Century Egg, River God

Century Egg, River God

When I was growing up, Canadian indie always seemed like an open and inclusive community to me, but it can be hard to notice who is being excluded when you feel included. In hindsight, it clearly lacked—and continues to lack—the kind of multicultural representation that this country is supposed to embody.

That said, there was a change within the scene that can be loosely tied to Tanya Tagaq’s Polaris Prize win in 2014 for her album Animism. The loud, proud display of Inuit culture Tagaq embodies, her incredible music, and her continuously rising profile has started a conversation, putting into motion an invigorated push for real cultural representation in Canadian music, kickstarted by artists. Whether that push has got us anywhere other than talking amongst ourselves is a whole other question. NOW Magazine’s 2016 cover story, entitled “Real talk about racism in the Toronto music scene” shines a light on the bleak realities of being a person of colour trying to break through playing music. Lido Pimienta—whose 2016 album La Capacidad was one of the best of the year—wrote about her experience trying to be part of the change within Toronto’s music scene. She spoke about how she is often tokenized as not only the one woman on the bill, but the only South American performer and the only act singing in Spanish. She told NOW, “I’ve been in Canada for 10 years, and when I think about Canada then and now, it’s the same. I’m still the one brown girl among all these white men.”

It is safe to say that the Canadian music industry is white male-centric from the top down. However, artists like Tagaq and Pimienta are making a difference and empowering others who don’t fit in or feel represented in the indie rock scene to go for it, even if the language you speak or sing in can’t be understood by the dunderheads there to enjoy the show.

Century Egg are a band from Halifax that live by the aforementioned artist’s example. Their latest EP, entitled River God, finds lead singer Shane Keyu Song singing in Mandarin and English. This detail, however big or small it may seem to you, makes Century Egg unique in Canada’s indie rock community. Of course, just like the above examples, it is not what makes the band great. River God is fifteen too-quick minutes of perfectly crafted, heartwarming pop songs that are ripe with an innocence and exuberance often missing from the shallow and snobby landscape of modern music. Robert Drisdelle’s guitar work and songwriting is deceptive and tasteful. Nick Dourado on bass and Tri Le on drums ground Drisdelle’s jazzier tendencies while remaining technical, propulsive, and melodic in their own right. While most of the songs on the EP are teched out pop numbers, they often have brief flashes of something a bit heavier which always leaves me wanting more. “Lost Angel” features the best example of this technique. For the most part, the song is reminiscent of early R.E.M. and features Keyu Song singing about someone who chose the wrong girl for a lover. Keyu Song’s melody—mirrored by Dourado—is the key to the song, as it’s been stuck in my head for weeks . The song becomes more than just catchy during the final bars of the bridge. Drisdelle lets out a perfect not-quite-solo that wouldn’t sound out of place in a heavy metal song, before landing right back into the wistful chorus; it’s so fucking awesome I could scream.

“River God” and “All This Unpleasantness” both expertly showcase the technical aspects of the band without ever feeling like they are being difficult on purpose. “Sunshine Realize” could be the love song of the year. Lyrically, it is personal and honest. Keyu Song sings directly to her lover—who happens to be Drisdelle—about how proud she is of them and how great it would be to just forget all their plans and sit in the sunshine, drinking wine. The band tiptoes behind her as she and Drisdelle escape this stressful scene, even if it’s just for the length of the song. Closing number, “Day That Didn’t Exist” is a beautiful acoustic foottapper; I’m sure if Paul McCartney heard it, he would be mad he didn’t come up with it first.

In an interview with The Imposter, Keyu Song revealed one of the ways she goes about writing lyrics. She picks a pop song and writes down the highs, lows, and the emotional arc of the melody. She then applies that arc to her own melodies. This insight is fascinating because in listening to Century Egg there is a trust I’ve been able to develop. The songs sound familiar, but not suspiciously so. There is also an innocence this EP that, once again, is refreshing. An indie band that doesn’t sound jaded in 2017 is a goddamn miracle in my books, but it’s more than that. I find myself agreeing with Bandcamp user aquakultre: “Century Egg takes me back to when I was 5, hunting snakes, and eating wild blackberries. Everyone has that something that makes them reminiscent of their childhood. Mine happens to be this band.”* River God isn’t nostalgic in an icky or cheap way; it sounds and feels too real for that. It removes the baggage of modern life and manages to sound like the first time you fell in love with a person, a song, or a place. It feels innocent but not infantile.

Century Egg’s music also manages to sounds political while avoiding explicitly political subject matter. It feels like the band’s existence is political in and of itself. In a recent episode of CBC Radio’s Ideas, about science, its limits, and its future, Margaret Wertheim talked about stagnancy within physics. She theorizes that the lack of diversity in the field has put a limit on what can be discovered;that different experiences and perspectives can lead to greater understanding,different approaches, and better ideas. Maybe indie rock has been plagued with the same problem and Century Egg are here to help.

*aquakulture’s comments have been edited for clarity

Kurtis Eugene “For What It’s Worth”

Kurtis Eugene, Halifax NS
Chiara Pambianco

What would it take to make you give it all up? And by ‘it,’ I mean everything. All of it. All you hold dear and precious in your life. Would it be a person? A feeling? A moment in time?

Halifax-based / Fredericton-born Kurtis Eugene makes me want to know what that ‘it’ is for him when he wails “For what it’s worth/ I’d give it all away / To be with you / Someday,” at the close of the achingly poignant “For What It’s Worth”. I would give everything away to experience the level of intense emotion and connection Eugene invests in song. His muse must be great to elicit such heartfelt, plain-spoken poetry.

Eugene opens “For What It’s Worth” with the lines “Mama always told me / Use what you got for good”. I’m profoundly grateful he heeded her advice. The song (and all of his 2016 release Old Rooms New Light) employs his musical and storytelling gifts for the greater good.

Chik White, Malform

Chick White, Malform

In between listening to your prog-ur-doom orchestra and your improvised bagpipe solo albums, try Chik White’s Malform as a palette cleanser. Hailing from the rural seascape of West Chezzetcook, Nova Scotia, Chik White sounds exactly like someone simultaneously playing a variety of jaw harps with intensity and tenacity, using contact mics to amplify the sounds of the player’s movements, all with a very thick low-end and some kind of overdriven distortion or compression. Nothing about this album is normal. But it’s totally of the moment, and a very meaningful contribution to the recorded arts of sonic meditation.

Slow Man Tofu “Starting Bands”

Slow Man Tofu, Kingston ON
Kristin St-Pierre

We all harbour a secret desire to be in a band. Admit it. Even if you’ve never successfully played a bar of music in your life, you’ve basked in the adoration of an imaginary stadium of fans boisterously losing their shit over your blisteringly hot tennis racket solo or leave-it-all-on-the-bedroom floor lip sync into a hairbrush.

Slow Man Tofu brilliantly bottles the cacophonic energy that comes when one person turns to another and says, “Hey, you wanna start a band?” on the aptly named “Starting Bands”. It’s about music as therapy, music as release, music as a way of life. It’s finding kindred spirits whose first reaction to such a question isn’t to laugh, but to dream. An eruption of guitars mid-way through is the sound of potential and possibility rushing to the surface, finally free to be voiced and shared with another. You’re never alone when you’re in a band. It’s more than having safety in numbers; it’s having a sense of purpose and value.

It’s that feeling you get when you know, truly know, there’s a connection between you and another. A transcendent connection beyond physical and emotional love. It’s the connection that comes when you’re keeping time with another. Like “Starting Bands” itself, the feeling is fleeting, but in the moment there’s nothing better.

Kestrels “No Alternative”

Kestrels, Halifax NS

Is a history lesson in order? Am I acting like a dowdy old professor, wearing chalk dusty robes, branding a ruler in my hand, standing in front of a class of whippersnappers and lecturing on the origins of Kestrels “No Alternative”?

“You young people of the new millennium! Listen to me! I have wisdom and knowledge from before the dawn of Google!”

I know, I know. No one is listening. The kids, they’re listening to Chad Peck’s barely there, velvety vocals and fuzzed-up guitar work, cascading like waterfalls over his brother Devin Peck’s pummeling bass while it sparrs with drummer Paul Brown’s dynamic one-two rhythmic punch. The kids don’t give a shit about the title’s pedigree, or how it perfectly dovetails into the swirling guitar whirlpool Kestrels have been stirring up in the studio.

Rock is full of instances where history repeats itself, and while “No Alternative” has me coming back to yesteryear, the song finds the Halifax based trio on a frenzied trajectory forward, with no time for lazing about. Lesson learned: whether it’s 1996 or 2016, there’s no alternative to a perfectly crafted hook filtered through a battalion of guitar pedals.

Class dismissed.

Sarah Denim “Lights On”

Sarah Denim

Halifax’s Sarah Denim‘s “Lights On” is a watercolour painting inked over with crisp dark lines. Squiggly synth lines highlight and accent the vivid palette she uses in broad brush strokes as the base of her minimalist work of art. About 40 seconds in, the slightest of pauses–pregnant with anticipation–bursts forward, animating the song and bringing it to glorious life. It’s a moment of cautious hesitation immediately scrapped in favour of ‘fuck it, you only live once’ attitude. It’s details like this, and a myriad others, that make “Lights On” (and “It Goes”, released to SoundCloud around the same time) endlessly enjoyable.

Originally posted on Quick Before It Melts 28 March 2016.