Words About Music
Broken Social Scene is more aptly and frequently spoken of as a “collective” than as a band. It’s easy to see why, considering the revolving door of Canadian rock royalty within. Not only do you have the already notable songwriting duo of de facto bandleaders Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, but you’ve also got members of Metric, Do Make Say Think, Stars, and the inimitable Leslie Feist.
2017 has been a big year for Broken Social Scene. “Hug of Thunder” is the group’s first album since 2010’s “Forgiveness Rock Record,” but it’s the end of numerous musical hiatuses for the band’s various members. Feist dropped her first album in six years back in April, the incredible “Pleasure.” Do Make Say Think dropped their first album in eight years shortly afterward, the underwhelming and forgettable “Stubborn Persistent Illusions.” Metric vocalist Emily Haines put out her first album as Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton in eleven years back in September, and it’s a lovely little record.
Now, we’ve got “Hug of Thunder,” which has a lot to live up to. “Forgiveness Rock Record” was fairly underwhelming at the time, considering it came out 5 years after the band’s beloved self-titled album, itself not quite as good as 2002’s “You Forgot It In People,” which is considered BSS’s magnum opus. While I’ve never been the biggest fan of this band, I was cautiously optimistic for this album, especially considering that the group’s numerous musical minds sometimes make for inconsistencies.
The album kicks off with the instrumental “Sol Luna,” which is laden with strings, keys, and just an overall welcoming atmosphere of pure loveliness. It sets the stage for the big, booming “Halfway Home,” which was the album’s first single. It’s led vocally by Kevin Drew and Ariel Engle, the latter of whom is a newer addition to the group who has made music in the band AroarA with fellow Broken Social Scenester Andrew Whiteman. I dig the hook on this one, as well as the excellent instrumentation which is wrought by the band’s plethora of musicians. Sonically, it’s not far off from what fellow Canadians Arcade Fire were doing on records like “Neon Bible” and “The Suburbs.” In this case, the more really is the merrier, from the plinky guitar passages to the myriad of vocal layers. It’s got a sweet crescendo and is the ultimate indie rock banger for 2017.
Emily Haines leads the next track, “Protest Song,” and her feathery-soft vocals sound lovely here. I like this song, although it is a bit repetitive for my tastes. Regardless, the hook is fantastic, and it’s well-balanced by the electric guitar lead that comes in about halfway through the track. I mostly feel positive about the song, though, even if it isn’t the brightest highlight to be found in the tracklisting.
The aforementioned Andrew Whiteman leads the next track, the soft, acoustically-driven “Skyline,” which enters the album a little bit awkwardly. Again, I’m reminded of decade-old Arcade Fire tracks rather than the energetic ignition that has made prior Broken Social Scene releases so essential and singular. Instrumentally it’s pretty cool, but structurally it’s a bit jagged and doesn’t do a whole lot for me in the grand scheme. I think part of it has to do with the vocals, which aren’t the album’s best. Things pick up a bit toward the end when the drum break comes in and the vocals are layered in a more ambient way, but overall this particular track leaves me a bit unimpressed.
Ariel Engle proves her skills once again on “Stay Happy,” which was also previously released as a single prior to the album’s release. She has a unique voice, and the song’s unique instrumental backing serves her well. This track is a couple bongos away from being a tUnE-yArDs track, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its own character. The horns on this track command, as do the dual percussive elements of the drum machine, beatbox, and acoustic kit. It’s a pretty fun, heavy song for the band, and it’s definitely a highlight for me on this record.
The next track, “Vanity Pail Kids,” kicks off with a bit of a Modest Mouse vibe in the instrumental, which is carried by Kevin Drew’s ominous vocals. It’s a hooky, vivacious indie rock track that would sound right at home in a packed theatre. It’s a really groovy track that brings together a lot of vibes, styles, and sounds in its 4 minutes, and it definitely rewards the patient listener.
The inimitable Leslie Feist sings lead vocals on the title track, marking her first proper song with the group since BSS’s 2005 self-titled album. Stylistically, it reminds me of the illusory closeness of her excellent solo album, “Pleasure,” which came out earlier in the year and is definitely worth a listen. It also has some of the album’s best lyrics, and it cements Feist as one of Canada’s most essential songwriters working today. I love the spacey, slow-building atmosphere of this song, and it solidifies a streak of excellent songs on the album when I was expecting to be fairly unimpressed.
After spending most of the album behind the (broken social) scenes, Brendan Canning steps into the spotlight to sing lead on “Towers and Masons,” which sits atop a slight drum machine beat. Canning’s vocal style reminds me of shoegaze bands, and instrumentally this is one of the album’s dreamier songs. This song isn’t super commanding, but I think a lot of this album presents slower, less opulent material that requires some repeated listening to properly enjoy. “Towers and Masons” is definitely not a bad song, in fact it’s quite good. It just doesn’t do as much for me as other songs here.
This continues to be the way of the band on “Victim Lover,” which is led by Lisa Lobsinger, main touring vocalist for the band and singer of Reverie Sound Revue. It’s got a very nice bassline which reminds me of Radiohead. In fact, this song carries a Radiohead feel to it for its entirety, with its atmospheric guitar and wading drums carrying a mid-paced rhythm. The track is nice enough, but it doesn’t exactly build up to much. If anything, the song feels like it builds up into nothing, like there should be this explosive second half that just isn’t there. As we round into the final fourth of the album, I hope we find some saving graces.
“Please Take Me With You” also carries plenty of Radiohead vibes with its barely-there drums and melancholic bass. Kevin Drew leads this song vocally, and he does a fine enough job giving it the right jolts of emotion (and emotionlessness). It’s a very pleasant song that makes good on the promises of the previous two by being both low-key and worth listening to for its entirety. It’s lovely, subtle, and understated.
“Subtle” appears to be the keyword here, with the Ariel Engle-led “Gonna Get Better” carrying on that dark, somber mood. Her turning vocalizations sort of remind me of Perfume Genius’ music, which is reinforced by the busy, ambient synthesizers which make up the bulk of the instrumentation, including a just-present bass synthesizer which carries the chord progression very beautifully. It almost carries the tone of a trendy, alternative-R&B song in the vein of someone like Kelela or FKA twigs, with the darkly comic hook, “Things’ll get better, ’cause they can’t get worse.”
The album comes to a close on its longest and most excellently titled song, “Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse.” Side note: Does Kevin Drew have an oral fixation? It seems like many of the lyrics in these songs mention mouths or oral processes. Just a thought.
Anyway, “Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse” is basically Kevin Drew mouthing off about his disappointment and disgust with the world that we’ve built and how we’ve allowed it to become controlled by evil maniacs. It’s an epic song, fitting for a closer, and I love the way it suddenly bursts into an almost post-rock-esque midpoint. I especially love the set of lyrics that goes: “Our heroes are dicks/We don’t pay to protect them/If zero’s a lover/I can’t get a correction/The truth, the truth/The fabulous lie/I’m tired of smiling/While you constantly die.” It’s an intense song that closes the album off in particularly large, unignorable fashion to contrast the chilly nature of the previous set of tracks. It’s given a pristine, horn-centric finish, and that’s the end of Broken Social Scene’s latest album.
Overall, I’m pleasantly surprised. “Hug of Thunder” is no masterpiece in the vein of “You Forgot It In People,” but it’s certainly a worthwhile effort that features some unapologetically great material. It’s definitely better than the band’s 2010 album, “Forgiveness Rock Record,” and it absolutely makes the case for this Canadian collective-as-band to exist in 2017. It’s an enjoyable album that is full of great musical ideas and greater musicians, giving undeniable proof that sometimes putting together this many artists in one album can work in a cohesive way. It’s a dark, lovely album with some killer melodies, consistently excellent musical backing, and collaborative chemistry that justifies the album’s existence, and then some.
SCORE — 8.00 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Halfway Home, Protest Song, Stay Happy, Vanity Pail Kids, Hug of Thunder, Please Take Me With You, Gonna Get Better, Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse
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