I first saw Gang of Thieves play at a local high school battle of the bands about five years ago, which the band won rather handily. Two things struck me about the group that night. For starters, they were tighter and more polished than any of other acts, so much so that it hardly seemed fair they were competing. Even with only a handful of basement shows under their belts, GoT displayed musicality and cohesion that belied their youth. Similarly, the band revealed a range of influences that seemed closer to what, say, thirtysomething music critics might have listened to in high school in the 1990s, rather than what the current crop of kids digs. To give you an idea, at yet another battle of the bands I saw them play a couple years later, a fellow judge referred to GoT as "Rage Against the Chili Peppers." He was joking, but also accurate.
Indeed, had GoT's new album Thunderfunk come along 15 or 20 years ago instead of now, it might have placed them among the most popular bands ever to come from Vermont. The record's danceable, hook-heavy fusion of funk, punk and hard rock would have fit snugly on rock-radio playlists between Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers, not to mention Sublime, No Doubt and Rancid.
That's not necessarily to say that GoT's sound is dated, merely that it appears rooted in a very specific, post-grunge era of American pop and rock. It is also to say that the band's first full-length album is remarkably polished and well produced, and that, regardless of era, it's a deeply impressive achievement.
Since releasing their debut EP, Riddle, in 2012, GoT have toured ceaselessly, traversing the country several times. That constant gigging has served them well. Thunderfunk shows the band to be a tightly coiled and well-oiled machine. The album's angular grooves are sharp, its melodies clean, even amid the copious levels of energetic buzz and crunch.
The lead single, "Sexy Star Circus," is a gleefully funky party anthem with a ready-made sing-along chorus. "Ambition" rumbles with sinister grooves. "King In Deed" is a twisty, brutish cut that obliges those Rage comparisons. The reggae-punk-tinged "Landmines" suggests GoT also paid heed to producer Michael Rosen, whose credits include third-wave ska bands Rancid and Less Than Jake. Ditto the explosive title track, which is propelled by brassy horns and amiable rap-rock swagger. The record's lone slow song, the lighter-worthy "Rise," evokes RHCP's Anthony Kiedis circa "Under the Bridge" — except that singer Michael Reit can actually maintain pitch.
Radio-friendly and a refreshingly unapologetic and nonironic stylistic throwback, Thunderfunk is probably not hip enough for the indie-rock crowd and could be too aggressive for jam and funk fans. That leaves GoT on an island in the larger Burlington scene, as there is really no one else like them. Lucky for them, it's a hard-partying island where a premium is placed on having fun. And that is something Gang of Thieves do exceedingly well.
Thunderfunk by Gang of Thieves is available at thegangofthieves.com. Gang of Thieves play a residency at Nectar's in Burlington every Wednesday in May.