By Glen Erickson
CALGARY – Not everyone is comfortable with the gritty dissonance that is coaxed out of a guitar. Take, for instance, playing the second string, sixth fret, and first string open together while cranking up the distortion – it produces a jarring sound that is uniquely unnerving. As BeatRoute discovered in conversation with SLATES vocalist and guitarist James Stewart, he seeks out this sound, and the feeling it induces, every day.
Speaking to something uniquely unnerving: SLATES are back with their first new music since 2014’s Taiga with the May 19th release Summery. The new album is a thematic collection of 11 tracks (eight songs, three instrumental bridges) that remains on the path forged by its predecessor with some tasteful evolution integrated throughout. A sensible approach, considering this is a band so committed to its own development.
“We were writing and playing the whole time [between albums],” Stewart explains.
“We went out to New Zealand and Australia, Dallas (drummer) became a father, I dealt with some pretty intense family stuff… So a lot of life happened. This album could have taken six months or six years.”
Summery is much more than a collection of songs, it’s a glimpse into a band that has settled into itself, ready to make music that means something to the working-class fan. The events of the past few years and Stewart’s personal challenges are infused within. He speaks candidly about his work to make sense of the difficulty, emerging from an obviously cacophonous blend of peaks and valleys in his personal life.
The four-piece punk unit is clearly at home in the punk aesthetic while defying the genre-splitting box so many other acts fall into. Their sound is not the muted three chord anthems of pop punk and they are rarely limited to the verse-chorus default. Instead, they weave cohesive and memorable bursts of layered angsty guitars and overlapping tones under rich, grainy vocals, finding their way through a beginning and an end. It conveys dissonance in its process and method.
“It’s nothing we did intentionally,” Stewart clarifies.
He mentions the heavy influence of early Television and Sonic Youth records, then adds, “It’s just the way we write: inviting dissonance into the songwriting process.”
Listening to the first half minute of “Marquee Moon” by Television, with its dryly quirky and deft guitar work alongside shuffling drums, clarifies this statement. As does the band’s choice of producer Steve Albini, who they previously worked with on Taiga. The famously eclectic producer of albums such as Nirvana’s In Utero  and Pixies’ Surfer Rosa  trekked to Edmonton to work with the band, tracking them live and to tape. The result is an audible intention, and attention to detail, without any swelled self-perception, making SLATES all the more compelling. Musically, they are clearly working things out, like the short-lived UK act Mclusky, with their love of tense harmonies. As a whole, their nice-guy persona and focus on the whole package is reflective of contemporaries such as Beach Slang.
To support the new album, SLATES has released a black and white video for the track “Sub-Optimal,” directed by Fish Griwkowsky, which imitates the band’s spontaneous writing style and captures the urgency of the song. It depicts the band frantically racing down various sets of staircases around Edmonton.
So what does Stewart hope fans will take away from Summery when they finally hear the songs?
“I just hope they like it.”
Honest as punk.
SLATES’ fourth full length Summery arrives May 19 via New Damage Records. Check out the album release parties May 26 at the Palomino (Calgary) and May 27 with Switches at Barber Ha (Edmonton).Barber Ha, New Damage Records, Palomino, SLATES, Summery, Switches