by Max Johns
Bitter Defeat’s second EP is a quick-fire, four-track affair that adds nicely to what the band started with 2021’s Minor Victory. Happily, it shows off a couple of new tricks as well.
If you’re reading Hamilton Underground Press then there’s a 99% chance that you’re already well aware of Bitter Defeat. Hell, if you’re reading HUP there’s about a 30% chance that you’re in Bitter Defeat. But just in case this review is your entry point, here’s a quick rewind…
Bitter Defeat have been on the Hamilton indie rock scene for a few years now. They are a five piece band that play on the pop side of the genre. If you’re old enough to remember what came after Nirvana - when guitars were allowed to have fun again, and when moshing gave way to pogoing - then you know what you’re in for here.
The band spent time building out a set of catchy, 90s-infused pop originals on the way to releasing two singles in late 2020. Those teased the 2021 release of debut EP Minor Victory (“it’s short, it’s fun, and it stands up to being put on repeat,” we said at the time). An unarguable high point came in mid-2021 when they opened for dead-set legends The Chills in Raglan, the Mount, and Gisborne.
Things have gone a bit quiet since then. Blame the day jobs and real lives that encumber all of us. Finally in December 2022 we got a taste of ‘Sugar Blind’. It’s the catchiest Bitter Defeat single yet, and now it’s the first track on new EP Terrific Effort. The wait has been worth it.
There are four tracks on Terrific Effort. It’s no great departure from Minor Victory, but unlike its predecessor there’s more to it than Rob Shirlow singing about relationships or the inevitable decline that comes with age.
That said, ‘Sugar Blind’ is literally Rob singing about physical decline. But if there’s a catchier rock-pop number about diabetes, then I haven’t heard it. My six-year-old loves singing along with the backing “ooo-woo”s, and I love the line about checking your own toe for nerves with a pin. A health advisory warning for all the family.
‘Pressure’ follows next, introducing us to lead guitarist Ben’s songwriting and singing. It captures the same pop fun that Bitter Defeat always brings, but in a new way. Built on structural angles, ‘Pressure’ unexpectedly veers around and turns back on itself. You’ll need to go back and check which bits were the verses and whether the singalong “take the pressure!!” parts actually were the chorus, or the bridge, or something else. There’s some art here, and putting it on repeat will pay off. Wait, is there a chorus at all? Gah. You work it out.
Next comes ‘Waft’, the first instrumental track we’ve heard from Bitter Defeat. It’s a deceptively difficult thing for them to take on, and it’s worth considering why...
There is a reason that almost every time you see guitar, keys, bass, and drums there’s a singer involved. Rock instrumentals are so hard to get right that the Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental was scrapped 12 years ago. There have been very few arguments about who’s been robbed since then, because who gets passionate about rock instrumentals? Even very good ones sound like they're missing something. Great ones involve guitars doing things they were never built to do - Hendrix’s ‘Star Spangled Banner’, Eddie van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ - the sort of thing that you don’t find on the continuum from jangle pop through indie rock to shoegaze.
‘Waft’ is good at doing what it does. It just does less than the other eight things that Bitter Defeat have put on record. When you see the band live it’s the jam that they like to start with, and in that context it works well.
Or perhaps they're wise to clear the air for ‘Falling Down’, the closer on Terrific Effort. It’s their longest song yet, all 3m44s of it, but still a familiar Rob Shirlow ditty. It’s musically upbeat, lyrically downbeat (though a bit more abstract than we’re used to), and it leaves you prone to clicking the ‘play’ button on the whole EP again.
Terrific Effort is cleverly bookended with two tracks that closely match the Bitter Defeat of Minor Victory. In between we hear a band that can do more than we knew before, and do it well. We’ve all heard of the “difficult second album” that has tripped up many bands, but if the difficult second EP is a thing then Bitter Defeat have sidestepped it nicely.