With Warrior Down, WHOOP-Szo weaves an enlightening and empathetic narrative about healing, learning, and hope.
There is a line in “Helpless” by Neil Young that has always spoken to me: “There is a town in North Ontario / with dream, comfort, memory to spare”. I’m not from Northern Ontario and I never moved far from my hometown the way Neil did, but for some reason that lyric makes me feel good; I can’t help but get the shivers while listening. Conversely, there is a line in the song “Gerry,” from WHOOP-Szo’s incredible new record Warrior Down, that gives a similarly satisfying, yet entirely opposite feeling. It knocks me back to reality: “Warrior down in Saskatchewan town / My cousin Gerry was shot by a cop.”
WHOOP-Szo is a difficult band to classify. Their music is too pretty to be considered sludge, too smart to be stoner, too loud too be folk, and too unpredictable to be run of the mill rock. The equilibrium they have created is a wholly satisfying blend of all those elements and Warrior Down is a perfect display of their various powers. It’s also crafted with care to be a complete album experience, best listened to front to back. Songs flow into each other seamlessly; no mood or movement is lingered on for too long. And while it’s no rock opera, there is a concept and intent behind these songs.
The band is led by Adam Sturgeon — an Anishinaabe-Canadian and an active community leader, currently based in London, Ontario — who, over the course of Warrior Down, weaves details of his family’s history, his self-reflections, and ruminations about modern Canadian society into an enlightening and empathetic narrative about healing, learning, and hope. The album is heavy in a lot of ways and features moments of cathartic intensity, but it is never heavy-handed or depressing. You could listen to the album strictly for the riffs, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice not digging into its themes. Warrior Down record doesn’t aim to shock you with songs like “Long Braided Hair” (which frames the lack of awareness or care about missing and murdered Indigenous women as collective cultural insanity), or “Cut Your Hair” (which details Sturgeon’s grandfather’s experience in a residential school). Rather, the songs serve as weighty, sobering reminders that injustices like these really happened and continue to happen.
Warrior Down is a wake-up call. That refrain in “Gerry” is the formative reality for so many Indigenous people and more broadly marginalized groups in this country. A reality that is certainly more “real” that my formative years growing up in a Toronto suburb where as far as I could tell, the cops’ only purpose was to break up parties being held by teenagers in parks. The details of “Gerry” are harrowing but they are real — no less true but certainly more real than Neil’s wistful remembrances of a peaceful childhood home. Whereas Neil’s dreams of his northern reality are softened by distance, privilege, and nostalgia, Sturgeon’s words are hardened by first-hand experience of grisly, systemic flaws. By putting these details into song, WHOOP-Szo have done something powerful: they have immortalized a more urgent truth that will hopefully help those who relate feel less alone. Moreover, it will hopefully force those who don’t, or can’t, relate to reconcile with the reality of where they are from, and recognize how much pain and suffering needed to take place for you to have a comfortable place to live.