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In early 2020 Narrow Head were riding high. The grungy post-hardcore Texas outfit were about to release their sophomore album, 12th House Rock. They'd been playing increasingly prominent shows, opening for Quicksand, Turnstile and more, and their fanbase — which already boasted notable supporters including Power Trip's Riley Gale — was growing quickly. But then, COVID-19 arrived and Narrow Head's world came crashing down.
"Some of our friends passed away," reveals singer-guitarist Jacob Duarte. Included among the losses was Gale, who tragically died that August. "It was in the middle of the pandemic, and when you lose someone… Waking up the next day, I mean we were pretty depressed for a while."
Duarte's grief was overwhelming, but as he confronted and processed his pain something unexpected occurred: a shocking moment of clarity. The realization of life's impermanence — and making the most of the time one has — altered his entire personal and artistic outlook. This psychic shift eventually inspired the creation of Narrow Head's latest full-length, the aptly titled Moments of Clarity. The group's third album is Duarte and Co. at their most emotionally open and musically ambitious — offering glimpses of their hardcore roots through richly melodic songwriting and hazy shoegaze effects, and cementing their position as one of the most exciting new voices in contemporary grunge.
"Things are different now," the 28-year-old Duarte tells Revolver in December 2022, on a Zoom call from his Houston home. "I feel more of a drive to continue and do things. Life is short, and there's a lot I haven't done yet that I'd like to do. I see things in a different light."
Duarte's new positive outlook has also deepened his commitment to spread the word that "rock music is still alive." It's an abiding belief that's propelled him for over a decade, and as he's followed that path, his sense of purpose has only become more pronounced.
Growing up in Houston, Duarte was raised around music. His father and uncle played in a Nineties emo band called the Tie That Binds (who were onetime labelmates of At the Drive-In), and he was learning guitar by sixth grade (everything from Slayer to blink-182). As a teenager, he dove headfirst into his local hardcore scene. Then, at 18, he founded Narrow Head and turned that punk education into a hook-driven take on grunge and post-hardcore. Duarte's recent moment of clarity may have been his most profound yet, but Narrow Head's trajectory has been marked by many small epiphanies along the way — and lots of hard work.
"For the first couple years, we didn't really know how to play live," he says. "In the studio, you can layer stuff and put a bunch of pedals on it. But playing live, we only have what's in front of us. We were too loud, but not in a good way."
As Narrow Head have clocked more time on the road, they've tightened up and pared down the rough edges — an effort that's evident in their powerful live performances (including their dynamic 2022 Outbreak Fest set). The band — whose current lineup includes guitarists Kora Puckett and William Menjivar, bassist Rubio Richie and drummer Carson Wilcox — have also become just as sophisticated a studio entity, as heard on Moments of Clarity.
It's a brighter and more pop-focused album, due in part to producer and engineer Sonny DiPerri (My Bloody Valentine, Trent Reznor, Portugal. The Man), who encouraged Duarte to push himself further vocally — resulting in bittersweet, blissful moments ("Moments of Clarity") and power-pop harmonies ("Sunday"). The band have also embraced a more sonically diverse approach as well, whether in the Smashing Pumpkins-like acoustic-to-fuzz rise of "Breakup Song" or the breakbeat loops in "Soft to Touch." The heaviness that bolsters their sound — a remnant of the hardcore scene from which they emerged (and that Duarte still participates in as a member of Skourge) — still remains. But it's the dichotomy, "the heavy parts heavier and the poppy parts poppier," that they most wanted to emphasize.
"We're all into heavy music, hardcore and metal. But that's not the first stuff we heard," Duarte explains. "We all grew up listening to the radio. I feel like [the balance] comes pretty naturally for us."
Moments of Clarity also showcases how far Duarte has come as a lyricist. The album presents the singer's most introspective, and poetic, songs yet. He meditates on impermanence in "The Real," and the feeling of losing oneself in sonic oblivion on the soaring "The Comedown." The outlook in Narrow Head's songs have changed; in large part because Duarte himself has changed, casting aside moments of despair or self-loathing in favor of something more hopeful.
Duarte is putting that hope into action by working even harder to realize his artistic dreams — and getting his music in front of even more audiences. Narrow Head will start 2023 supporting garage punks White Reaper (alongside indie duo Taipei Houston, featuring Lars Ulrich's sons), before embarking on their own headlining run. They're also booked at the Sick New World Festival in May with Korn, System of a Down and, Duarte's own biggest influence, Deftones. Seeing Chino Moreno and Co. on the lineup ensured he couldn't say no; but he's just as thrilled to be playing among the fest's industrial acts and old-school goths, like Ministry and the Sisters of Mercy. For Duarte, the broader the audience, the better.
"There's people who don't know anything about hardcore and they find Narrow Head and like it," he says. "We're accessible to a wide variety of separate groups, and that's what we're going for. That's how you become the biggest band ever. You don't have to be a metalhead or a goth."
He hesitates, briefly, before clarifying: "But I want the goth fans, too."