By Mike Dunn
There’s a sense of ambition and experimentation rarely heard in Canadian commercial country on Blake Berglund’s fifth full-length release, Realms. Keying in on the spaced-out psychedelia of Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music as a touchstone, Berglund has crafted an album, rather than yet another collection of “potential radio singles.” Its tone is in lock step with the punchiness of commercial radio, with a tip of the chapeau to ‘90s artists like George Strait, Alan Jackson, and Vince Gill, while the steel and organ arrangements lead to more interstellar reaches.
The album leads with an introduction of the title track, a sweeping piano-based ballad bathed in lowdown Telecaster licks and church-y steel. From his first line, “Behold the draping cosmic veil, cloaking which we cannot see,” Berglund’s intent to change the conversation is clear. “Pretty Good Guy” is a straight up, four-on-the-floor country rocker, driven by Bryce Lewis’ flashing Tele boogie riff and the driving rhythm section of drummer Steve Leidal and bass player Shawn Patton. That vibe continues on “Moose Mountain;” its West Texas disco groove nodding to the ever-looming influence of Waylon Jennings, while the lyrics do away with the traditional cowboy tropes of whiskey and coffee in favour of well-rolled doobie on horseback.
Too often, Canadian country music that has the potential to see the light above the underground is devoid of experimentation, relying on tried-and-true staples of currency in the genre. Berglund’s Realms is better than that; it is absolutely current country music, though the constraints of genre classification might give it a different label. The album is imbued with heart, musicianship, and a fearlessness that deserves to have an impact on the national stage.
In short, it’s the most ambitious Canadian country record of 2017, and should certainly be regarded as one of the best. The true belief in country music itself, and the scope and experimentation of Realms ought to be a step forward for a style that has too long been content to peddle the easiest possible formula to its audience, and help in bringing this important popular music form back up from the depths of depravity and mere commodification.
Blake Berglund, Independent, Realms, Record Review