My 2012 in Music

To be honest, I’ve always kind of hated end-of-year lists. They’re horribly reductive and impossibly biased, but written under the guise of “objective review” as if there is a perfect, logical way to quantify artistic quality across numerous genres. As if. And what exactly is the point of ranking albums, or artists, or songs, or three-minute banjo interludes? Who remembers that stuff? Nerds?

So I won’t bother writing out some fussily crafted “Top 10!” that nobody really cares about or agrees with. But since I really haven’t written a lot of music-related things this year anyway, and there were some wonderful, insane, glorious music-related things that I do think warrant noting, it seems appropriate to at least touch on some of my favourite music-related things that happened in 2012.

Julie Christmas’ “Scalps”

Julie Christmas has sporadically thrown out snippets of music since her solo full length, The Bad Wife, came out in late 2010. And she’s made every one, no matter how small, count. Those who know her are already well aware of her practically split-personality vocal range, shifting from childlike treble to snarling beast at unpredictable turns, but on “Scalps” (her contribution to the Falling Down IIV compilation), she contorts her voice into even more monstrous shapes than ever before. You can practically hear the blood bubble in her throat. No one goes full-tilt like Julie.

MIA’s “Bad Girls”

I wish I was as cool as this. Doesn’t everyone? It’s remarkable how MIA and director Roman Gavras took all the well-worn visual markers of rap music – flashy cars, blinged out ensembles, scores of women – and by simply dropping them in the middle of the desert, enlivened them from boring stereotypes to politicized icons. With the stories of female Saudi Arabian drivers still fresh in everyone’s minds, the video’s release was timely and relevant, and shots of MIA casually filing her nails on the side of a car as it skis on two wheels show that she has more ballsy conviction in her well-manicured pinky than most punk rockers have in their entire bodies.

Getting on Stage at the Horseshoe Tavern

In July, I got the chance to get on stage at one of Toronto’s most historic music venues – the same one once graced by The Rolling Stones, the Police, and too many other musical heroes to count. I play bass for my good friend and Toronto singer-songwriter Elissa Barclay and we got to do a full set in front of a pretty sizable crowd here. It was just some free show on a Monday night; maybe no one who attended will even remember it. But I totally will.

Baroness Getting Back to it

Baroness had to live out a touring musician’s worst nightmare over the summer when their tour bus crashed, injuring most of the passengers on board. Frontman John Baizley wrote a stirring account of the whole ordeal on the band’s website, articulating with amazing, frightening clarity the experience of going through a windshield, breaking limbs and brushing entirely too close with death. His message was one of the most hopeful things I’ve read all year; despite the catastrophe, despite the months of upcoming physical therapy and frustration, he and the rest of the band were undeterred in their pursuit of musical expression, and a few months later, they’d already posted clips of new music. Way to define perseverance, dudes.

Mares of Thrace’s The Pilgrimage

There were so many great heavy records that came out this year (Converge, Torche, Gaza, Pigs…I know there’s more, but I’m not making a list, okay). The Pilgrimage was probably the one I wore out the most. It’s just a well-crafted epic from start to finish, built strong with a powerful narrative line, scores of commanding riffs and guileless production that lets you hear every guitar scrape and feedback wail in all of it’s imperfect, punishing glory. I’m still not tired of it.

Crowdsourcing Success Stories

Crowdsourcing has been around in some variation for quite some time, but it seems that 2012 was the year that it finally, very loudly, became a viable method of funding for artists, one that had the potential to turn the music industry on its ear the way so many artists and audiences have been hoping for.

Without question, Amanda Palmer had the biggest victory with her Kickstarter campaign, earning $1.2 million from fan donations to record and promote her latest record. It all kind of ended on a sour note when Palmer’s recruitment of extra volunteer musicians for live shows inspired a torrent of Internet anger, with accusations of hypocrisy and profiteering coming from everyone from struggling local musicians to Steve Albini. Still, the promise of a direct artist-to-consumer relationship, one free of traditional music industry politics and corporate weirdness, is something worth celebrating, right?

Father John Misty’s “Hollywood Forever (Cemetary Sings)”

Once you know Aubrey Plaza is supposed to be a cat, it’s suddenly the most perfect video. Cats are jerks, and that’s why they’re awesome.


Disc Review: METZ

After an eternity (okay, three some-odd years) of intermittent 7-inch teases, Toronto trio METZ have finally satiated their noise-seeking audience with a nice and proper full-length album. Those past releases provided only brief blasts of the band’s sonic fury, each song like a little experiment in how far they could push the listener’s pain threshold through histrionic guitar squeals and the hardest bass kicks. The chaos is somewhat reigned in on METZ, with cleaned-up production allowing hooks and song structures to shine through, but the songs are still as heart-racingly abrasive as they ever were.

Aptly titled opener “Headache” tumbles out with distant clattering drums and Alex Edkins’ high-pitched chant – almost pop in its infectiousness, save for the fuzzy hint of scorn – before the full band thunders in for saturated aural assault. The intensity rarely, if ever, lets up throughout the rest of the half-hour journey. Edkins’ unwieldy guitar riffs, Chris Slorach’s scraping basslines and Hayden Menzies’ thunderous drumming meld together in a bitingly addictive way, one that often gets METZ compared to Nirvana, and perhaps (at least with this album) rightly so. The hurried 10-track string ends with “Negative Space,” a song pulled straight from their May 2010 Negative Space/Automat 7-inch, and the difference between the two recordings aptly illustrates the band’s evolution into a more synchronized beast, still scrappy in all the right places.


Film Review: The Runaways

The Runaways
Director: Floria Sigismondi
March 19, 2010 (select cities)

As you may be able to gather from my first blog post, women who rock are kind of a big deal to me. As a teenager, I never felt like I could connect or identify with a male musician the way I could with a female one, and since there have always been relatively few of them in the harder genres, finding out about groups like the Runaways was always very inspiring to me. Even though they were a bit of a manufactured gimmick, the Runaways nonetheless showed the world that music isn’t gender exclusive, that you don’t need a dick to be totally hardcore or play an instrument well, and hence paved the way for a lot of women playing punk, metal and hard rock today. So I was pretty excited to see a big mainstream film coming out that would tell their story to millions (even if it does star a couple of Twilight tween idols).

Directed by Floria Sigismondi (an innovative artist who has directed some of the coolest music videos ever), The Runaways is a classic music biopic chronicling the all-girl teen punk band’s creation, tumultuous rise to fame, and subsequent implosion. The film places most of the focus on band founder Joan Jett (played by Kristen Stewart) and lead singer Cherie Currie (played by Dakota Fanning). Though those casting choices initially threw many people for a loop, both actresses really do a skilful job of emulating the real Runaways members.

Of course, the gifted Fanning’s portrayal of Currie is emotional and captivating – the fifteen-year-old frontwoman may have seemed tough on stage, but was really a young, impressionable girl who fell into a very adult world of drugs, sex and abuse. Fanning displays that conflict well, but winds up making Currie seem a lot more innocent and passive than she actually was. Stewart pretty much nails the mannerisms and laid-back swagger of Jett, but at times is bland, unable to compete with her more charismatic co-stars. Perhaps the best performance is given by Michael Shannon as the Runaways’ deranged, eccentric manager and co-creator, Kim Fowley. There have been many wild stories and rumours told over the years about the guy, but Shannon has no difficulty living up to every expectation about how nuts Fowley was (and still is).

The main downfall of The Runaways is the story’s focus – based largely on Currie’s 1989 book, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, the movie spends most of its time looking at the lead singer and her struggle to handle life in a band. It could be argued, however, that Jett’s life story is more compelling, since she dealt more with sexual identity issues and gender stereotyping in the music industry, and had a more interesting, ultimately triumphant music career post-Runaways. Furthermore, the film practically ignores the rest of the band members altogether – even Lita Ford, the super-ballsy and extremely talented lead guitarist who went on to have a pretty decent recording career as well. Currie’s experience is certainly gripping, but it would have been nice to see the movie shine more light on how the hard-rock lifestyle affected each of these very different girls.

Despite its shortcomings, Sigismondi definitely breathes a lot of life and colour into this rock n’ roll bio, using the music, images and style of the late seventies to their fullest potential. If nothing else, The Runaways serves as a reminder of just how far we’ve come; artists like Brody Dalle, Shirley Manson and even Paramore may seem totally normal in the mainstream today, but thirty years ago, they would have been unheard of. The Runaways may have started out as a gimmick, but they wound up changing the music business, and that makes for a pretty darn fascinating tale.

Official movie site
YouTube: The Runaways, “Cherry Bomb” (Live in Japan)


Live Review: Dillinger Escape Plan

Photo by manders, flickr.com

I used to think Toronto concert crowds were pretty lame, too full of jaded hipsters who could show no more enthusiasm for a performer than a slight nodding of their head and the occasional “woo!” That was, however, until I went to my first all-ages metal show; man, these kids can go off. Maybe it was because the band they were there to see had a reputation for being one of the most visceral performers on Earth, but the throng of fans at the Opera House on Sunday night pretty much turned me into a hardcore addict for life. Acoustic folk gigs are for suckers!

Playing to a packed venue, the Dillinger Escape Plan closed out Canadian Music Week with one of their trademark explosive shows. The current lineup has a very wide range of experience (the only original member, Ben Weinman, has been at it for 13 years, while their 19-year-old drummer, Billy Rymer, only joined last year), but all five guys fired off equal levels of energy that bordered on insanity. The ferocious set included a few tracks from their upcoming record, Option Paralysis, as well as many fan favourites like “Sunshine the Werewolf,” “Milk Lizard” and “Sugar Coated Sour.” Miraculously, the band even managed to downgrade the madness for a captivating rendition of “Mouth of Ghosts,” an Ire Works slow-jam centred on a lengthy jazz-piano breakdown. Throughout the night, however, the guys never lost momentum and always worked to keep the crowd captivated – even if it meant climbing speakers, swinging guitars in people’s faces, and stage diving mid-song. Now that’s showmanship.

Heartbreakingly, the set blew by too fast and there was no encore, but I guess that’s the mark of a gifted performer; they always leave you wanting more. Dillinger Escape Plan will be back in Toronto for the Warped Tour in July, and if there’s any justice in the world, will play another headlining show here in the near future.

MySpace: Dillinger Escape Plan
YouTube: Great live video where lead singer Greg Puciato uses the audience as a treadmill


Canadian Music Week: Recommendations

Now in it’s 29th year, the Canadian Music Festival is hitting Toronto with a crapload of live music for the next 5 days. Boasting over 700 artists this year, CMW can be a daunting event to navigate; how can you possibly figure out which shows are worth battling the long lines and packed houses to check out? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’ve compiled a short guide below for those who know what kind of music they like, but just don’t know where to find it. Enjoy, and make sure you get out there and support your music scene this week!

If you’re into: Electronic dance/pop
Head over to: Roosevelt Room, March 10

The much buzzed-about Parallels (formed in part by ex-Crystal Castles member, Cameron Findlay) will be playing at the Eye Weekly Opening Party, along with other synth pop acts Styrofoam Ones, DVAS and Montreal’s CFCF.

If you’re into: Introspective singer-songwriter stuff
Head over to: Music Gallery, March 12

Those who can appreciate softer, more sobre tunes will enjoy the beautiful work of Julie Fader, Brian Borcherdt and Postdata (a new side project formed by Wintersleep’s Paul Murphy) at the music gallery this Friday.

If you’re into: Metal, and lots of it
Head over to: Bovine Sex Club, March 12 OR The Opera House, March 14

There’s a couple of shows worth seeing this week if you’re into harder music, and luckily, both feature a pretty full bill to give you your money’s worth. Over at the Bovine, Metal Blade Records and Exclaim! magazine are presenting a showcase for some great down n’ dirty Canadian acts, including Assassinate The Following, Starring Janet Leigh, Aeternam, Barn Burner, Bison B.C. and Titan. Over at the Opera House, The Dillinger Escape Plan will likely be throwing down another one of their notoriously insane live shows, and will be joined by another highly-experimental metal group, iwrestledabearonce, as well as Darkest Hour and Animals as Leaders.

If you’re into: Punk and dirty lo-fi stuff
Head over to: El Mocambo, March 10

It’s too bad the Reverb had to close its doors earlier this year, as it was one of the go-to places in the city for a good ol’ fashioned punk show. However, Fucked Up‘s set at the El Mocambo should easily provide hardcore fans a great night – they’ll also be joined by noisy locals Bastard Child Death Cult, as well as slightly more mellow bands Lifestory Monologue, The Black Swan Effect and Tropics.

If you’re into: Southern blues and classic rock
Head over to: Silver Dollar (Comfort Zone – lower level), March 12

The punk-infused Delta swing of CATL will be on display at this showcase, along with many other southern-styled rockers like Huron, Dexateens, Ian Blurton’s Happy Endings and The Lawn.

If you’re into: Great Canadian indie
Head over to: Lee’s Palace, March 10 OR Royal York Hotel, March 13 OR Horseshoe Tavern, any night

CMW is obviously all about the indie rock, but there’s a few to definitely keep in mind. Firstly, Jason Collett is leading a “Bonfire Ball” Revue at Lee’s Palace with fellow musicians Zeus and Bahamas. Secondly, the Constantines (one of the essential Canadian bands you MUST see live before you die) are headlining a set at the Royal York along with a lot of other great acts, including Great Lake Swimmers, Plants and Animals and the Rural Alberta Advantage. Finally, the Horseshoe is almost always a good bet for local indie acts, and this year’s festival is no exception; they’ll be hosting a lot of great bands this week, including the Besnard Lakes, Melissa Auf Der Maur and Wooden Sky, among many others.


Disc Review: Jaguar Love

Jaguar Love
Hologram Jams
2010, Fat Possum

It was a sad day when the Blood Brothers, one of the most distinctive and original hardcore bands ever, called it quits back in late 2007. Luckily, though, two of the best elements of that group – the bionic shrieking vocals of Johnny Whitney and the gloriously volatile guitar riffs of Cody Votolato – went on to form the basis of another band, Jaguar Love. The two originally joined forces with Pretty Girls Make Graves’ Jay Clark and embarked on creating a more overtly pop sound, resulting in a couple of EPs and 2008’s Take Me to the Sea. Since then, however, the duo of ex-Brothers have moved forward as just a two-piece to produce their latest effort, the awesomely-titled Hologram Jams.

The new record expands on the group’s dance music cravings by layering the chaotic vocals and guitars over a glammy, 80s synth-pop backdrop. Now without a live drummer, the pair use programmed beats and melodies to up the electronic factor, and the result is some seriously trippy futuristic pop. It isn’t a total departure from Jaguar Love’s past work; Whitney is still taking the concept of “hypermasuline” to the extreme with his singing, and all the songs (even the ballads) are still high-energy, hook-laden pop tunes, but the atmosphere of Hologram Jams is definitely more synthetic than its predecessor.

One of the biggest WTF moments of the album comes at the end, with a truly unique rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” If you recall the Blood Brothers’ cover of the Bowie/Queen classic “Under Pressure,” you’ll know that these guys don’t make any concessions to their unique sound when covering others. It’s a little insane-sounding, kind of like a Mini Kids Pop version on severe amounts of acid, but you have to give the boys credit for having some real guts and never straying from their artistic vision.

Jaguar Love definitely aren’t a band for everybody – like any other act Whitney and Votolato have been a part of, the music is abrasive and confrontational, and strangely, despite falling into a dance-pop-type genre, isn’t all that accessible – but that’s kind of the point. Out of all the numerous projects that have come out of the Blood Brothers’ demise, this one certainly comes the closest to reliving the glory. Despite the few shortcomings, Hologram Jams is a perfect dance record for hyperactive children and the slightly unhinged.

Myspace: Jaguar Love
YouTube: Video for “I Started a Fire”


Live Review: Magneta Lane

This past Friday evening, the majority of you Torontonians were probably snug at home watching the Olympic opening ceremonies, but a select group (myself included) decided to ditch the televised spectacle, venture out into the cold and head down to the ol’ Horseshoe Tavern for the Magneta Lane CD release party.

The night featured many guest openers, including Hamilton trio The Barettas, recent radio hitmakers Elias, and local act Make Your Exit. Each group played their own lighthearted mix of lively indie pop/rock that gradually drew a larger and more enthusiastic audience as the night progressed.

Some time after midnight, Magneta Lane’s trio of ladies took to the stage for a fast and efficient setup, decking out the mics and drum kit with Christmas lights while wearing theatrical Venetian masks. This affinity for being a bit dramatic has always been a theme in the band’s music, but is certainly more amplified in their latest record, Gambling with God. The 10-track album, released through Last Gang Records, retains the group’s simple, biting approach to melodic indie, but with a little more depth and layering of sounds this time around.

Magneta Lane’s lean musical style translates well to their live performance; beginning with “Broken Plates” off of 2006’s Danging with Daggers (check the penchant for alliteration in album titles), the girls blew through a roughly 40 minute set, playing fast and focused and allowing little time for dawdling or stage banter. Emphasis was obviously placed on playing new material, which included the drivingly off-kilter “Bloody French,” pulsing first single “Lady Bones” and the boisterous title track. As a special surprise, former controller.controller lead vocalist Nirmala Basnayake briefly joined the girls on stage and performed backup for a Gambling With God standout, “House of Mirrors.” It’s only too bad she couldn’t stick around, as many songs on the new record feature lovely layers of singing (and the other band members seem pretty averse to using their pipes).

Contrary to the other players of the evening, the Magneta Lane set was permeated with fast rhythms and loud distortion, save for the sweet ballad “September Came,” which marked the first time lead singer Lexi Valentine performed on stage with an acoustic guitar (apparently ever). Though Gambling with God was the main source of material, the girls also played a few favourites from Dancing with Daggers as well, closing out with the fiery battle cry “Daggers Out!”

Sadly, despite the crowd’s protests, there was no encore, but fans will be happy to know that the band will be back again very soon – first at CMW, then a full tour soon after.

Magneta Lane’s Website
Mildly creepy video for “Lady Bones”



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