The Lowdown: “Every feeling is valid/ Express what you need to,” Becca Ryskalczyk quietly but assuredly declares during a more tender moment on “Not Lotion”. She lingers on this last line, repeating it over and over again while drums gain momentum in the background, eventually swallowing her voice. Everything stops for a split second, then 30 seconds of fury. “Fuck!” Ryskalczyk screams, and the rest of Bethlehem Steel explode with her. Hugely dynamic moments like this not only demonstrate their live-wire quality, but also litter the 34 minutes of the Brooklyn outfit’s eponymous sophomore album. Following Party Naked Forever, their 2017 debut, Bethlehem Steel finds the band expanding in more ways than one. Unexpected but welcome cello flourishes round out “New Dark” and “Couches” with a subtle melancholy, while off-kilter saxophone ratchets the chaos of “Bad Girl”’s final moments to 11.
More significant than their experimentation with instrumentation beyond guitar-bass-drums, though, is that Bethlehem Steel now count guitarist/vocalist Christina Puerto among their ranks. Although they originally expanded from a trio to a four-piece for touring purposes, Puerto wound up staying on, and her presence left a profound mark on the new album’s lyrical content and tone. “There are certain things about what women experience that [the boys in the band] will never understand, and having another woman as part of the band brought a different comfort and a sense of solidarity,” Ryskalczyk has explained. And the proof is in the eating of the pudding. Bethlehem Steel doesn’t hold back, rarely hesitating to lay down crucial, oft-unspoken truths about the evil that men so regularly commit, whipping “fuck you”s toward the people who deserve them.
The Good: Landing somewhere between Priests, Hop Along, and Screaming Females, Bethlehem Steel excel at crafting music that’s a mix of accessible indie-adjacent riffs and the discordant chunkiness of post-hardcore. Unifying it all is the deadliest weapon in the band’s lethal line-up, Ryskalczyk’s voice, which regularly transitions from smoky to wailing and spoken to screaming without missing a beat. Across the record, Ryskalczyk carves out space for herself, refusing to be hemmed in while lambasting those who abuse, abandon, and fuck over the people around them. Sometimes she does it with a serrated croon, as on “Couches” (“I won’t wait/ For those who wait/ For you to die”). Other times it’s deeper, more from the chest, as on “New Dark” (“So why don’t you go and fuck yourself/ Instead of touching me while I’m sleeping?”).
Ryskalczyk is deeply concerned with the consequences of unbridled toxic masculinity, but also the ways that we all affect one another more generally. She plainly sums it all up on “Bad Girl”, singing, “Oh, how the actions of others/ Can weigh you down”. On “Read the Room”, she considers her own role as a bystander. “So I just leave/ Don’t speak of it,” she sings, later wondering, “But does that somehow make me complicit?” That Ryskalczyk’s eye is turned inward as much as outward lends further credence to her already justified fury. Her voice, sometimes accompanied by Puerto’s, and the tight instrumentation beneath it reflect and bolster one another throughout Bethlehem Steel, the result as gripping as it is challenging.
The Bad: While Bethlehem Steel’s massive, on-a-dime dynamic shifts are largely done to effect, they occasionally threaten to jerk the listener around more than anything else. The album also represents a slight but significant departure from Party Naked in that its guitar tone across the board is less fuzzy. Only if you’re real picky, though, should that pose an issue, as the band haven’t sacrificed any of their garage-rock ethos in the process of adopting cleaner riffs.
The Verdict: Party Naked should have gotten Bethlehem Steel a lot more attention than it did. And now, the band build confidently on the foundation laid by their debut. Maybe they’ve shed some of their grungier qualities, but Bethlehem Steel are a far cry from less energetic than they were two years ago. That’s in part because even more now than then, Ryskalczyk absolutely is not fucking around. Armed with heightened confidence from the addition of Puerto, the band aim for the jugular, leaving nothing left unsaid that must be said, no energy unspent that might contribute to the fulfillment of their goal. Bethlehem Steel’s sophomore effort is a dense 34 minutes of hard questions and harder truths, all delivered with an ostensibly oxymoronic combination of nuance and abandon.
Essential Tracks: “Not Lotion”, “Couches”, and “Govt Cheese”