(Too Lost / Symphonic)
Add date: 4.2.2024
Release date: 3.29.2024

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Life, as we all know, has a way of hitting when we least expect it—both for better and for worse. If you’re lucky, you walk away with your body, mind, dignity, joy and loved ones more or less intact. For Gamblers founder/bandleader Michael McManus, a few too many brushes with mortality have had him feeling like there’s a great force threatening to pound him literally into dust. His grandfather’s passing and a harrowing car crash that left four others at the scene dead are just two examples of what, for McManus, has been quite the, um... eventful period. 

Along the way, Gamblers managed to score millions of Spotify streams with their Mick Jenkins-featuring single “Another Dose” (off their 2022 remix EP When We Exit). So there’s that. But the blows kept coming. As the band’s profile rose, McManus’s mother began a bout with cancer which eventually took her life, and his romantic partnership of seven years dissolved. This all followed every other member of Gamblers departing one by one, leaving McManus feeling like he was docked on an island at the helm of a ghost ship. 

Amazingly, though, McManus wrote most of the New York electro-indie outfit’s new album Pulverizer well before any of these crucial life developments. When the activity around the band’s 2020 debut full-length Small World gave way to starting out on a fresh batch of songs, McManus wasn’t yet preoccupied with questions about whether the hand of fate plays cruel jokes on us. But McManus, nothing if not an astute observer, tends to follow his intuition into lyrical themes that end up ringing true later—almost as if his future self were sending him messages through the music... 

“It’s eerie,” says McManus, “how much of this stuff turned out to come to life.”

On tracks like “Headed for a Cliff,” “Running from my Grave” and the title track, McManus’s various narrators flirt with danger, exhale in exasperation and narrowly skate past disillusionment as relationships wither on the vine, existential angst creeps higher and higher and the world loses its collective mind outside our window. At one point, McManus wonders aloud whether there’s anything out there helping us keep it together, singing “God’s the type of prick to take a hike when you bore him.” On album closer “Irish Sports Pages”—slang for the obits section of the newspaper—McManus tackles head-on his own family’s experience with the Catholic Church molestation scandal. 

Here’s the thing, though: Pulverizer is not a dark or foreboding experience. On the contrary, Gamblers have arrived at a rousing fusion of organic and electronic sounds. You could say they’ve come up with the ultimate afterparty album that hasn’t entirely left the celebration behind, no matter how weary or tenuous the grip. A contemplative record, to be sure—one that takes-on weighty, difficult subjects—but spiked with irresistible hooks and, ultimately, a zest for life that bursts through the grooves. On the infectiously funky, disco-influenced title track, for example, McManus pulls a lover in close, imploring her to take stock of the simple fact that they’re both still alive. “Time, it goes faster still,” he sings, before “Due to problems that are typical of humankind.”

After the rest of the Small World-era lineup drifted away, McManus teamed up with the prolific Long Island production team The Brothers Nylon to give the music a boost of outside creative energy to both match and offset his own. Eventually, he invited original Gamblers drummer (and childhood best friend) Johnny Hoblin to re-join the band and anchor the songs with a living, breathing pulse—an element that Hoblin provides in spades as he finds the sweet spot between Strokes-influenced minimalism and smooth, polished precision a là Phil Collins. Sensing that the music would come to life even more with the introduction of another creative foil, McManus enlisted guitarist Jimmy Usher, whose own pop instincts would eventually prove indispensable to the sound this new cast of characters had started to build. 

Usher, a longtime admirer of Gamblers who had been eager to work with The Brothers Nylon, was already keenly aware of McManus’s singular gift for amalgamating sunny Beach Boys-inspired harmonies, hip hop production, alternative-era and underground indie sensibilities into a powerful blend. Usher (a cornerstone of the influential Long Island emo group Edison Glass) was initially uncertain as to how McManus would bridge the divide between the music’s organic and synthetic elements. Nevertheless, he immediately recognized something in the material that would eventually coalesce into Pulverizer. 

“I thought I was just coming in to bring some sparkle on top,” Usher explains, “but I managed to kind of get in on the ground level. And the more I listened to where these songs were going, I got it in my head that this was going to be like a Huey Lewis and the News record. I don’t mean that Gamblers sound like Huey Lewis at all, but Mike has a way of balancing all these different qualities. The smoothness doesn’t come at the expense of the heartbeat, or vice-versa. His music is deep and patient. It’s not what you’d ever assume to be packaged three-minute pop. But after a while you notice that every instrument—every line, every sound—is a hook!” 

McManus sums it up: “I listen to country music next to Mobb Deep next to a pop song next to Pantera. With Jimmy, Johnny, and The Brothers Nylon, I found people who could roll with me on that. Gamblers was always going to morph into something that could encompass all these things. It started out with us presenting as a six-piece band—and that was a true reflection of what we were and still are—but there was always this other side to it. 

He continues: “It wasn’t until finishing this album that I realized I wasn’t sure how the different facets of the music were ever going to gel, but we definitely got there—to a place I wouldn’t have gotten on my own. I’m a studio rat, but I also love the camaraderie of being in a band. This album really conveys that.