds…and you get a stellar final dose of the instrumentation that’s made this experience so rad to begin with, but once more with the kind of depth that makes a nod towards what they’ll go on to accomplish from here as well, post-debut. I like what I hear already & I like where it can go, even more.
Find music by Merit Maker at their official page at Bandcamp here: https://meritmaker.bandcamp.com