LIVE: Nitzer Ebb December 1, 2009 Mod Club Toronto, Ontario
Pioneering industrial dance group Nitzer Ebb’s connection to Toronto runs deeper than you’d expect.
The reformed Chelmsford, England band’s music was the anchor for no less than a half dozen major alternative/electro club nights in this city about 15 years ago, and that scene’s survivors — the hardy misfits who still wear black, or shave the sides of their heads, or aren’t afraid to go out on a Tuesday night — were witness to a Terminator-efficient performance that was vital, vicious and without any taint of retro kitsch.
Local dance rockers OPOPO had their work cut out for them as openers. Perhaps it was because they felt too much like The Shamen or Ned’s Automic Dustbin — comparative softies from back in the day that Ebb fans would’ve defined themselves against — but the arms-crossed, shaved-headed crowd mostly no-sold the band’s high energy set.
Credit the band for continuing to barrel through, though. Neither did it hurt when vocalist/guitarist Bryan Sutherland put his hands over his eyes to shield them from the stage lights, looked out into the crowd and assured, “Hi, we’re OPOPO. We’ve got a couple songs left” mid-song. It was self-aware and self-deprecating enough that it at least softened the audience to dish polite applause for the remainder of their stage time.
The Mod Club crowd was still a little cold when Douglas McCarthy, Bon Harris and live member Jason Payne bounded onto the stage, but that would change in very short order.
During the pulsing take on the Belief album’s “Hearts & Minds” the character of this show really began to show itself. Slowly but surely, bodies started moving as McCarthy flung himself across the stage in his suit and tie like a sinister Max Headroom while Harris and Payne pounded away at dueling drum kits.
Showtime‘s underground classic “Lightning Man” further elevated things. Hundreds of raised fists matched McCarthy’s shouts of “Baby! Come to daddy!” as a strange sort of hive mentality broke out on the Mod Club floor. It would be too gag-y and ravespeak to say there was a sense of “unity,” but as the band pushed on through “Blood Money” and “Godhead” the audience felt transformed.
No longer was it about the individual fan as much as it was about the interlocking mechanical parts that were the bodies that were moving, punching and stomping along to a fascinating machine language. If this was a collective synesthesia, the participants weren’t seeing colours, but instead phantasmal hammer strikes, gear shifts and piston firings as the band pressed on.
By the time the Ebb unveiled That Total Age‘s “Murderous,” McCarthy had lost the jacket, skewed the tie and the industrio-trance was in full effect.
There had been very little in the way of stage banter up ’til that point and there would be very little as the band continued. Besides, McCarthy was already saying all the important things he wanted to say in his songs — which mostly involved commands for people to get on their knees.
Nobody actually did drop down, but there were a few who were surely close during the surprisingly anthemic “Control, I’m Here” and the not-as-bad-as-I-remembered “Ascend.”
The only logical choice to close their set was dark club banger “Join In The Chant” and, sure enough, pretty much everyone did in fact join in the chant. Somewhere in there, McCarthy lost his shirt and that mechanical trance broke down into chaotic flailing, those machine parts oscillating so wildly that overheating was inevitable.
The Ebb’s short encore concluded with McCarthy doing his best Dave Gahan for an arms-wide-open take on “I Give To You.” Having made so many demands of all the little machines all night, it was the perfect gesture to give something back. It was a decidedly human way to end the show, but it felt a bit like a warning, too, and left little doubt that Nitzer Ebb would be back.
This story was originally published December 2, 2009 via Chart Communications.
LIVE: My Bloody Valentine September 25, 2008 Kool Haus Toronto, Ontario
If you take a couple of normal folks and put them in front of a loud Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band, the ensuing noise will likely shake them out of their vanilla lives into fits of dancing. At a certain level, it’s not even about whether the band are any good, so much as it’s about the normies having this genuine “I’ve-never-felt-like-this-before” gut response to facing blasting rhythmic noise.
Pack a couple thousand hipsters into a warehouse space and crank waves of feedback at them, and they basically turn into your uncle Stan marking out to “Suzie Q” in the exact same way. I know because that was pretty much the reaction on Thursday night to My Bloody Valentine’s return to a Toronto stage after a 16-year absence.
Yeah, I’m in total agreement with everyone else: Loveless is a wonderful record. And I spent many hours zoning out to that album in the early ’90s. Unfortunately, My Bloody Valentine’s live show — which is built upon the foundations of a) being really fucking loud and b) featuring undulating pulses of piercing white noise — stomps out any of the subtlety and nuance that make MBV great on your home stereo.
Sure, it made for a truly magical and unique marriage of sonics when the melody lines of “Only Shallow” or “I Only Said” would rise above the racket. And when the riffs of “Come In Alone” smashed into you, it was with a fascinating and breath-shortening physical force. These were moments I can’t even imagine a band not named My Bloody Valentine being able to evoke. But if you were hoping to actually sing along to Kevin Shields or Bilinda Butcher, you would’ve been shit out of luck, what with their vocals essentially acting like bird chirps in a sonic hurricane.
Probably more disconcerting, though, was that when you entered the Kool Haus, a very fatherly and concerned security guard handed out earplugs to everyone and warned “you’re going to need them.”
Was nobody else actually offended that the baseline volume of a band was going to be so high the venue staff actually felt the need to warn people what they were getting into (no doubt to absolve themselves of liability for blown ears)? Seriously, what exactly is the goal of having that level of volume?
Mythbusters says “the brown note” doesn’t exist, so trying to make your audience shit their pants is out. But causing vomiting (which we’ve got at least one confirmed report of from last night) and fainting (which happened to a former Chart editor at MBV’s Opera House gig in 1992) were no doubt in the cards. Throw in the overpowering spastic flashes of that light show — a sensation that felt not unlike getting poked in the eye 10 times a second — and it leads me to believe the band were looking to evoke epileptic seizures, too.
Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure this whole exercise was an act of sonic sadism on the part of My Bloody Valentine — a twisted game where the band earned sparkly badges for every throw-up or person cowering with their back to the stage and hands covering their ears.
Basically, if you went to this show, you got gimmicked. What My Bloody Valentine did was no different than Gwar spewing blood on to a crowd or some hardcore band encouraging a violent circle pit. MBV’s tactic was “be really loud.” And they certainly were. But 20 per cent less volume and 10 per cent more subtlety would have made a 30 per cent better show. And if you think differently, you’re probably like uncle Stan leaving his house for the first time in 10 years and encountering rock ‘n’ roll. Fuck you, My Bloody Valentine.
This story was originally published September 26, 2008 via Chart Communications.
March 7, 2020 was the last time I saw live music. I finally got to see Chalk Circle, a beloved band from my youth, as part of a benefit show at Toronto’s Lee’s Palace. Five days later the entire music industry in Canada — and largely around the world — shut down and everything changed as we entered The Pandemic Times.
Listening to music in total isolation is strange. Sure, if you’ve got any lonerism in you it’s not that strange. After all, dancing alone to records in your bedroom isn’t entirely daunting if that was half your life in high school. What was missing in 2020, though, was the feedback. Not the actual buzzing noise of feedback, but that static in the air that comes with a shared joke about a song you’d listen to repeatedly on a road trip with friends, or the universal hatred that comes from every mall clothing store playing that same song of the summer constantly. This was the year of no road trips and no shared listens. And none of that feedback that elevates a song to becoming something more, something communal.
That said, with no concerts, no recreation, no visits and virtually no hobbies, this year ended up being a very all-consuming music listening one for me. I listened to more new music this year than any time in recent memory. Which is saying a lot considering that for more than 20 years my professional duties have generally meant listening to new albums all day, constantly, day-in, day-out.
While that need to chase the new sound, to discover anything that could make me feel was incredibly strong, it was the familiar that gave me the most relief. Albums from the likes of Public Enemy, Thurston Moore, Rufus Wainwright, Run The Jewels, The Avalanches and Flaming Lips certainly don’t represent brave new waves at this point, but they provided comforting blankets of sound, even if the actual sounds some of them make are far from comforting.
Language barrier be damned, the experimental cumbia the Meridian Brothers throw down was a party, and the fascinating sci-fi of the Futuro Conjunto project suggests there’s an incredibly exciting alt wave of Latin music to be explored. Elsewhere, Cheekface’s Emphatically No. may turn out to be an unexpected late-stage win for the legacy of Cake, and Daniel Romano’s outlandish series of quality releases (10 or so records, depending on how you count) would only be more impressive if it didn’t make the rest of us feel so bad about our comparatively failed productivity during the pandemic.
But enough wistful pondering, here’s my top 10 albums list for 2020:
10) Kaytranada — BUBBA
I like Kaytranada’s sound and vibe, but BUBBA‘s greatest asset may be its ability to just stick and remain effortlessly cool and enjoyable after repeat listens. It’s a testament to Kaytranada’s skill as a creator. Highlights include “Go DJ,” “10%” and “Vex Oh.”
Kaytranada’s “10% ft. Kali Uchis”
9) The Chats — Dine N Dash
I halfway thought I had grown out of silly pop-punk songs about catching venereal diseases, eating pub food and drinking too much. I was wrong. These Australian garbage pail kids are way more compelling than they should be.
The Chats’ “The Clap”
8) The Dears — Lovers Rock
The Dears might be my favourite band. There’s no band on Earth I’ve seen more than them and at this point I’m not sure I have the ability to accurately assess them as a professional music critic. And so here they are, plunked into a relatively politically neutral spot on my annual list.
The Dears’ “Instant Nightmare”
7) The Budos Band — Long In The Tooth
We have a saying in the Risky Fuel household called “you find your people.” Normally applied to straight up weird bands, movies, art, parties or whatever, it’s the principle that if you’re into some bizarro wackadoodle shit and you find similar people into similar bizarro wackadoodle shit, sometimes something bizarro wackadoodle amazing emerges. A bunch of band dorks trying alchemically fuse Black Sabbath and Fela Kuti qualifies.
The Budos Band’s “Long In The Tooth”
6) Gorillaz — Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
If you told me in 2000 that Damon Albarn would have a band made up entirely of cartoon characters, that they’d be a worldwide phenomenon, and that “the kids” wouldn’t even know who or what a “Blur” was I would straight up fight you. And yet here we are, and on close inspection the globetrotting sound thievery that is Gorillaz is probably the superior Albarn work.
Gorillaz’s “Severed Head ft. Goldlink & Unknown Mortal Orchestra”
5) Sarah Harmer — Are You Gone
There are like three songs on this album — “St. Peter’s Bay,” the ice skating one, “What I Was To You,” the Gord Downie one, and “Shoemaker,” the one about her grandfather — that run the risk of making me cry if I make the mistake of listening to them too closely.
Sarah Harmer’s “St. Peter’s Bay”
4) Witch Prophet — DNA Activation
DNA Activation feels more timeless than of a time, a trip-hop/jazz/soul exploration of family that doesn’t quite sound like anything else that came out this year. Highlights include “Makda” and “Musa.”
Witch Prophet’s “Tesfay”
3) IDLES — Ultra Mono
The thing that shocked me most about IDLES’ new album Ultra Mono was the backlash. To be clear, it’s not surprising that they’d have their enemies. After all, they’re an unapologetic “leftie” and “soft” activist hard rock band. There are people for whom such a thing even existing at all is offensive. Backlash from those sorts wasn’t surprising. What was surprising, though, was the pushback against them from progressive types. Their feminism isn’t right, they’re faux working class, their politics are too simple… They’re all arguments that might be correct, but they’re also all arguments that are very progressives-are-eating-their-own-again. Regardless of whether or not they perfectly meet the ever-changing standards for whatever gatekeepers want and expect them to be, there are at least five bangers on Ultra Mono that are worth soundtracking the war, and those can’t be taken away.
IDLES’ “Mr. Motivator”
2) Jessie Ware — What’s Your Pleasure?
If someone releases a perfect disco album in the middle of a global pandemic and nobody can gather on a dancefloor to hear it, does it even exist? In this case, the answer is a lonely, twirling-around-by-yourself yes. Ware’s shift from sad R&B balladeer into full-on dance diva was one of this year’s unexpected turns, but it was an entirely welcome one. What’s Your Pleasure? is a vessel for escape, something which was incredibly necessary.
Jessie Ware’s “What’s Your Pleasure?”
1) Protomartyr —Ultimate Success Today
I listened to an advance copy Ultimate Success Today for the first time on March 17 when we were just days into the uncertainty and anxiety of lockdown #1. With only the barest hints of colour amidst smears of grey, a bristling post-punk record that confronts one’s mortality and systems of oppression like this really shouldn’t have helped, given the circumstances. But it did. And continued to do so throughout the year. This was my soundtrack to fear and unease, an aural manifestation of the bleak, precarious nature of every single day in 2020. I’m not quite done with this album yet, but truly hope for a time to come in the not-so-distance future where I’ll never want or need to listen to this record ever again.
Finally, my unique expertise has value to someone! I was recently asked to be on the Sloancast, a podcast dedicated to the band Sloan, to talk about said band and their inextricable link to the music magazine I used to manage, Chart Magazine.
Some of the topics we covered: how we’d pick the Chart Magazine cover stars, the three separate times we did the Top 50 Canadian Albums Of All Time poll, and what members of Sloan are like as hockey players.
It’s quite a romp if you care about 1990s Canadian rock music and or Sloan, specifically.
Doing an annual top albums list for as long as I have one starts to see the true value in the exercise. It’s not the ranking, codifying or picking the “best” things so much as it’s about stitching together a tapestry of one’s year and seeing the patterns that emerged.
Much like in 2018, a lot of my personal music listening energy was devoted to my Before They Die list — a meticulously curated list of musical acts I need to see before, well, y’know — and I ended up catching 12 on-the-list and 17 list-adjacent acts on top of whatever other concert-going I did.
I ended up seeing 12 Before-They-Die and 17 list-adjacent acts in 2019. #149 Julia Jacklin #148 Killing Joke #145 Idles #141 And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead #139 Yes #101 Tool #72 Santana #57 Sharon Van Etten #38 Graveyard #33 Massive Attack #30 The B-52s #8 Bob Seger
That meant a little less energy spent on discovery. It also meant if one pattern emerged it was that there was lots of leaning on the past. I don’t mean that in the Rolling Stone Magazine-will-always-give-Dylan/Springsteen/Stones-perfect-reviews leaning on the past kinda way. What it did mean, though, was there were a lot of albums that could be argued represent new forms of things I’ve enjoyed in the past.
Read below to see the patterns that emerged.
Bubbling under for 2019: Abjects, Geoff Berner, Sondra Sun-Odeon, Mimico, Jacques Greene, King Gizzard, De la Noche, PUP, Wargirl. (Also, Thus Owls’ The Mountain That We Live Upon probably would have been my #3 but it came out in Sept. 2018 and that was just too 2018.)
10) Mercury Rev — Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited
The best part of an album isn’t always the album itself, so much as the sense of discovery around the album. Mercury Rev redoing Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete with a cast of guest vocalists not only serves as a wonderful intro to Gentry, but also makes a wonderful entry point for contributors like Margo Price, Carice van Houten (Melisandre from Game of Thrones can sing?) and Phoebe Bridgers.
Hear “Sermon” ft Margo Price
9) Angel Olsen — All Mirrors
Sometimes when I play Fantasy A&R Man the best idea I can come up with is “a new Connie Francis… but goth.” There are points on Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors where she comes this close.
Watch “All Mirrors”
8) Murray Lightburn — Hear Me Out
I’m a firm Dears loyalist and might consider them my favourite Canadian band. However, my acceptance of their transition from an early days chaotic bombast machine to something with more dignity and refinement has been hard won. So it was a touch surprising that Lightburn lead singer Murray Lightburn’s bombast-free second solo album would strike so deep. What Lightburn gives us — “I Give Up” is a soul ballad from another time, “I’m Not Broken” has knowing gospel touches — paints with just enough different colours to enthrall.
Watch “Changed My Ways”
7) Rustin Man — Drift Code
This record is quite literally the output of a wobbly old weirdo who spent two decades building a science project in his back shed. Read my full review here.
Watch “Judgement Train”
6) Tallies — Tallies
It’s been a slow and not absolute process, but I’m on my way to divesting from Morrissey because of his terrible politics and worldview and middling late-period music. Having an act like Tallies and songs like the jangle gem “Midnight” help soften this transition.
5) Deadbeat Beat — How Far
If you like Sloan’s Jay songs you’ll love Deadbeat Beat’s How Far. I’m particularly partial to “Dim Bulbs.”
Watch “You Lift Me Up”
4) Michael Kiwanuka — Kiwanuka
This new Kiwanuka album is exquisite — a majestic, soaring, hands-held-high sermon from Mt. Soul. The brilliance of the individual bits of this record are only half the story, though. The other half comes from basking in the glow of the brilliant craftsmanship. Kiwanuka is a master of his domain and to be able to witness such excellence is its own type of reward.
Watch “You Ain’t The Problem”
3) Moonface — This One’s for the Dancer & This One’s for the Dancer’s Bouquet
Technically, this was a late 2018 release, but I didn’t really tweak to it until well into 2019. And yes, I realize that it’s near hypocritical to endorse Moonface while disqualifying Thus Owls, but it’s my list and my rules, so suck it.
This One’s for the Dancer & This One’s for the Dancer’s Bouquet is a fascinator. It’s two separate projects — half a delayed keyboard treatment audio experiment, and half songs sung from the perspective of the Minotaur of Greek mythology — woven together to create something otherworldly and unique. The Minotaur songs strike particularly deeply. For a giant, blood-thirsty, bull-headed beast, the Minotaur’s journey forgiving all those who’ve hurt it is one of the most genuine, better and human set of stories I’ve heard put to song.
Watch “Minotaur Forgiving Knossos”
2) Hawksley Workman — Median Age Wasteland
In the year 2019 I was not expecting to a) rate a Hawksley Workman album so highly, and b) to feel it so deeply. And yet here we are.
To be fair, I’ve always been casually fond of Workman’s dandy woodsman idiosyncrasy, but with Median Age Wasteland he seems optimized. Having the above-mentioned Murray Lightburn on production probably helped. Certainly Workman’s vocals are both torqued up and focused in ways they may not have been in the past. Where Median Age Wasteland truly stands out, though, is in the storytelling. Whether it’s the mythologizing of a snowmobile (“Snowmobile”), the joyful BMX bike gang journeying (“Battlefords”), the tributes to forgotten figure skaters (“Oksana”) or even the outwardly ludicrous (“Stoners Never Dream”), Workman takes us to fantastical places with each and every song.
1) Julia Jacklin — Crushing
At the 4:27 mark of Jacklin’s “Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You” she delivers a series of repeated “don’t. know. how. to. keep. loving. you” lines so charged, so gut-wrenching you can’t help but worry if Jacklin will ever find her way. The entire Crushing album is filled with these emotion-charged bombs as Jacklin explores unraveling relationships, personal agency, hurt and self-healing in an unflinchingly beautiful way.