Torandaga “After Life”

Torandaga, Toronto ON
Laura Harris

Latching onto the existence of an afterlife—despite the damning evidence to the contrary—is a pretty justifiable cognitive leap for somebody to make. The hard stop of death is a giant, looming inevitability and it’s really not that difficult to see how a belief in something else can help assuage some of the anxiety.

These notions are especially understandable when it comes to the death of a loved one. It’s become commonplace to wish for a “better place” for ones we’ve lost and held dear, as the idea of death as a transition, rather than a terminus point, helps us cultivate a meaning from their loss. It’s nice to think that consciousness could potentially carry on in some non-corporeal state, where the grief of lost time and lost relationships is either forgotten or cannot follow.

On their new song “After Life”, Toronto’s Torandaga flips this comforting concept of life post-death on its head. The duo provides a solemn glimpse of what it would be like to have the burden of memory tag along into the beyond. Death, in this way, becomes yet another emotional state where lost love can fester like an open wound.

“In the afterlife, I’ve given up. In the afterlife, I’ve seen enough. I really lost you baby,” laments Torandaga’s weary traveller, channeled through Andrew Jurrinen’s ghostly falsetto. The blunt simplicity of the lyrics is a welcome contrast to the metaphysical grandeur of the situation. Rather than get lost in heady conceptions of the afterlife, the duo stresses the importance of cherishing our relationships in the fleeting time that we have to do so.

“After Life” breezes along with a simple structure, but it is bolstered by massive, immediate instrumentation. The airy introduction gives way to post-punk guitars and thunderous drums, all textured by tasteful production flourishes. Like with the lyrics, Torandaga utilizes an economy of musical elements combined in a way to suggest something both otherworldly yet relatable. “After Life” is an excellent example of minimalist songwriting used to maximum effect.


Chocolat, Rencontrer Looloo

Cocolat, Rencontrer Looloo

Initially, it was hard to know what to make of an album likened to “seeing the future in the bottom of a bottle of Cherry Coke, or accessing the infinite through the twists of a pretzel”, but that’s what Montreal’s Chocolat went with for their new record Rencontrer Looloo. Now, I’ve listened to the record countless times and regrettably have had no such revelations (I’ve even had a few pretzels but remain woefully stuck in the finite), but I feel like I have somewhat of a better understanding of what the comparison is aiming at. Ultimately, Rencontrer Looloo is about using familiar means to achieve strange, unfamiliar ends.

Chocolat’s new LP is a glorious patchwork of influences, moods, and tempos that disregard consistency in favour of something more erratic. Call it… mélange rock. Entertaining, disorienting, and wildly over-the-top, it’s a record that seeks to manipulate and subvert the listener’s expectations whenever it can. Every time you think you have a lock on the band and their sound, Chocolat drastically shift gears and veer off on some other tangent. In a mere thirty-three minutes,Rencontrer Looloo dabbles in everything from garage rock to jazz to pop. There are psychedelic elements, chugging metal riffs, claviers, pianos, big-haired guitar solos, and steamy saxophones. Songs like “Mars” and “Les mésanges” recall Bends-era Radiohead; “Retrouver Looloo” and “Ah ouin” contain trace amounts of the Buzzcocks and The Stones; the foreboding “Koyaanisqatsi (apparition)” sounds like something off the original score of Stranger Things. It all plays out like some scatterbrained love letter to popular music.

This expansive approach works because of the strength of the individual songs. In lesser hands, the lack of continuity would be too much to handle, but Chocolat are pros. Formed in the mid-2000’s, they are a few years into their second incarnation after an extended hiatus to pursue other projects. Their seasoned experience shines through onRencontrer Looloo in the form of confident, efficient songwriting. No song feels too long or overdone, which is surprising given the album’s overall grandiosity and flamboyance. Vocalist Jimmy Hunt also does a fantastic job keeping the album grounded. As the songs cycle through a flurry of different styles, he adapts his impressive range accordingly, delivering hook after hook until one of the only measures of true consistency on the record is how goddamn catchy it all is.

On an album full of anomalies, the aforementioned “Koyaanisqatsi (apparition)” stands as the most glaring aberration of the bunch. Its eerie, synth-driven soundscape seems especially random at first, but a little digging proves otherwise. Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word that roughly translates to “unbalanced life”, a notion which characterizes Rencontrer Looloo, with all of its clashing styles, quite well. The song also sits in the exact middle of the track listing, despite directly speaking to the idea of imbalance. It seems only fitting that the most drastic stylistic shift on the album would also harmoniously divide its two halves, becoming a literal and thematic centrepiece. Looloo embraces its contradictions and hinges on its discordance in the most calculated of ways, using them as foundational principles; it’s balanced by imbalance. Chocolat shrug off the overarching safety that dominates many modern rock records. On Rencontrer Looloo, they’re perfectly content to tap into the chaotic incongruity of life and the music that colours it.


WTCHS, She Walks, She Creeps

WTCHS, She Walks, She Creeps

In the spirit of the season, when the artificial cobwebs and paper skeletons come out of storage and those sinister, humanoid gourds begin to spawn on neighbourhood doorsteps, it seems appropriate to talk about fear.

Granted, there’s nothing that scary about Halloween in and of itself—in fact in your 20s it seems to be more about getting shitfaced and finding the most culturally biting/pun-laden costume you can grab before Value Village closes. Although perhaps not in that order—but there is still something about this time of year that draws attention to the mad thrill inherent in terror; to the adrenaline rush that urges us on to investigate the infernal bumps in the night.

This willingness to dive headlong into fear is a necessary starting point from which to explore She Walks, She Creeps, the new album from Hamilton, Ontario’s WTCHS, which fittingly drops on October 31st. The band finds an unsettling balance between the familiar and the grotesque, guiding the listener to that precarious edge and inviting them to stare out and revel in their distorted abyss. The album is relentless, constantly haunted by an atmosphere of tension and dread that manages to turn your surroundings against you (try listening to the first few minutes of “Choke Bored” while walking at night without staring nervously into the darker areas). My friend Mac touches on this in his great review of the song “You Own Your Bones”, relating his experience of the song to watching David Robert Mitchell’s film It Follows. The comparison is well-taken; there is something about WTCHS’ music that unmistakably lurks.

Harrowing atmosphere aside, She Walks, She Creeps is an excellent experimental rock record. “Old Crowns” and “Whitney at the Rifle Range” sound like a sludged-out Metz meets Drive Like Jehu, while the aforementioned “You Own Your Bones”, with its hellish minimalism and deranged horns, recalls something conjured up by Swans. The moments of ire, prolonged tension, and ominous bliss all work together to create a unified collection of songs. The consistency of the album’s vision can also be heard in the production. The heavy use of space and reverb adds to the unease, creating an additional layer of removal from the listener. This is especially true in the case of the vocals, which sound like they’re being hollered from an otherworldly, liminal place.

For bands that aim to capture a sinister, horror-like tension in their music, I would imagine that trying to emulate Black Sabbath would be an easy, and somewhat tempting trap to fall into. After all, they were the true cultivators of an aesthetic that transformed blues riffs into something evil. But it’s been done. We don’t need more bands sounding like Sabbath because, well, we have Sabbath. And much like the modern day horror movies that keep re-hashing old and reliable tropes, contemporary bands that solely look backwards run the risk of becoming parodic. This is why She Walks, She Creeps was so effective for me. It categorically separates itself from the sounds that unmistakably influenced it. Mac’s comparison to It Follows rings true again in this context. It’s a film that feels somewhat recognizable but also entirely fresh; traditional yet innovative; familiar and grotesque. WTCHS achieves a similar feat on this great record.

So this Halloween, throw on She Walks, She Creeps and embrace the spookiness. You may not sleep, but you certainly won’t regret it.


Sienna Dahlen, Ice Age Paradise

Sienna Dahlen, Ice Age Paradise

Album covers can often act like windows.

At their most effective, they offer valuable insights into the intended themes of a record. Often times, the music in question inevitably needs to be heard before the curtains can be fully drawn. However in the case of Sienna Dahlen’s new record Ice Age Paradise, the album’s overarching ideas are laid bare in the landscape framed on its cover: A barren field in winter; sparse trees stripped bare by the season; the resilient tips of evergreens peering up from behind a ridge; man-made tracks in the foreground, the hint of a barn roof, and a fencepost the only evidence of human life; a brilliant sunrise/set on the horizon signalling serenity and  change.

It’s striking artwork, even when viewed independently. It’s an image that speaks to endurance and the beauty that can be found in exploring and overcoming the bleakest of feelings. Luckily for us, the image is merely a primer for an excellent collection of songs that delves into these ideas even further.

Ice Age Paradise is a record informed by loss. Dahlen lost her mother before the project began; around the same time, she also separated from her long-time partner. These events loom large on the record, their presence most notably felt in the disarming rawness of the compositions. Dahlen, alongside a group of musicians led by Toronto-based composer Andrew Downing, creates wonderfully spacious music on Ice Age that feels edgeless. The album flows freely, capturing all the emotional twists and turns tied to cathartic healing. Its tendency to drastically shift moods can be heard in the first two tracks: “Drifting Daydream” finds Dahlen sailing to the moon set to blissful, airy jazz, before dropping into the starkness of “Cold”, where she ponders mortality with lines like “it’s been said we’re hangin’ from thread, hangin’ from thread in the wind”.

Dahlen’s performance is a revelation. The Toronto-based songwriter rarely relies on drastic changes in volume or style to amplify emotional intensity and she resists the temptation to over-sing. For the most part, her vocals are minimal and hang spectrally against the backdrop of Downing’s arrangements. In songs like “Blind Spot”, Dahlen arrives at her vocal peak subtly with fluid precision, making the song’s penultimate section all the more effective. Stylistic nods to singers like Thom Yorke, Sharon Van Etten, and even Nick Cave can be heard throughout Ice Age Paradise. Allusions to Cave’s delivery and macabre imagery are especially striking on the title track, where Dahlen adopts a more poetic tone and conjures up images of black magic, neon signposts, and a “ravenous raven cawin’ and cravin’ sin” over delicate instrumentation that barely reveals itself.

It’s hard to classify Ice Age Paradise as a feel-good record. It’s a challenging listen that disregards conventional song writing, potently capturing human loss in a way that feels almost unfiltered. This is also why the album works. Good artists find a way to tackle difficult emotions with sincerity and clarity of vision . Sienna Dahlen has crafted a record that simultaneously expresses grief and grapples with how to transcend it; that tries to find peace and understanding in the coldest of states.


Southern Shores “Palo Alto”

Of all the potent ways in which music can tug at the psyche, my absolute favourite is how it can conjure up vivid images of an idealized elsewhere.

There are particular songs that create a feeling of escapism that’s rarely tied to a specific time or place. Instead, subtle flourishes in the music tap into a jumbled Rolodex of emotions and experiences that builds up and swells in the mind over time. The result is a clear picture of a vaguely defined place that forms as the song unfolds.

In this case, the song in question is “Palo Alto” by the Toronto-via-Halifax electronic duo Southern Shores, a song that a friend described to me as a shot of serotonin. It didn’t take me long to realize what she meant.

“Palo Alto” is off the band’s upcoming full-length entitled Loja, out today, September 2 on Cascine. According to their Bandcamp page, Southern Shores (Ben Dalton and Jamie Townsend) intended Loja to be a “reflection on travel and its ability to unlock a larger worldview”. If the first single is any indicator, the duo certainly held true to their intentions. “Palo Alto” is pure, well-crafted escapism. It unfolds with a simple drum pulse and lush samples that build on, and bleed into one another, creating a gorgeous soundscape. The band finds a harmony between the exotic and the familiar in a way that recalls artists like Tycho, Bonobo, and even Slowdive.

There is no question that “Palo Alto” makes a pretty overt beeline for the brain’s pleasure centres, but it also lacks the kind of mindless hedonism present in a lot of modern electronic music. It is a song that is best enjoyed solo, in order to fully immerse yourself in the expansive world it creates.


Blessed, Blessed

blessed

The self-titled collection of experimental punk from Vancouver’s Blessed is wonderfully difficult to write about. Wonderful because it’s the type of release that discourages classification and simply commands your attention.

Nevertheless, here I am. Writing about it. I will inevitably try to classify it for want of something to say, but do so with the hope that it will peak your interest, so you too can take the plunge into this fabulous offering from a band with scary amounts of potential.

Blessed’s eponymous EP, clocking in at just over 21 minutes, has the scope and emotional range of a record twice its length. The quartet (Drew Reikman on guitar/vocals, Reuben Houweling on guitar/vocals, Mitchell Trainor on bass, and Jake Holmes on drums) finds stunning middle ground between showcasing their deft musicianship and a strict adherence to arrangement. Through all the sudden changes in dynamics, extended instrumental sections, and shifts in time signature, the band is always mindful of anchoring the onslaught with recurring motifs. It’s experimental, but also crafted with impressive precision.

While the instrumental talent is undeniable, so much of the emotional heft of the EP comes by way of Drew Reikman’s vocals. His ominous, Tom Verlaine-esque delivery gives these songs a distinct personality and a sense of undeniable purpose. You hear it on tracks like “Repossess” and during the enormous trudge of opener “Waving Hand”, both sounding something like Television playing Black Sabbath songs on top of a mountain. Reikman displays excellent instincts as a vocalist. He never allows his parts to crowd the meandering nature of the music; his voice settles into the deluge and effectively punctuates it.

If there is any justice left in the crapshoot that is the contemporary musical landscape, this EP should lead to bigger and better things for the band who created it.  This is bold, interesting music that sounds about as singular as possible at a time when an increasing number of newer bands lean heavily on the familiar aesthetics of nostalgia to gain traction. There is so much talent here, but talent and obscurity too often go hand in hand and those bigger and better things can only happen if we start paying attention.

So let’s get started: download the EP and go see BLESSED in a town near you this fall as they embark on a truly ginormous North American tour.


BADBADNOTGOOD, IV

bbng-iv

I find jazz a particularly difficult genre to settle in and get comfortable with.

At its most liberated, there is no questioning the frequent moments of brilliance. But jazz is also frustratingly enigmatic: a frenetic, shape shifting style of music that deliberately does away with the defined structural boundaries and melodic continuities of other styles.

It takes a singularly focused mind to sift through and make sense of the subtly organized chaos of many jazz compositions. And while the rewards are plentiful, it is a type of active listening that doesn’t seem to jive with the internet-driven model of modern media consumption. With our attention constantly being pulled in different directions by this, that, or the other, we are lucky to hang in there for a single song, let alone weather an entire jazz odyssey.

Enter BADBADNOTGOOD, a Canadian quartet who play a brazen, more structurally linear form of jazz that incorporates hip-hop, electronic elements, and R&B. Their style is more conducive to grabbing a modern listener’s attention immediately, rather than making them work for it. And this is not meant to be a dig. The band’s previous records (three albums on their own and a collaborative LP with Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah) are chock-full of slick, captivating exercises in a more accessible type of jazz-fusion.

Their excellent new record, and fourth on their own–aptly entitled IV–finds BADBADNOTGOOD continuing to write jazz-oriented songs for modern audiences. However, this time around there’s also a noticeable push towards embracing musical themes synonymous with the genre’s history, most evident in a recent personnel decision. Saxophonist Leland Whitty, who has collaborated with BADBADNOTGOOD on a number of songs in the past, is now a full-time member, and his schizophrenic style abounds on IV. Whitty’s playing is indebted to jazz titans like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and he acts as a sort of sonic bridge between IV and the traditions that inform it. Songs like the frantic “IV” and the more subdued “Chompy’s Paradise” are two of the most jazz-forward songs in BBNG’s canon thus far, and Whitty’s presence gives these songs a nostalgic feel that comes off sounding far more like homage than pastiche. Many of the other finer moments on the record effectively draw from jazz’s collective memory. Matthew Tavares’ wonderful piano work on the album closer “Cashmere” recalls Vince Guaraldi, and when drummer Alexander Sowinski uses brushwork to explore quieter dynamics on “Structure No. 3”, the song adopts a timeless quality.

Another way in which BADBADNOTGOOD tailors IV for contemporary listeners is by peppering it with guest stars. It’s a natural progression after 2015’s Sour Soul, an LP that saw them join forces with Ghostface Killah. But whereas Sour Soul is uniformly a hip-hop record, IV’s collaborations are far more diverse and the results are impressive. Future Islands’ frontman Samuel Herring features on the velvety smooth “Time Moves Slow”, which finds the band laying down a subtle groove that floats delicately beneath his raspy croon. On “In Your Eyes”, Toronto R&B singer Charlotte Day Wilson stuns with her warm vocal delivery, over instrumentation tastefully plucked from a low-lit jazz dive. These two vocal- heavy songs–along with “Hyssop of Love”, which features excellent verses from Alabama MC Mick Jenkins–demonstrate BADBADNOTGOOD’s ability to craft a universally accessible record without sacrificing moments of experimentation.

Taken as a whole, IV is perhaps the most complete record in BADBADNOTGOOD’s discography. It is a record that is firmly grounded in a contemporary context, yet dedicated to carrying on certain traditions that made its existence possible. It is by no means as borderless or as experimental (or thankfully, as long) as other groundbreaking jazz records, but it has the same fearless musical spirit that has been forever tied to the genre.