Told through personal accounts, Pain Olympics is a harrowing yet momentous chronicle of our generation’s struggles, but also our successes.
The music video for Crack Cloud‘s “Favour Your Fortune” starts with a quote by Eris Nyx, a Vancouver community organizer for the Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War. Nyx’s words reveal the sad reality of the war on drugs and its strangling grip on marginalized people and those in poverty. Amid a global pandemic is an opioid epidemic that is spreading throughout cities in North America. At the centre of this epidemic is Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a sprawling neighbourhood of homelessness and drug addiction. At the heart of the Eastside are ordinary people trying to make their way past traumas and negligible systems that have forced them to succumb to the degradation of their mental health. Enter Vancouver’s Crack Cloud, a collective of multimedia creatives and musicians. Some are former addicts, others are mental health workers, but all are artists celebrating their own intersectionalities, engaged in creating music and art as a valve for rehabilitation, inspiration, and storytelling.
On Pain Olympics, their ambitious debut, Crack Cloud assembles a collection of experimentalism, art-punk, hip-hop, new wave, and a warranted brashness. As a band, they operate as a fluctuating septet with frontman Zach Choy sitting atop the mast as the group’s drummer/vocalist. Without hearing about their story, you get a sense of how their collective operates by listening to intro “Post Truth (Birth of a Nation)”. A motley of different sounds and textures appear: stomping drums, echoing siren-like guitars, spoken-word vocals, choir vocals, flourishing pianos, strings, horns, and a barrage of samples. It can seem like throwing the kitchen sink on first inspection, but Crack Cloud crafts a sound that is intentionally spontaneous yet cohesive throughout the record. “When I listen back to it now I’m transported back to so many manifestations and influences — listening to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, hearing Pink Floyd growing up — [we took] inspiration from artists who use the album as a way of transcribing concepts that are more visual and more engaging than the music itself,” says Choy in an interview with NME.
Crack Cloud’s punk background is unmistakable; their first two EPs dove headfirst into late 70s/early 80s post-punk that inspired (very appropriate) comparisons to Gang of Four and Television.But Pain Olympics sheds notions of the band sticking to a uniform sound as their debut explores more diverse sonic territory. Crack Cloud presents us with a story that comes from personal experiences through a melding of genres and other art forms. On “Somethings Gotta Give”, they engender pain and dissolution as violins and guitars coalesce into a beautifully rendered rock ballad. You can hear Choy practically quivering in his plea for peace. On “The Next Fix”, funk somehow evolves into mariachi-melancholy. The track’s music video illuminates the struggle to find the next dose as Choy sings/raps in nervous dread: “Afraid I’m not innocent / Just feeling ambivalent / Guilt is the word, it’s burned into my mind all the time”. The song is an ode to those that have passed from overdose and suicide. As it unfolds, you go through the motions of restlessness, dissolution, and gloom. Joy starts to emanate from the suffering individuals, in an assembly of dance and a giant group hug. “When you’re feeling up or down / Don’t give up, it’s just life”, a group vocal sings, breeding hope in their collectivity.
Coming from a community perpetually dealing with political strife, it’s not surprising to hear condemnatory lyricism supplied with Minutemen-like irony and Devo-like delivery. “Perhaps we cannot come to a proper solution (Well, choose a side) / How do we value one over the other institution? (Let’s pick a loser),” sings Choy and the band on “Ouster Stew”. The track feels fittingly wonky, and in a hilarious music video, the collective is engaged in a Mad Max world of absolute hysteria and satire. On the horrorcore-inspired “Favour Your Fortune”, they denounce the police as an institution— “Such a whirl of contradiction / When you live to simply serve / Preserve the one and only / You’re not the only phoney,” Choy impresses, dispensing three different rap flows over a hollow bass synth. There’s a swagger found in Choy’s varying flows and vocalizations that somehow fit into the flux of genres Pain Olympics offers.
Despite the localized politics and social commentary Crack Cloud preach, the collective’s doctrine is far-reaching. “Please listen / Please understand you’re missing / One half of the picture ain’t listed,” screams Choy on “Tunnel Vision”. Subtlety isn’t what they’re going for here. The final scene of the track’s music video displays clips of Hong Kong protesters being maced and Wet’suwet’en protesters dealing with RCMP amidst a post-apocalypse backdrop and the sound of sampled distressing shrieks. The breakdown at the track’s climax feels necessary before the denouement of “Angel Dust (Eternal Peace)”. It is all at once urgent and therapeutic, providing a sense of the narrative they want to convey by the end of the record. Crack Cloud only seeks to inspire empathy and grace. As a work of personal accounts told by a diverse group of artists, Pain Olympics is a harrowing yet momentous chronicle of our generation’s struggles, but also, our successes.