by Preston Radtke
The recent fad of indie giants releasing new records after moderately long hiatuses has now come to impact Toronto. This time the band in question is Broken Social Scene with the new album Hug of Thunder; the project’s first studio release in seven years. Hug of Thunder is both BSS at their pure essence and the dismaying reality of a departure. Both top-heavy and marauding, overall Hug of Thunder is a mixed bag of mixed bags.
A team effort
A truly remarkable aspect of BSS’s career is just how marvelously they’re able to juggle at times more than ten different musicians on a single album and still maintain cohesiveness and uniformity. Both Forgiveness Rock Record and their self-titled LP feature upwards of a dozen different musicians playing or singing on different tracks while still keeping a consistent aesthetic and sound. Hug of Thunder is much the same. The performances, both vocal and instrumental, blend together to forge a definable album color and highlight strengths of the performers themselves.
On the heels of her own new record, Leslie Feist’s performance on this record is a retro reminder of how one shouldn’t pigeonhole the songstress in to the acoustic-led cabin. “Hug of Thunder” is the Feist showcase on this record, where we see her experimenting with new textures, inflections and backing instrumentation. The resulting sound paints the picture of the resilient nature of Broken Social Scene, and just how dynamic Feist can be.
The ever-present guidance of Kevin Drew, one of the original members of the project, has also not waivered. His writing and song structure is all over this record. “Venity Pail Kids” and “Protest Song” are the most complex creations off this record, and both remind the audience just how prolific Drew is at tapping in to subtle, somber themes and subjects. Nearly two decades on, Drew’s voice still has that token minimalist, no-nonsense flavor he perfected in the early 2000s.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Broken Social Scene without a prominent new member. Ariel Engle, a touring member since pre-hiatus 2010, was brought in as a studio member of the outfit for Hug of Thunder. Engle brings Feist-ian and Haines-ian aesthetics and style to the band, plus some never-before realized grit and street smarts. Be sure to check-out “Skyline” to find Engle at her absolute apex.
The past is past
Broken Social Scene is a rock band. Excluding their first record, Feel Good Lost, all of their records settle comfortably in the left-of-center rock genre. With these previous releases have come escapes to ambient, baroque pop, and electronic genres. The blend of rock and these tangent genres has produced one of the more unique and tasteful catalogues in recent memory. Unfortunately, Hug of Thunder feels almost exclusively like an alternative record. Kevin Drew’s fingerprints are indeed all over this record, but his experience with ambient and electronica seems to have missed it. The majority of songs are blatantly guitar and vocally driven. The amount of layering and textures is either distorted or overshadowed by traditional rock instrumentation. Sadly, the only songs that hint at retro BSS synthetics are the prelude “Sol Luna” and the late cut “Victim Lover.”
The electronic experimentation on landmark albums You Forgot It in People and their self-titled release is the one thing that defines this band. Without that, BSS simply feels like a variety show of different indie singers. Without that experimentation, Broken Social Scene lacks an identity and personality.
Reznor would be proud of this downward spiral…
There is no flowery way to say this: the last five tracks on Hug of Thunder are bland compared to the first seven. Emotionally speaking, songs like “Halfway Home” and “Stay Happy” touch the listener on a very personal, relatable level. While they are both rock songs at their core, the writing and vocal performance on these tracks allow the listener to feel one with the music. “Halfway Home” is the song to cheer you up, and “Stay Happy” is the one to make you think.
Unfortunately, the second half of the record lacks accessibility. Vocals are delivered rather blandly and with a lack of punch. “Towers and Masons” seems to be about some sort of childhood experience or memory, but the delivery is just so lifeless and forgettable that the message doesn’t really land. “Victim Lover”, a song about someone who has been wronged in a relationship, should be one of the most heart-wrenching tracks on the album. But the writing is overly simplistic and generic, and again, the vocals are delivered with no emotion. While there is a lot to love about the early tracks, the instrumentation of the final act isn’t dynamic or cutting-edge enough to carry the momentum through to the end.
“Hug of Thunder”
Also in the Hug of Thunder family:
The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic
Yo La Tengo: I Can Feel the Heart Beating as One
Wolf Parade: Apologies to the Queen Mary
All images from Spin
Hug of Thunder
The enduring legacy of Broken Social Scene as a rotating band is more fortified as a result of this album. New performers and old were able to craft impactful tracks that both improve the album and showcase their skill. That said, several of the later songs are missing textures and levels that can propel them to the upper half of BSS’s catalog. Without that instrumentation, many of their new songs are only held up by nostalgia and liner notes.
Preston is a Emerging Media and Design major. His favorite things include: Seinfeld, the band Sleater-Kinney, denim jackets, and traveling. When he is not writing for Byte, he’s working on his thesis dealing with transmedia in music marketing, working on his very amateur novel, and spending way too much money on restaurants.