Feeling it Break: Austra at Sugar Nightclub

14 10 2013

Austra’s early show at Sugar Nightclub on Saturday night came as a blessing.  Even with two encores, the show wrapped up at 10:00 PM sharp.  The show’s early curfew allowed those scheduled to run in The Goodlife Fitness Marathon on Sunday morning to go home, carb-load and get some rest, while other, more thrill seeking concert-goers, were able to make it down to Lucky Bar to catch Fucked Up; unfortunately, this reviewer was part of the carb-loading tribe, though I heard Fucked Up played a hell of a show at Lucky.

The night began with an impassioned opening set by Moon King.  Led by parka-clad singer, Daniel Benjamin, Moon King did an excellent job of warming up the non-parka clad crowd (Sugar Nightclub has a mandatory coat check*—I’m still unsure how Benjamin managed to sneak past the eagle-eyed security staff) with a rousing and energetic set.  Along with guitarist/harmonist, Maddy Wilde, Benjamin cavorted his way through an engaging set of songs ranging from beautiful pop-induced harmonies to gritty punk rock songs.  Moon King is strikingly young, and on Saturday night they proved themselves to be a band worth watching: I picked up their debut 12”, Obession, and it is most excellent.

Sugar was near capacity by the time Austra took the stage.  The first thing that struck me, aside from the band’s beautiful, and aptly fitting umbrella light display on stage, was how tiny lead singer Katie Stelmanis is.  One would never guess, from listening to Austra’s powerful and operatic vocals, that Stelmanis incredibly short in stature.  Even with platform shoes on, Stelmanis essentially peered over the monitors lining the front of the stage for most of the band’s set.

Flanked by a band clad in some similarly interesting apparel, including the keyboardist’s spandex onesie, Stelmanis gave an energetic and delightful performance to wrap up the band’s long North American tour.  The show, mostly comprised of material from Austra’s newest album, Olympia, which was released earlier this year, fully displayed how far Austra’s come since their debut, Polaris-Nominated release, Feel It Break.

While the crowd was more responsive to material from Austra’s first album, particularly standout track, “Lose It” which most of us sang along to with full vibrato, the band’s darker new tracks were every bit as stunning, proving that Austra wasn’t the slightest bit affected by the sophomore slump.  While Olympia is indeed a grower, the songs performed live on Saturday night were undoubtedly more raw and engaging in their live skin.  As we walked down Sugar’s massive staircase, and out into the early evening air, we did so with massive smiles slapped upon pink cheeks.

*I heard many-a complaint about Sugar’s mandatory coat check policy on Saturday night.  While I fully understand the safety logistics motivating the coat check, I agree with other patrons that the three dollar charge for each checked item is a bit steep (one person I talked to was charged $9, as she had to check three items).  I think it would be great if Sugar lowered their charge, or donated all monies collected from their mandatory coat check to deserving local charities.Image




Reinventing Song: Blackout Beach’s Blues Trip

14 03 2013

Upon its release in 2011, Blackout Beach’s Fuck Death took a lot of people by surprise. The album’s tight weave of synthesizers and sonic soundscapes, which provide a rich, multifaceted backdrop to Carey Mercer’s often hushed words on war, sharply contrasts with the guitar driven fury that defines much Mercer’s back catalogue. Fuck Death marked radical departure for Mercer, one that had taken him a long time to create.

“I recorded Fuck Death over the space of two or three years,” says Mercer “I wasn’t working on it every day but I would work intensely for weeks at a time. I wrote all the music and then I sat on it for about a year waiting for the right words to come. As I listened, I often asked myself ‘What does this sound like?'”

Mercer eventually found his answer in an unlikely place. While reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a first person account of the Vietnam war, something clicked.

“I read Dispatches and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, my record!’ Vietnam couldn’t be further away from my own experience, but it’s one of those things that keeps resonating: I feel kind of haunted by it. I thought this record could be not just about war, but how war is represented, how it’s fictionalized and how disgusting that is, but also how I get kind of giddy reading about it.”

With a renewed sense of direction, the words came quickly to Mercer. He discovered that the elements of war were hiding in the music all along.

“I just had to listen for a really long time. I noticed that there was a lot of static, a lot of helicopter sounds and short wave radio, which could be interpreted in several ways but because of what I was reading and thinking about at the time, I heard those sounds in the context of war. I wondered what it would be like to have an aggressive helicopter flying over me.”

After thousands of hours of work, mostly spent in solitude, Mercer had finally completed Fuck Death. Released in 2011, the album was met with much critical acclaim but, in hindsight, Mercer is largely ambivalent to his experience recording it. What began as Mercer’s labour of love ended as a war of attrition.

“I don’t ever want to make that kind of record again,” says Mercer “It represents thousands of hours of looking at a computer screen. There’s a kind of singularity to the album because it’s all me playing. I guess it’s kind of neat that you can do that now– you can hole up with your computer and synthesizers, become insular and after a few days you’re like, ‘Wow, I worked on this so much, it’s so neat, what a wonderful way to spend time!’ . But after a while you start to go a bit nutty: it becomes a toxic experience and actually starts to poison you a bit.”

Mercer’s remedy to the toxic experience of recording Fuck Death came last summer when he, along with drummer Melanie Campbell and bassist Dante DeCaro, stole away to DeCaro’s remote studio to radically reinterpret many of the songs on Fuck Death. Ironically, the three piece band ended up stripping down Mercer’s solitary constructions.

The session ultimately resulted in Blues Trip, which was released on Bandcamp in February and will available on limited edition vinyl later this year. As Mercer confides, the album brings new life to the material.

Blues Trip appeals to me because it was tracked in a day with friends. We thought it was kind of funny that we started off with this electronic record and reduced it to what a lot of people would call one of the more mundane forms–the blues. But we were so invigorated and excited by what we were doing, much more than if we had faithfully recreated Fuck Death. Doing that wouldn’t have been much fun for me.”

On Friday night, Victorians will have a chance to see songs transformed. Mercer, along with the three piece incarnation of Blackout Beach is set to take the stage Victoria’s newest venue, the Copper Owl. The evening promises to be a culmination of thousands of solitary, introspective hours in front of the computer and one fateful summer afternoon rocking out with friends. It shouldn’t be missed.

Nick Lyons


Direction is No Place at All: An Intimate Evening With Colleen Brown

19 11 2012

On Sunday night, I had the opportunity to attend a house concert. I’d never heard the performer before: all I knew about her was her name (Colleen Brown) and that she came highly recommended by a friend of mine who is endowed with wonderful musical instincts. I braved the elements, walking down Dallas Road in the midst of the year’s most powerful storm. I saw octopi washed up dead on the concrete, I saw whitecaps consume a horizon that only reluctantly comes to rest at the foot of the Olympic mountain range. And then I saw Colleen Brown sing, an experience every bit as powerful and inspiring as my journey to the small, seaside duplex where she played.

Brown’s songs are a fortunate fusion of complex chord progressions and thoughtful, meditative lyrical play. While I hate to draw comparisons, Brown often reminded me of Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom and Joni Mitchell. But Brown’s is ultimately a musical style, most singular. No doubt, future generations will mould themselves in Brown’s musical image; they will be fortunate to have her as a reference point.

The highlight of the evening, for me, was Brown’s original composition, “Direction”. The song showcases Brown’s subtle graces on piano, which provide a hesitating, beautiful backdrop to poetic turns of phrase from the voice of Brown, our restless wanderer. She confesses that “Direction is no place at all”, and on Sunday night, the fortunate few who were lucky enough to be in the friendly confines of that duplex were instantly transported us a sacred place: a place in between places—not here, not there, as the wind outside blew wild.


Get Your Tickets Early: An Evening with Bahamas and Jason Collett

25 10 2012

The fortunate few who gathered at St. Anne’s Auditorium on Tuesday night couldn’t help but feel pretty lucky. The auditorium, while beautiful, is incredibly small; last minute fans were left to scour the Internet, and the park surrounding St. Anne’s where Bahamas hid the two remaining tickets, for their chance to see the show. Unfortunately many were left out in the cold, but those who got their tickets early were generously rewarded to an intimate performance courtesy of not one but two of Canada’s premier acts without the drunken distractions that inevitably detract from any given show at any given bar. St. Anne’s Auditorium was the perfect venue for Bahamas and Collett because of, not in spite of, its size.

The evening began early with Jason Collett taking the marqueed stage all by his lonesome. Collett looks and sounds much different than he did last time he came through town. His quaffed curls have given way to long hair, and the themes of his beautifully melodic songs have changed rather drastically. While Collett played some older songs, most of his set consisted of selections from this year’s _Reckon_, whose direct and austere tracks seemed even more urgent in their live skin. Yes, the subject matter of many of Collett’s new songs is bleak, but the tone of his performance was impossibly light as Collett was obviously thrilled to join his old pal and former bandmate, Afie Jurvanen, on his tour across Canada. If Bahamas’ set was any indication, the thrill was mutual.

Bahamas’ live set is perfect: maybe it’s because the band has been touring for so long, maybe it’s because of the obvious chemistry between all four of the band’s member’s, or maybe its because they draw from such rich material; whatever it is, it would be impossible to conceive of a more refined and awe-inspiring live set. Though Jurvanen constantly reminded us that he and his band has only two albums of material to draw from, and while he was well aware that he paid us a visit a mere three months ago, his band’s performance was pitch-perfect. And keep in mind that this was the first show of their cross-Canada trek, by the time Bahamas reaches Winnipeg, much less Ontario, I’m willing to bet that they’ll prove the old axiom obsolete: Bahamas will improve upon perfection… with their Victoria show, they already have.

Barchords is as perfect an album can hope to be. A precious mixture of melancholy and joy, the album refuses a passive listen. The play count on my digital version of Barchords verges on triple digits, yet I still feel compelled to revisit it often. And still, Barchords’ songs are better live. If the studio versions of the songs lay elaborate blueprint well worth consideration and reconsideration, their live counterparts are a numinous finished product: precise gives way to even more precise while excitement steps aside to make room for an unparalleled spontaneous passion.

While it’s unfortunate that more people weren’t able to witness the fine mix of Collett coupled with Bahamas, perhaps that’s what made it even more special. Without the ambient noise and chatter generated by those who might have heard “Lost in the Light” on Much Music a couple of times, the songs of two future Canadian icons has room grow, leaving their silenced crowd utterly and completely captivated. For better or for worse, it is likely the last time we’ll be able to hear either act in a venue so small; get your tickets now.

–Nick Lyons


Into the Abyss With Nasstasia Yard

22 01 2012

It comes as a mixed blessing that Nasstasia Yard’s debut EP “For Someone Else” occupies a mere centimeter or so of spooled analogue tape. While the beatific beauty manifest in each of these four songs leaves us craving more, the most casual listen also confronts us with a distilled, monstrous form of melancholy that few dare to observe, much less confront. But with “For Someone Else” Yard stares at her monster’s bared, bloody teeth and proceeds to embrace him with broken arms; lucky listeners are the beneficiaries of her enormous bravery.

The darkness Yard confronts on “For Someone Else” is mirrored by its cover. A child’s face is shrouded by darkness; a silent scream bursts from open lips. The look in the child’s eyes, a disturbing alloy of terror and rage, does not extend a glimmer of comfort or hope. We don’t simply observe her pain; we are responsible for it. These songs were composed for someone else, after-all.

Yard channels the child’s silent cry with “Generate”, the album’s tiny first track, which recalls Elliot Smith’s earliest lo-fi recordings. While completely devoid of hope, Yard’s voice is strikingly beautiful in its vulnerability. Yard promises that if she “could keep generating more to give” she’d keep going; just as the song comes to premature halt. We are forced to follow Yard into the abyss.

For the rest of the album, Yard’s weary voice somehow summons the necessary strength to plod through a haunting territory of textures which include dropped pennies, shattered wine glasses and wire brushes. When the play button pops up at the end of side two, we are relieved though undoubtedly our instinct is to turn the tape over for another go.

A musical equivalent to a Lars von Trier film, Yard tastefully conveys a darkness that is tragically ignored in our cheap and shallow North American culture. The album is not intended to the weak of heart. But I urge you to summon the necessary courage, listen, and listen often. You will be rewarded.


To read more of Nick Lyons’ writing, check out his blog here.


Ugliness Overcome: Blackout Beach’s Fuck Death ((or, “An Ode to the Overwhelming Weight Wikipedia Inflicts on Our Futile Internet Generation in D#,”) or, “Dusk Only Ends with a Plosive; Dawn Arrives in a Similar, Tentative Manner”))

15 11 2011

When are we going to realize that in Carey Mercer, North America has her sole living and deeply gasping genius?

“Genius” is not a word this reviewer uses casually.  In fact, I would probably only bestow the adjective upon two artists of the last fifty years or so.  First (and only because I use chronology as my guide): David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest and more recently, the tragically posthumous Pale King.   Wallace took his own life in 2008; accordingly, Mercer’s genius is of a solitary vintage.

If Fuck Death, which will be set loose tomorrow via Dead Oceans, is any indication, genius is happier alone.  Mercer’s new album burns brilliant in front of the pale dross our society promulgates at a rate most terrifyingFuck Death is the work of a very lonesome and tortured human being; the results are painfully superhuman.

Now in recent years, Mercer has handcrafted some mighty large boots to fill.  Arriving hot on the heels (pun intended) of two masterpieces (Paul’s Tomb, A Triumph and Skin of Evil) which were released under the respective monikers of Frog Eyes and Blackout Beach, Fuck Death forces a privy, fortunate few to wait, breath baited, in line (undoubtedly alone) in front of record store’s familiar glass door to pick up a double gate-fold (we can only hope) pressing of Mercer’s most recent release; this is an album which won’t disappoint even the most dedicated fan in the slightest, I can assure you.

Fuck Death is at once a testament to beauty and to ugliness; its ambiguity guides a fortunate listener’s open ear into a wholly other realm—we are confronted with the divine as we listen, and we’re probably surprised by what we see.  Sure we see Beauty, but mostly we bear witness to a whole mess of ugliness.

Upon being subject to many-a-listen of Fuck Death, my wife said something to the effect of “that guitar – it reminds me of so many mosquitoes”.

I have come to agree, be it begrudgingly (we are married, after all).  There is undoubtedly an element of ugliness on Fuck Death; in fact there are several.  But this immaculately informed rendering of the underbelly of the aesthetic world would, quite simply, be impossible if not for Mercer’s equally familiarity of beauty, which is so obviously (in a most subtle way) evident on the record.

We, the fortunate few who pay attention to Mercer’s recent and captivatingly prolific output, find Beauty a form most pure on Fuck Death’s third track “Deserter’s Song”.  Weighing in at an anorexic one minute and seven seconds, “Deserter’s Song” is absolutely perfect—it is worth the cost of the album, and then sum (again, pun idended).

It is apt that a “Deserter’s Song” is as brief as it is beautiful.  In a landscape of war-mongering psalms (the very next track boasts war’s bloody, singular mantra—“War, war, war, war is in my heart…”), the “Deserter’s Song” instills in her listener a much needed solace, especially in the context of such an abrasively beautiful album— Mercer’s black document of vengeance and bees.

Be it the ever-ticking clocks of “Drowning Pigs” or the dissonant moans of the “Broken Braying Sound of the Donkey’s Cry”, Fuck Death is an album in desperate need of fleeting beauty to counter disturbing and chaotic themes which threaten to overwhelm the sullen ear of its listener.

Miraculously, one minute and seven seconds of beauty in its most distilled incarnation manages to at once counterbalance and, in fact, trump Mercer’s best attempts at manufactured ugliness.

This is a gorgeous album.  In spite of an insipid abrasion and ugliness, Fuck Death spins norms on their heads.  In the vast confines of this album, ugliness is beauty; and beauty, in turn, ugliness.  Go buy it now.  It will challenge you for a brief eternity.

Nick Lyons

Bonehooves and Mo-Staches

13 11 2011

On Saturday night, The Fort Café hosted a fundraiser for Movember.  For just five bucks, patrons were treated to an evening most musical: four bands, one stage, and better yet, all proceeds went to prostate cancer research.  The evening’s headliners, Bonehoof, much like the Fort Café itself, are one of Victoria’s best kept secrets.  Here’s why.

Let’s start with the band.  Bonehoof is one of those special bands devoid of gimmick, arrogance, and pretense; instead of putting their energy into such futile trappings, they channel their collective musical prowess into something immortal—they make great music.

While the band wears its influences on their sleeves (Being There era Wilco, and modern day Zeus are the first bands that come to mind), they never fall into the fatal trap of mere mimicry; the band nods in the direction of their Amercana tinged predecessors and then take their infectious breed of soul instilled, alt-country in a brand new, vital direction.

The Fort Café proved to be a venue most perfect for “the Hoof”.  Not only is the establishment owned by drummer Benji  C., it also pays homage to an illustrious line of underground clubs; it reminds me of the type of places the Beatles played in before they broke.

While comparing Bonehoof to the young, fresh-faced lads from Liverpool may seem an extravagant exaggeration, listening to this band in a live setting puts all anxiety to rest.  Bonehoof forgoes the cheesy pop sensibilities of the early Beatles, and move right into the meat of White Album angst (though clearly, the members of Bonehoof still like each other).

So, this is a band to keep an eye on.  Rumour has it that they will be recording with a certain someone from Wolf Parade fame very soon, a rumour confirmed by his presence at Saturday night’s show (I fail to recall if he was sporting a moustache).  While we wait with baited breath for the album, we can see an early Bonehoof perform almost every week at the illustrious Fort Street Café; the nachos are to die for, by the way.

To read more of Nick Lyons’ writing, visit his blog here.

The Himalayan Bear’s Triumphant Homecoming

13 11 2011

2011 has been an exciting year for Ryan Beattie’s Himalayan Bear.  This year has seen the release of the exquisite Hard Times, and subsequent touring in both Europe, with Katherine Calder, and down the West coast by his lonesome.  If Saturday night was any indication, all of this touring has resulted in a live set that somehow manages to surpass the recordings; the songs are even sexier draped in a live skin.

The experience was reminiscent of Desire-era Bob Dylan.  While Desire surely as one of Dylan’s best works (and Beattie may agree as his ‘other band’ Chet does an amazing cover of “Oh Sister”) the resulting Rolling Thunder Review Revue tour gave songs such as “Isis” and “One More Cup of Coffee For the Road” a context in which to become fully realized (compare, for instance, the studio version of “Isis” to the live version featured on Biograph).

On Saturday night Beattie sang every track of his latest master work with an excitement and vigor only hinted at on the studio recordings.  Surrounded by members of Chet, Beattie quickly set to work establishing this most recent incarnation of the revolving cast of musicians that is Himalayan Bear, as the best.

Particularly noteworthy was the return of Matt Skillings.  Skillings’ interpretation of the percussive craft is less rhythmic than that of Beattie’s other drummers– his style is less John Bonham and more Glenn Kotche.

Beattie will soon be leaving us again, this time for a tour down the East Coast of the United States.  But he won’t leave before opening the show for Kathryn Calder’s CD release party at Lucky Bar later this month.  If you weren’t at Logan’s on Saturday night (or even if you were), be sure to buy tickets to Calder’s release NOW; catch the Himalayan Bear before he migrates (hopefully, “just for the winter”).

To read more of Nick Lyons’ writing, check out his blog here.

Finishing Up: An Evening With Dan Mangan

12 11 2011

Shrouded in deep blue light, flanked by a stunning five piece band, Dan Mangan owned the Alix Gooldin Hall’s small stage on Thursday night, playing to an adoring sold out crowd.  This was the last stop on Mangan’s six week tour of Canada and the United States; it didn’t end with a bang, it ended with several.

From the moment Mangan eased his way into the title track of his new record, Oh Fortune, it was obvious that he has grown tremendously since the last time he played the Gooldin.  Mangan’s new material, a textured weave of beautiful and abrasive elements, was at once challenging and charming.  It was a delight to see the crowd gathered at his feet (mostly composed of star struck juveniles) singing along to every song at the top of their lungs.

Particularly noteworthy was Mangan’s hired gun, trumpet player JP Carter, who nailed every crescendo with his delay-pedal adorned horn.  Though the Oh Fortune features an entire brass ensemble, Carter proved more than capable of making up for missing players; it was a treat to watch the revenge of the band nerds on stage.

Mangan’s magnetic charm spilled over after the show when he took the merch booth to say hello, sign autographs, and have pictures taken with his fans, including this one who is often mistaken for Mangan himself (apparently we also look like Seth Rogan).  Do you see a resemblance?

A Big Machine Lifts Off In Victoria: Swain at St. Andrew’s

9 02 2011

“The Lord is in this Holy Temple, let all the earth keep silence”: thus sayeth the gold-emblazoned banner high above St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church’s small stage.  But on Saturday night, the Lord’s holy temple was anything but quiet.  Oliver Swain’s Big Machine pulled to play a homecoming show with a little help from some friends in support of Swain’s first solo CD, “In a Big Machine”; and on this night, all of the earth rejoiced.

Swain is no stranger to Victoria’s bustling music scene.  Having played with bands such as the Bill Hilly Band (now known as The Bills), Scruj MacDuhk (whose name has also been abbreviated, since Swain’s departure, to The Duhks) and Outlaw Social, Swain is virtually omnipresent in Victoria.  If Saturday night is any indication, Swain’s most recent project, aptly called “The Big Machine”, is his most adventurous and rewarding incarnation yet.

The evening began with a taste of things to come as Big Machine guitarist Quinn Bachand took the stage with his big sister to play a short set of traditional songs.  The younger Bachand impressed us all with his undeniably preternatural guitar talent.  Several members of the crowd whispered to the person next to them that the lad’s licks, were ‘finger picking good’; good God!

When the Bachands left the stage to a rousing applause, they were quickly replaced by Victoria music veteran Lily Fawn and her Brightest Darkest Lullaby Band, who rounded off the first half of the show.  Fawn lulled those gathered before her into an adrenaline soaked derangement of the senses with her sugar-sweet, horrific tales of baby-stealing and mermaids. Drummer Matt Skillings (also a member of Chet) was especially impressive with his refreshing approach to percussion, a style less rhythmic, more melodic— Skillings paints pictures of horrors and beauties heretofore inconceivable with his brushes, sticks and tom-toms, lending to Lily and co.’s evocative set, which left us all enraptured and ready for a brief intermission.

When we finally reconvened on predestined pews, and the Big Machine took the stage, it became instantly clear that this was a machine most immaculately oiled.  The band’s homecoming was the centerpiece of their tour: having already played shows in Cumberland, Powell River and Vancouver, the band plans to roll across the mainland, through the mountains, and onto the frozen prairies of Alberta before flying to Memphis to complete their tour.

The Big Machine’s set was as varied as it was entertaining.  Swain’s band played songs in honour of the long-belated John Henry, but they also played songs in the key of alien abduction.  We in Victoria were particularly fortunate as the band’s stop in our town was the only show on the tour to feature The Marlborough String Quartet, who launched Swain’s band from blue grass to shining stars with their heavenly flourishes.

Swain has made an important step with “In a Big Machine”.  His is an undeniable talent, but on this disc, Swain is surrounded by musicians and composers capable of taking his songs to a higher level.  All who gathered at St. Andrews on Saturday night left with a smile, and a hope that Swain will stick around for a while on his newest project: for it is one most heavenly.

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