Arts & Crafts
Broken Social Scene is perhaps the most striking exemplar of the notion that there are only two categories of music, live, and recorded. Not that the elaborate rock and roll soundscape of a track like “Halfway Home” couldn’t be replicated on a big stage with enough Fender Jaguars and Micro Korgs, but rather that a collection of musicians with this level of individual success are rarely seen at award shows, let alone in the same band.
In its inception, Broken Social Scene was a microcosm of the Toronto indie rock scene. The band began through the slow merging of two bands, Kevin Drew and Charles Spearin’s KC Accidental (which became the title of one of Broken Social Scene’s best known songs), and Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning’s Broken Social Scene. Both bands were decidedly post-rock, with paced moments of lowercase in between slow guitar jams, glitch synth drones, and sound effects. An early KC Accidental track even features audio of Charles Spearin flipping through his voicemail, a strong contrast to the indie rock anthems of the Broken Social Scene of Hug of Thunder. But even in these early releases, soon-to-be-huge names started popping up in the liner notes.
The mostly instrumental and reserved Feel Good Lost (2001) was the first full-length release with the BSS name, but the indie rock supergroup we see today truly emerged with You Forgot it in People (2002). It’s a truly frenetic piece of work, with perfectly strange song titles (“Late Nineties Bedroom Rock for the Missionaries”), slippery post-rock grooves (“Pacific Theme”), and moments of incendiary rhythm (“Almost Crimes”). Vocals are hardly the centre of the devoutly art-rock record, but alongside the streamlining of the band into a rock format, frontman Kevin Drew could be heard on most of the tracks. What were formerly backing singers became features, and thus the interplay between Drew and vocal leads from Amy Milan, Emily Haines, and Leslie Feist started to define the band. This also marked the creation of Arts & Crafts which go on to become an indie powerhouse.
Between You Forgot it in People (2002) and Broken Social Scene (2005) a lot would happen paratextually with the band members. Amy Milan and Evan Cranley’s Stars would release the career-defining Set Yourself on Fire (2004), Emily Haines and James Shaw would record three records as Metric and release two of them on Last Gang records, and Feist would begin to soundtrack every wedding since with the release of Let It Die (2004), to say nothing of other tangential bands like Apostle of Hustle and Do Make Say Think. These successes would compound from here, and all the disparate styles of each member began to seep into their own projects and bands, even into solo work from Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew as Broken Social Scene Presents.
By 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record, the band was defined by its star-studded cast and its massive and bombastic indie rock anthems. The live sets became a guessing game of who was available to tour in front of a raucous horn section. Seven years later, Hug of Thunder feels like a musical high school reunion, and not in the sassy Zac Efron kind of way.
It opens like most Broken Social Scene releases, with a tempered and drone-like build into an explosive crescendo. “Halfway Home” is an inviting reminder of the biggest moments on Forgiveness Rock. This leads cleanly into the Emily Haines lead “Protest Song,” which maintains a similar level of major key note density, with several layers of roaring guitars played by Andrew Whiteman among others and synths by players like Lisa Lobsinger. The cavernous acoustic opening of “Skyline” teases a change of pace, before drummer Justin Peroff kicks the song back into the same rhythmic space as the opening two. The record occasionally slows itself down in this way, but rarely turns down the volume for long. That’s not to say that every track is Forgiveness Rock’s “Meet Me in the Basement,” but it doesn’t contain that much negative space. Every track arcs strongly, and contains a truly dense mix, but with a strong bias towards traditional rock instrumentation; fewer woodwinds, less present horns. The vocals are often doubled and offset between left and right. Thus, the mixes are hazier and less crisp than on previous releases. The headphone listening experience benefits strongly from this, although the clarity of the vocals is less, and thus the impact of the canted lyricism is mitigated somewhat. A track like the Feist-centred “Hug of Thunder” stands out in this regard, especially in conversation with her new, intensely raw, solo release, Pleasure (2017). There are a few new faces here too, most notably a transcendent vocal feature from AroarA’s Ariel Engle on “Gonna Get Better.”
What was once a compendium of disparate ideas has solidified into an identity: a respite for weary songwriters, a chance to play big songs in a big band, singing in front of a cacophony of expert musicianship, for audiences that might actually be smaller than they get from their day job bands. For us, it’s an extremely large and impressive piece of indie rock canon, a high water mark for how beautiful and successful a musical community can become, and how important it is that it stay together.arts & crafts, Broken Social Scene, Hug of Thunder