nowListening: No Matter How Narrow by The Republic of Wolves

All lyrics and songs belong to The Republic of Wolves, not me.

When I first heard The Republic of Wolves, I hated them.

To be clear, I didn’t have anything against their sound. I guess a slice of history is in order: The Republic of Wolves made the scene when several of their demos appeared on YouTube disguised as Brand New demos. Brand New is my favorite band, and when I found out it wasn’t them, I was disappointed in how shady the whole thing was. When the band came out and claimed the demos, they said it was a friend of theirs who posted them, without the band’s knowledge. That didn’t alleviate my disappointment.

I think deep down I was mostly upset that I wasn’t hearing new music by my favorite band. (I probably knew this anyway; the demos sounded very similar to Brand New, but “similar” is as close as it got.)

Despite my mostly forced aversion to the band, every now and then, echoes of the song “Cardinals” played in my head: “I think I found a better way to live, and I think I found a better way to die.” The lyrics were so simple, but said so much. I found myself returning to the song to see what else it had to offer. I found more to like: “I’ve been fitting myself into that small space, that you set out for the screaming of the wind, ’cause that is all I’ve ever been.”

“Cardinals”, by The Republic of Wolves, uploaded to YouTube by a fan.

The immature compulsion I felt to avoid the band eventually broke down, and one day, I used the last of an iTunes gift card to buy the band’s EP His Old Branches. I would come to love the songs “Cardinals”, “For His Old Branches”, and “The Clouds”, and eventually I picked up the rest of the band’s releases.

The band’s first full-length album, Varuna, solidified them as one of my favorite bands. From the haunting, selling-your-soul-themed “Sea Smoke” to the energetic “Oarsman”, the seven-minute-long epic “Monologues” to the lethargic, melody-driven “Pitch and Resin” and “Grounded, I Am Traveling Light”, some of my favorite songs come from this album. I hadn’t felt particularly moved by music in a long time, and Varuna helped change that. It’s impact on me is probably clear; in my novel In the Lone and Level Sands, two characters meet up in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and travel across the country listening to music, and “Pitch and Resin” becomes their anthem. (I didn’t reprint any lyrics as that would infringe upon copyright, but it was and still is my hope that mentioning the song will inspire people to find it.)

The Republic of Wolves next released an EP called The Cartogropher, full of oceanic songs primarily sung by the band’s backing vocalist, which provided a fresh and interesting perspective on their music. Next came their second full-length, No Matter How Narrow, in which the band nails down a very new, more unique sound.

No Matter How Narrow by The Republic of Wolves

From the opening track “Frozen Feet”, it’s clear that No Matter How Narrow sounds radically different from the band’s previous material. The introspective, cleverly crafted lyrics remain, but the vocal melodies and the music that accompanies them are much brighter and lighthearted compared to the often dark, serious tones carried in the band’s past work.

There’s a cold that I must catch,
Living well in all that I’ve said
And I feel it coming on,
Unless it’s all in my head.

But you were up at two A.M.
Figuring out what it meant:
That all those sins were really sicknesses,
And nobody’s to blame.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Frozen Feet”

“Stray(s)” comes in quieter and darker, with verses reminiscent of Coldplay. The chorus is much louder and led by backing vocalist Gregg Andrew Dellarocca (something I wish happened more often on the album; in past releases, he handled lead vocals on at least one song, but not this time around). After this is “Spare Key”, a more upbeat song with lyrics hearkening back to “Cardinals”.

The official video for “Spare Key”, from the band’s YouTube channel.

“Greenville, MO” is perhaps the most akin to the band’s former sound, with distant guitars accompanying a prominent bass and slow, droning vocals. This isn’t to say this song would belong on one of the band’s other works; two bridges heartily shouted by vocalist Mason Maggio sound like nothing the band has produced before.

“Pioneers” introduces itself with a loud, catchy chorus, then calms down long enough to deliver the precisely placed, cleverly woven lyrics I first fell in love with this band for.

Enough with the coronations,
There’s no one left who isn’t king of something arbitrary
That’s why I’m looking for a crown to pick apart,
We’re just collecting flies in jars, a reconquista in our yard
A war I never had to start.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Pioneers”

After this is one of my favorite songs on the album and from this band, “Keep Clean”. The song contains the energy and enthusiasm of past tunes like “Oarsman” and “The Dead Men Stood Together”, but is possibly the most upbeat track they’ve ever recorded. The talented Will Noon of Straylight Run and fun. fills in on drums for this song.

So we’re all ordaining ministers
Because we can’t keep, no we can’t keep clean.
We’ve been deferring to a hypocrite,
With a kind voice and a loud idea
He divided up the races with a pencil and the Book of Genesis
And sorted us into companies and colonies all pitted up against each other
No matter how, no matter how common is our cause.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Keep Clean”

Following this is “Arithmetic on the Frontier”, an experimental track with a lot of effects, which sounds like something that could easily go wrong, but is perfectly executed. At just over two minutes long, the tune doesn’t wear out its welcome, and culminates in one of my favorite moments on the album, a loud, multi-layered chorus that reminds me of some of my favorite songs from The Cartographer. This leads into “Turning Lane”, another fast-paced track that contains some of my favorite lead guitar work on the album.

Next is the moody, quasi-acoustic “Vinedresser”. This is another of my favorites, with lyrics drenched in metaphor, stopping only once to deliver a moment of clear, undisguised sincerity:

But I was a victim like you,
My shoplifted grace in hand.
How could you know me so well,
When I couldn’t know myself?

—The Republic of Wolves, “Vinedresser”

“Orange Empire” is probably the heaviest song on the album. With lyrics like “Now I’m barely blood and flesh, just an anatomic sketch, coming to find this may be as solid as we get”, the song is contemplative, if not angry, which makes for a very solid penultimate track.

The album closes with “Through Empty Vessels”, a melodic and honest reflection on two people who have had a falling out. This one hits close to home for me; the subject isn’t new to the world of music, but the stance it takes is a little more original. When two people fight, it’s almost never one person’s fault. Sometimes things just don’t work. I’ve tried to capture this in song before, but I don’t think I’ll ever do as good a job as this song does.

And I was intertwined, for the first time, with my own lies
As we both crossed a devastating line
In the flood tide, it never mattered why
When we chose sides, we were both right.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Through Empty Vessels”

The title is possibly a reference to the band’s first EP, whose last song was called “Through Windows”. It wouldn’t be the only reference on No Matter How Narrow to the band’s previous work, and it’s obvious that The Republic of Wolves have come a long way in their musical journey. I can’t wait to see where they go next.

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