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Photo by Levi Anderson

The week before last Halloween, a guy I know came up to me and said, “Dude. LABELS. Did you see them?”

He was talking about the local psyche-punk band that had played The Boiled Owl Tavern during Arts Goggle the previous weekend.

It was the third or fourth time I’d talked with someone about them, and every conversation was a variation of “Holy shit, they totally blew me away!”

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The new fans I chatted with compared them to Nirvana and Thee Oh Sees, describing the local group in terms of what the fans imagined it would have been like seeing those legendary bands when they were relatively new.

On February 23, LABELS will release Moral Law, their third album, which is surprising to hear about regarding a band that has been playing shows for only about a year. That LABELS seem so fully formed is because they’ve been practicing relentlessly since getting together in 2019. Comparing them to a couple of seminal punk bands — because that’s essentially what the sounds of Nirvana and Thee Oh Sees are rooted in — might sound hyperbolic, but when you look up LABELS and give listen to a couple of their tracks, you find that this is a band that takes pieces of related genre hallmarks, from garage-rock to psychedelic and punk, and electrifies these sonic limbs and hearts into a new species, like if Dr. Frankenstein built Robocop out of a pile of pawn shop amplifiers, detachable-face cassette decks, and dusty, knock-off sunglasses.

Composed of Braden Burgan on guitar and vocals, twin brother Taylor Burgan on drums, and friend Deven Johnson singing lead, LABELS formed during the guys’ senior year at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst.

“We were really into basketball in junior high and high school up ’til, like, 11th grade,” Braden said at a coffeeshop recently with his bandmates. “We were like, ‘We’re for real going to the NBA.’ ”

“And then we figured out, no, we’re not,” Taylor said.

The Burgans’ dad, Scott Burgan, had played in local bands — Hillary Smile and Rosemary were a couple of them — and the drummer of one of those groups had left some of his gear lying around the house.

“He just left his drums in our shed,” Braden said, “and we were like, ‘OK, we’re done with basketball.’ [Dad] was like, ‘Oh, you wanna see my guitar?’ The cymbals were super-rusty, super dry-sounding. It was one cymbal, a snare, and a kick. But it worked.”

The brothers learned to play guitar and drums on their own, and they started writing their own songs while they were figuring out their instruments.

“We played the same kind of music back then as we do now,” Braden said.

But he was too nervous to sing, so the brothers recruited Johnson, a mutual friend since 10th grade.

“It was so cringey at first because I had, like, a British accent,” Johnson said. “I guess I thought it was easier to make stuff up in a British accent.”

At the time, the trio was heavily into a British punk duo now known as Soft Play.

“I liked the way [the singer’s voice] sounds,” Johnson said.

The band learned how to work Logic Pro the same way they learned to play instruments — “by just doing it,” Braden said — and recorded an album in 2021, though it is no longer available on any streaming services.

“Since we started making songs right when we started playing, we weren’t good,” Braden said. “The songs weren’t bad, but we weren’t ready to play them live at a show, so we took [the album] down, because it wasn’t the best sounding. We didn’t know what we were doing. We just wanted something out.”

The three might not have been totally stoked with their first effort, but a year later, with better gear and more confidence in both their playing and recording chops, LABELS self-produced their second album. Braden described the 10-song Brain Fragments as “slower, kind of more ‘songwriting,’ I guess.”

Brain Fragments does indeed hover around mellower tempos, but it establishes a few aesthetic ideas that I’d argue give LABELS their signature sound, a sort of giddy psychedelia constantly truncated with compression, giving what might be a hazy guitar journey considerable amounts of hip-shake. It makes me think of a long, plastic bag full of weed smoke that is for some reason crimped in regular intervals — “Dream Forever” is a good example of this, but the rest of Brain Fragments offers the listener plenty of other vivid mindscapes to go with slinky, fuzzy guitar riffage.

Of the new album Moral Law, LABELS have increased both the speed and the complexity of their riffs.

“The new album is way harder,” Braden said, “a whole lot of hard-rock, punk stuff.”

The LP leans heavily into the garage rock/psychedelia made popular in the early-to-mid 2000s by artists like Jay Reatard, Ty Segal, and Thee Oh Sees, but it also drifts into a sort of mid-tempo, effects-heavy, sludge metal-esque guitar-pop reminiscent of Dinosaur Jr. Johnson’s vocal delivery, often deadpan, reminds me of the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn — if Finn were 21 and had grown up listening to late-’90s Family Values-era hitmakers like System of a Down and Eminem. Though his voice and phrasing might suggest otherwise, Johnson really loves rap.

“I might write lyrics that sound like a rap in my head, but I change the flow, so they fit more in a punk song,” Johnson said. “I love Sublime. There’s a song on the new album called ‘Time Spent’ that I had a kind of reggae vibe in my head when I sang it,” adding that Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell is one of his biggest inspirations.

“That’s funny, because it’s one of our heavier songs,” Taylor said.

Moral Laws, as a whole, isn’t a stoner-metal album at all, but it is definitely heavy and has a similar effect on the brain. The album’s first single, called “3D” and released on January 23, sounds to me like if Jacuzzi wrote a Paranoid-era Sabbath song made for a Jim Henson show about a digital afterlife. Another song, “The Feeling,” reminds me of the conversations you have with yourself during Hour 3 of a decently intense mushroom trip. Then there’s “I Just Want to Be Human,” which builds on a majestic, disorienting guitar phrase reminiscent of a Pearl Earl song, then hurls you into the cosmos like the way that same trip might spin you into a state of galloping overstimulation.

And what, if anything, is LABELS’ music about? While some of the songs carry a current of melancholic ennui, mostly they’re just full of good vibes.

“We’re nice people,” Braden said. “We just want to promote the positive, y’know?”

LABELS: “The new album is way harder, a whole lot of hard-rock, punk stuff.”
Photo by Levi Anderson

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