Review – “6 Possible Illusions Prior to Death” – Formalists

6 possible illusions prior to deathreviewed by Michael Thomas

Last week I wrote about the type of band that is great at what they do. This week, as luck would have it, there comes a band who is the second type of good band—a band that makes everything sound fresh and exciting and new.

Like the title of a literary novel, 6 Possible Illusions Prior to Death is the first full-length album from Toronto quartet Formalists. While a six-song recording with only one really long song might be considered an EP, each song has so much meat on its bone that it’s easy to call this an album proper.

Whichever illusion one decides to visit will reveal much. Those looking for a truly disorienting experience can look first at “Thornhill (x18) For Long Life,” a song with more twists and turns than something…with a lot of twists and turns. Over the course of a little over five minutes, the song manages to incorporate gentle guitar picking, an organ interlude, a shift to accordion, a bell (as if a certain musical style’s time was up) and some gloomy guitar to cap it all off. “Fughetta” (which is also one of the best songs on the album) begins with creepy organ notes before erupting into a schizophrenic tirade of loud guitars and screaming. It ends so abruptly you won’t know what’s hitting you.

For something perhaps a bit more meditative, start with “Awakened/Reposed,” which also features plenty of gentle guitars, sweet vocals (with plenty of hearty backup vocals). But oh yeah, there’s an electric guitar interlude that sounds like it could be on a classic rock album from the 70s. “Oko Yono” features plenty of classical guitar playing to start it off—once Joseph Landau’s vocals come in, so do the drums, and so do the hopes of the song being conventional. Before long, heavy electric guitars are wailing away, setting up an interesting contrast between Landau’s gentle vocals and the instrumental assault.

And then there are the other two songs that are truly illusions. Opener “Moist Raisin Body” is another album highlight, with a pseudo-world-music feel to it. There’s some pleasant interplay between the guitar and shakers, and Landau begins singing some simple—yet disturbing—lyrics. Example: “You know that bodies are everything twice/First they are carrots, then they are slime.” Followed by a hearty chorus of “Turn into slime” repeated several times.

And then there’s the 10-minute-long “Go Joseph! Jacob’s Favourite” which may or may not be a satirical comment on Landau’s involvement in a myriad of bands. The song’s narrator laments spending all of his time making CDs, printing t-shirts and writing songs that no one will like. But the chorus says Joseph shouldn’t feel let down and never quit. Of course the extended run-time fits all kind of melodies in, from keyboard-driven stuff to what sounds like a duel between a guitar and a bass.

What you do with the illusions is up to you—just remember that you will eventually turn into slime.

And be sure to check out the CD release show for the record this Saturday, July 26 at Cinecycle in Toronto.

Top Tracks: “Moist Raisin Body”; “Fughetta”

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

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Why Arcade Fire should win the Polaris Prize

Arcade Fire//Photo: Jared Polin

Arcade Fire//Photo: Jared Polin

by Michael Thomas

But they already won the Polaris Prize! – Jaded Polaris Fan #1

This is their weakest album so far, it doesn’t deserve it. – Jaded Polaris Fan #2

These are just two of many (transparently imagined) responses to Canada’s arguably biggest “indie” bands. Up until last year, Arcade Fire could do no wrong in the eyes of the music-loving public, but that changed with the release of Reflektor, the band’s most polarizing album to date.

When reviews started to surface, critics either praised it immensely or hated it with a passion with no grey area. Why is this? It seemed to be inevitable as soon as Arcade Fire won a Grammy, then a bunch of Junos, then the Polaris Prize. Inevitably, there would be some resentment of their success, though perhaps it was because Reflektor doesn’t immediately conform to a theme, like The Suburbs so neatly did.

This sounds like a lot to overcome for Arcade Fire to become the first-ever two-time winner of the prize based on artistic merit, though maybe it’s not. Reflektor may actually be the most accurate portrayal of our world in its present state.

One cannot walk into one listen of the album and come up with a unifying theme—but perhaps that’s the point. It’s a postmodern musical text, fragmented much like what we consume by watching or reading now. There’s a bit of Greek mythology thrown in there, maybe some reflections (pun not intended) on the Internet, and maybe a bit of the skewering of show business. All have their place.

The title track, which also serves as the album opener, is a long and groove-filled number that also happens to have David Bowie doing backing vocals. It brings up one of Reflektor‘s many theses, this one seemingly about the inability to truly “connect” with people online. With Win Butler’s lyrics about “reflections of reflections” he brings to mind the idea of hyperrealism. This is the type of song Baudrillard would probably really dig. As we move onto “Normal Person,” there’s suddenly a sense that Arcade Fire is no longer talking about the Internet. You can practically see Win Butler sneering as he mutters something about the monitor being too high and thanking everybody for coming out before he asks “Do you like rock and roll music? ‘Cause I don’t know if I do.”

But then there’s songs like “Afterlife,” an absolute jam of a number that punctuates the general introspective gloom of “disc two,” which also features an 11-minute song that is half a flurry of electronics. So what’s really going on here? Who knows? And that’s partially what gives this album a large portion of “artistic merit.” This is a complex album, much like The Suburbs was, only complex in a different way. Art that is not challenging is often not as much fun to consume.

So yes, Reflektor is complex. But it’s also immediate, and that’s something that no other Arcade Fire album can say easily. As soon as the congas come in on “Reflektor” you know you’re going to either groove or decide this isn’t your thing. And that’s what’s so great about it! The punk-esque opening of “Joan of Arc” thrills; the flurry of guitar and drums on “Here Comes the Night Time” wastes no time in getting going. A majority of Arcade Fire’s songs take a little bit to really dig into, but almost every Reflektor track bucks this trend.

In other words: you can love or hate this album all you want; but you can’t deny that its immediacy and complexity make it a challenging work of art, and therefore quite worthy of winning another Polaris Prize this September.

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Review – “The Moon is Shining Our Way” – Kestrels

reviewed by Eleni Armenakis a0618721709_2

Fuzzy rock, punk and shoegaze are a handful of words that get tossed around whenever talk of Kestrels starts up—especially in relation to their second EP and fourth release, The Moon is Shining Our Way. It’s certainly an accurate depiction of the band, formerly based out of Halifax. The EP smoothly buzzes through the four songs on the release, adding credence to their belief that getting into the studio often helps fine-tune the music.

Of course, spending time in studio is one of the few times all three members of Kestrels are together—the band has a history of living far apart from each other with guitarist and vocalist Chad Peck currently in Nova Scotia, drummer Paul Brown in Toronto and bassist Devin Peck in Montreal. While they continue to work together via email between sessions, the band previously stunned when they tracked a song on their second album, A Ghost History, 23 times.

That kind of ear for perfection is evident on The Moon is Shining Our Way from the very first notes of “Eternal and Debased.” There are times when you can’t help but feel like things could be even more exciting if things weren’t as polished—an attitude that would blend nicely with the thrusting punk music melding with Peck’s mellow vocals. “Wide Eyes,” the shortest song on the release, offers up a more seamless blend of the band’s polarity. Peck’s vocals come in with more presence, holding the stage as the guitar builds up to a frenzied wail for the finale—letting the band live up to their punk reputation even as things start off slow to suit Peck.

The band’s energy is indisputable throughout the EP, with title-track “The Moon is Shining Our Way” diving into an instrumental break halfway through that showcases Brown’s ability to thrash out a beat as Peck proves there’s plenty of life in his playing despite his low-key vocals. It’s expected that things slow down on the fourth and final song—a fuzzy, echoing performance that ends up feeling more psychedelic and less attached to the rest of the album even if it is more suited to their shoegazing tendencies.

As things end on the hazy but gritty final number that feels more unified than what came before, I can’t help but speculate on how spending so much time apart has led the band to mixing together elements the way they do—even as I hope that the final song of the EP, as a sign of another album to come, won’t carry the band too far away from the pulse-racing punk they’re creating. It’s the kind of genre-defying performance that easily builds into something more.

Top Track: “Wide Eyes”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Review – “Not Alone” – Rose-Erin Stokes

Reviewed by Jack Derricourt

Rose-Erin Stokes North Bay folk

A recent piece of analysis by the Economist promises to debunk all the myths surrounding the younger members of society. Oh yes, the entitled generation that never gets up off the couch? Yeah, the truth is somewhat more complicated than most trashy journalism is willing to uncover — apparently young people have got their act together and might even be doing a better job of not fucking up than their parents. On Toronto’s Youth Day, I find myself filled with hope for all the out of work, uninsured, climate changed rabble that I myself form a small, loud part of. I can’t help but feel that sultry, enthusiastic Ontarian Rose-Erin Stokes feels the same way.

Stokes has recorded a delightful EP with Not Alone. Her tunes track feelings of longing and disappointment, a youthful economy of lyrical content, if you will. The solitude of North Bay, ON comes shining through on the delicately articulated tracks. Repeatedly throughout the songs, a single relationship, in a single moment is picked at and probed until it reveals a truth. The song becomes a vacuum chamber, in which Stokes has placed a vital aspect of love and loss worthy of deep study.

String noise and atmospheric synth work collect within songs of direct communication on the album. Opener “If I Can’t Have Your Love” sets a tone of determination and starts off with a strong example of the intelligent production found on the record: the song is essentially a vocals and guitar heavyweight, yet the space for synthesizer and the appropriate punctuation of backing vocals is found and put into action, just so. It’s effects like these that transform a lyric with the potential for a downward emotional trajectory into a soaring introductory track.

Title track “Not Alone” is equally stirring. The song begins in a similarly muted fashion, with Stokes plucking away a “same old song” as mentioned in the track’s first lines. But very quickly, the sounds build into a chattering, surging number. Vocal work piles up, Eric Treleavan’s wonderful lead guitar and banjo join the party, and the shuffle of Ben Legett’s drums carry things in all the right directions. It might sound sappy at first, but with tasteful musical accompaniment, the line, “Don’t lose hope, you are not alone,” can come off as sounding unpretentious and wholeheartedly tender.

Maybe the music of the young today is any music that seeks a way forward through obstacles and challenges that seem unforgivably overbearing. Rose-Erin Stokes has such a collection of songs with the Not Alone EP. The music is moving, without trying too hard, and that’s just as noble as quiet confidence in a world that seems determined to write you off.

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

Top Tracks: “Not Alone” ; “Stay” ; “Tonight”


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Review: “Hollow” – Zoo Owl

downloadreviewed by Elena Gritzan

It’s midnight. You’re standing in the middle of a forest, you don’t know how you got there, and the shadows dancing among the trees make it hard to tell which direction leads where. You think that you can smell a swamp in the distance. Your anxiety turns into fear as you hear rustling in the bushes to your left; you’ve never seen anything like the creature that emerges. It looks at you quizzically through its bright, glowing eyes before opening its mouth to reveal a fog of red light. You run as fast as you can, but you know: you’ve met the Zoo Owl.

If you’ve been attending shows regularly in Toronto over the past year, you may have seen this creature in action in many venues across the city. A Zoo Owl show is a theatrical experience, replete with lasers and those glowing-light goggles, and now the first album is here to demonstrate that the songs stand on their own incredibly well.

There’s “Twin Mirror”, which builds up slowly to its arpeggiated motif, pushing the level of atmosphere to maximum with bird noises and guttural vowels that accent the magnificently executed interplay between danceable sections and textural development. And “Nemesis”, which is as sinister and powerful as the deeply sung title suggests and has drum samples in all of the right places.

The different electronic styles that Zoo Owl plays with in each song all seem to come to him completely naturally, a perfect extension of the highly curated visual image. Yet I can imagine that each detail is highly thought out and carefully considered, which makes the practically flawless execution of the complicated layers of sounds all the more impressive.

This is the kind of album that m shout “yes!” at my computer screen when the songs twist and turn. It’s turned long subways rides into compelling adventures. Hollow has solidified Zoo Owl’s status as one of the most exciting projects to come out of the city in recent years. By the time you reach the end, singing along to the refrain of “Mayflower wilted”, you’ll be glad you discovered this magnificent new species.

Top Tracks: “Vantom”, “Twin Mirror”, really everything

Rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) + *swoop*

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Review – “Niizhwaaswo” – WHOOP-Szo

niizhwaasworeviewed by Michael Thomas

The noisy mountain has gone on quite a journey, musically and geographically. WHOOP-Szo has always been a band of two sides—on the one, a gentle folk-oriented band, while on the other, a noisy psych-rock band. Geographically, Adam Sturgeon traveled several provinces to the Arctic, where he ran a screen printing program for Inuit youth. The experiences shaped three albums, the first two released simultaneously.

Niizhwaaswo is the third and final installment documenting WHOOP-Szo’s time in the Arctic, but it’s also technically the first—it was recorded before the band relocated, though it was finished up north. Whereas Qallunaat and Odemin showed the band’s softer side, Niizhwaaswo is a brutal and gentle collage.

As is often the case with great unpredictable music, the two sides of the work are sometimes on their own but often bumping into each in the space of a song. In fact, if you want to be technical about it, there’s almost an even split between the folky and loud sides.

The first three songs  on the album are noisy as hell, beginning with “Boat Cave,” the song equivalent of being tossed into white water rapids with no life preserver. A cascade of loud guitar washes over you, as the drums speed and slow down seemingly at random. “CSG” can more easily be categorized in the psych-rock vein and wouldn’t sound out of place on WHOOP-sette while “Myeengun” resumes the brutal noise attack.

As a centrepiece, “Jan. 3rd” is beautiful and signals that this album isn’t all sonic punishment, with picked acoustic guitar, brushed drums and keyboard. “the through window” is also lovely in this way, like gathering in front of a campfire after a long day. There’s also “(ode to) Banjoanie,” a quick instrumental piece performed on the—you guessed it—banjo.

“Niizhwaaswi” is the bastard child of the two sounds of the band, morphing between folk and noise with little to no warning.

WHOOP-Szo’s time in the Arctic seems to have reopened the band’s penchant for introspection, and Niizhwaaswo shows that it’s possible to be brutal and soft at the same time.

Top Tracks: “Jan. 3rd”; “Niizhwaaswi”

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

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Review – “Walkabout EP” – Strange Fires

Reviewed by Jack Derricourt

Strange FiresThere is a land, where the rock and roll is just. There is a place where the four-four beat never gets old, smelling fresher than plastic money. There is a forest of four track cassette tape out there, warbling in the wind. There is a city full of Strange Fires. Edmonton!

The new stalwart destination in my mind when it comes to pop music has produced yet another class, Canadian act. Patrick Earles, lead maverick behind Strange Fires, is capable of harnessing psychic shifts with aplomb. He produced the first EP in 2012 all on his lonesome on a Fostex tape machine — make sure you check out the brilliant sounds of “Tidal Wave.” That release felt like a postcard of musical appreciation compared to The Walkabout EP, and the new album smacks of thoughtful exploration. Full on guitar arrangement and heavier, pronounced drumming fills out the earlier sound of the older recordings to make the Strange Fires collage expansive and alive on first listen.

“But he can’t sing,” said the blonde man at the bar, snorting his own moustache in with a long inhalation of wheat beer.

“So what?” Jack replied earnestly. “That’s what people said about Mick Jagger and Ian Curtis. You’re really going to write off a group’s music just because the vocalist has a different vibe than Miley Cyrus?”

The moustache stages a riot and strips itself away from its meathead of a host, voyaging off to find more openminded pastures.

And scene.

Yes, the vocal delivery takes some getting used to. Earles’ use of echo on his voice adds a sideways, psych edge to his deadpan delivery. But while the melody might lag, the phrasing is perfect: “Walkabout” features beautiful Beach Boys vocal hooks, paired up with chill, psychic grooves of guitar. You feel him stretching up to a varied approach with the yelps spliced into “Friends,” alongside the brutal bitterness of the song’s lyrical content.

Two pleasant features of the past EP return: the space voyage samples seen on the initial Strange Fires release return on “Interlude,” a wonderful change of pace in the middle of the record; and the dreamy, pop heavyweight, “Spring Break,” gets a new pair of shoes, with more guitar clout and a shinier polish. Both nice revisitations.

The last two songs on the EP are deep ruts of guitar and shimmering effects, coupled to ravines of depressed, introspective lyrics. “Walkabout” is an “I just wanna have something to do” kind of mini-epic, perfect for the malaise-minded listener. And “Departures” seems very poignant for a group that would disband merely two weeks after putting the finishing touches on the EP.

But be not afraid, dear reader. I’m sure that Patrick Earles is out there now, formulating new tunes to croon, stalking through the Edmonton evening. If the songs composed on his upcoming walkabouts are anything like the most recent ones, we’re in for a treat.

Top Tracks: “Walkabout” ; “Interludes” ; “Friends”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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Visual/Audible Hoots: Holy Hum, Illitry, Dirty Frigs, Coronado

Holy Hom – The Unknown

This year, Andrew Lee of In Media Res formed a new creation, Holy Hum. Much like his previous work, Holy Hum appears to go for eerie, haunting material as showcased in a rather unusual form—rather than a single or music video, the band has debuted a 17-minute short film. It takes place in Anacortes, Washington, in The Unknown, a recording studio owned by Phil Elverum (Mt. Eerie). It’s a fitting place for the band—Lee has been heavily influenced by Mt. Eerie’s sound. The film gives little snippets of what can be expected from the band, but you can be sure you’ll hear more and more as the band gets closer to releasing an album.

Illitry – “Runaways”

Hamilton’s Illitry continue to drop a series of singles that really make us want a full album. The latest entry is “Runaways,” a song full of crystalline synths and Vocoder-aided vocals. Accompanying it is a black-and-white video, directed by Brooks Reynolds, that purports to be inspired by Quentin Tarantino. We follow two young women (sisters? friends?) who get into trouble before turning things around in a twist ending. Make sure to follow it to the end.

Dirty Frigs – “Osiris”

For a healthy dose of “what the fuck did I just watch?” look no further than this new video and single from Dirty Frigs. The video is a directorial collaboration by photographer Laura Lynn Petrick, Jenny Warne (Heretical Objects Collective) and Dirty Frigs’ own Bri Salmena. Prepare to be assaulted by creepy smiley faces, violently crushed food, VHS-era static and a whole bunch of unidentifiable images. It goes well with the grungy guitars and yelled vocals for a truly disorienting experience.

Coronado – “A Line We Never Drew”

give up nothing volume 1For a good time, call Coronado. Seriously, these guys are always a blast. A year-and-a-half or so after their Remain Calm EP they’re ready to release the Give Up Nothing EP Vol. 1 on July 19th. The first single, “A Line We Never Drew,” is signature Coronado—group vocals, funky keys and guitar and lively drumming for this pop-disco sparkler. If the entire EP is as good as this song, we’ll have a winner.

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Review – “Sans mer” – Reliefs

by Eleni Armenakis a1509104481_2

There are bouts in an avid listener’s life when everything begins to sound the same—generic drips from your tongue like the critic you swore you wouldn’t be, but that desperate urgency to hear something innovative keeps clambering until it’s finally met with something that defies expectation. It’s a times like that when bands like Montreal’s Reliefs make themselves most welcome.

Describing themselves as post-rock and indie rock, trio David Lévesque, Alexandre McGraw and Maxime Sollier don’t initially seem like they fit the bill. As the guitar kicks up a jaunty rhythm and the drums march in on the first track of their debut EP, Sans mer, it isn’t immediately obvious what about the band has moved past the genre. And yet as the ears continue to await the long-expected next step, Reliefs holds off—there’s no first verse, or a second. The instrumental music instead continues to build to its first crescendo.

It’s a simple change, but one that makes the band stand out for their ability to so easily divert expectations. The rarity of an instrumental indie rock album immediately sets the young band apart—even as jazz infusions into rock, pop and even electric are making the resurgence more common elsewhere. Instead, Reliefs explain in their bio that their intent is to poetically evoke the spaces and landscapes that inspire them—the kind of mission that forces the listener to pay attention to what so easily becomes background noise as we pick up the lyrics.

Opener “L’espoir renaît dans la mégapole” tracks this attempt as it journeys through the city, moving through the visionary streets with changing tempos. The slow notes of the intro are betrayed by the growing pace of the drums, from observation to exploration as everything comes together and crashes into the audible recreation of a place and time for a new, shared experience.

More inwardly gazing is “Il neige à Montreal.” From the muffled, subdued first notes it’s a personal experience of isolation—beautifully rendered in the band’s video for the song. From bursts of energy to moments of near-silence to a flurry of activity, it transitions through those internal changes with a sense of unity, ending on a single, upward note of optimism.

The final and third act isn’t as tied to space as much as it is with time. The darkly tinted “Le début de la fin” adds gravity with its pattern of reverb, cold breaks and building intensity. It stands in contrast to the previous eight minutes, stripped of the playfulness that encapsulated both those soundscapes. Instead, there’s a sense of urgency as it moves into the final minute of the EP, trying to squeeze every last note out of the time that has been given.

Top track: “L’espoir renaît dans la mégapole”

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

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Review – “Lonesome Ghosts” – Blue Moon Marquee

lonesome ghostsreviewed by Michael Thomas

There are two ways a band can be considered “good.” They can either be great at what they do (read: a particular genre, like chamber folk or psychedelic rock) or they can be a band that wholly reinvents the way music should sound like. While the former is often not as interesting to hear, one of the exceptions to this maxim is Blue Moon Marquee, formerly AW Cardinal.

Cardinal first came to the blog’s attention with the excellent Stainless Steel Heart, which fully revived a genre that has influenced a slew of modern music—the old timey blues, the type you’d hear in the Mississippi Delta. While the name of the act has changed, the music definitely hasn’t, and that’s a good thing.

The band itself never goes too heavy on the instrumentals on Lonesome Ghosts—it’s usually a pleasant mix of brushed drums, double bass and keys, with the odd bit of strings. It creates what the band calls “Gypsy blues,” which combines blues song structures with a touch of alt-country. The blues is very apparent, as the song arrangements often use the twelve-bar blues structure popularized during the 20s and 30s. At times, the material seems to be winking back to that era, especially in the stellar “Trouble’s Calling,” with references to the devil who seems to be riding a “dead black horse.”

Otherwise, the songs touch on standard blues subjects—alcohol (“Scotch Whiskey”), women (“Gypsy’s Life” and “Sugar Dime”) and the workman’s life (“Pipeliner Blues,” a cover of a Moon Mullican song). Cardinal’s raspy vocals anchor the songs to the listener’s attention.

Just like Stainless Steel Heart, the song lengths are kept in check and breeze by in a flurry of bass and keys, but there’s at least a few songs where the songs take on a slightly different tone. “Bishop Street” is another highlight, which gives off a kind of happiness that is, well, the opposite of the blues. The title track, which also closes the album, is forward-looking optimistic despite the spooky subject.

The band’s self-described “Small town Alberta” home base should be glad to have this band, which glances backward for inspiration but remains thoroughly, thoroughly forward.

Top Tracks: “Trouble’s Calling”; “Bishop Street”

Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)

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