Various Artists – Big Bonky Tones

Various Artists
Big Bonky Tones
Tone Bonk
Toronto, ON
RIYL: radical covers; CanCon nostalgia; watching MuchMusic when they used to play videos

To sarcastically celebrate the 25th anniversary of MuchMusic’s best-selling Big Shiny Tunes compilation, Tone Bonk Records add fresh flavours to the pop hits forced down our throats. Throughout 26 songs spanning selections from the first five BST comps, members of Toronto’s backing band and their extended musical family travel back to the era when Rick the Temp reigned supreme. 

Though the songs chosen by each artist are largely approached from a place of sincerity, it’s easy to hear just how much fun was had. Vibrant Matter rewires the Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats” into pointillist glitch, while Ko T.C. transforms Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” into pitch-shifted hyperpop. Omeed Goodarzi’s cover of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” is freak-folk at its wooziest, as multiple voices collide like a five-Munster pile-up. Bram Gielen’s take on Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” is the compilation’s joyful peak, capturing the communal spirit of its original video with a gentle chorus of voices drifting through mellow waves of synthesized boogie funk.

Elsewhere, the most impressive moments on Big Bonky Tones transcend ironic appreciation to create something entirely new. Thom Gill’s “Sour Girl” turns Stone Temple Pilots’ alt-rock weeper into lush electronic pop. Robin Gill renders “My Hero” into something much more closely resembling her band Bernice than the Foo Fighters’ bro-rock anthem. Ben Gunning reboots Big Wreck with a sputtering videogame jazz fusion approach to “That Song.” Yet nothing here is as glorious as Christine Bougie’s “Tahitian Moon” guitar instrumental—it might be the first time the word “tasteful” has been used in connection to Porno For Pyros.

Jesse Locke

Simon Provencher – Mesures EP

Simon Provencher
Mesures EP
Michel Records
Gatineau, QC
RIYL: Flaming Tunes; Golden Retriever; “jazz”

As the guitarist of supercharged post-punk band VICTIME, Simon Provencher drenches his shark-toothed riffs in an array of effects until they’re nearly unrecognizable. The trio’s abrasive sound stands in stark contrast to Provencher’s solo debut, an understated diversion into left-field jazz where every element can be clearly identified.

On the EP’s three opening songs, Provencher welcomed clarinetist Elyze Venne-Deshaies and percussionist Olivier Fairfield (FET.NAT, Last Ex, Album) to freely improvise. For his own oblique strategy, the guitarist replaced his effects pedals with twine tied to strings and metal objects wedged into the instrument’s body. The woodwinds provide a melodious foundation as Fairfield crashes and clatters, while Provencher wanders freely across the frets.

Mesures concludes with a trio of songs that emerged as happy accidents. When Provencher mistakenly pressed play on multiple clarinet tracks simultaneously, he was struck by the eerie polyphony these sounds created. Keeping the horns exactly as he heard them, Provencher added sparse strains of feedback, transforming the EP’s back half into a buoyant electro-acoustic collage. Emphasizing results over intention, the proof is in the pudding with this playfully experimental release. 

– Jesse Locke

OBUXUM – Bravery Network Online Soundtrack

Bravery Network Online Soundtrack
Toronto, ON
RIYL: J Dilla; Flying Lotus; RPGs

OBUXUM made a splash in 2019 with her album Re-Birth, injecting elements of spacey ambient music, twitchy footwork, and head-nodding hip-hop into a dazzling collection of instrumental beats. The Somali-Canadian producer’s songs shift and mutate, occasionally introducing spoken word samples such as Viola Davis’s politically charged Golden Globes speech. In an interview with The FADER, OBUXUM explained how “each track on that particular album tells its own stories, and they have their own feel and their own pace.”

For its follow-up, the soundtrack to the fighting strategy game Bravery Network Online, OBUXUM’s approach is far more cohesive. Each track clocks in at two minutes or less and is named for the location where players will hear it (“The Stadium,” “Sparring Room,” “Main Menu”). Her musical palette initially feels limited to shimmering synths pushed forward by boom-bap drums and auxiliary percussion, until she departs from this formula with the moody pianos of “Locker Room” and jazzy thump of “Deep House.” While not quite as expansive or exploratory as OBUXUM’s previous work, the soundtrack stands alone as a highly enjoyable listen worth reaching for the replay button.

– Jesse Locke   

Deep Digs: Pascal Languirand – De Harmonia Universalia (Minos, 1980)

Deep Digs: Pascal Languirand – De Harmonia Universalia (Minos, 1980)

By: Jesse Locke

In Deep Digs we take a look at significant albums from Canadian history, with an emphasis on music that might have been overlooked the first time around. This month writer Jesse Locke focuses on the sonic explorations and “New Classical Romanticism” of Pascal Languirand’s De Harmonia Universalia. 

Pascal Languirand is a musical shapeshifter searching the cosmos for universal harmony. A decade before he could be heard jamming on keytar with hi-NRG synth-pop group Trans-X and their hit single “Living On Video,” Languirand’s debut album Minos became one of the earliest Canadian releases linked to the genre of New Age music. Fusing acoustic and electronic sounds, its ambient meditations looked to deep space and earthly lost cities to enrich the mind, body, and spirit. 

According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, “New Age music had its first proponents and has developed its strongest commercial infrastructure in Quebec” with labels, distributors, associations, and awards set up for the burgeoning subculture. Languirand’s second album De Harmonia Universalia cemented his position as both an innovator and outlier in this field, drawing on elements of space music and krautrock while creating a style he described as “the New Classical Romanticism.”

Languirand was a globetrotter from day one. Though his parents are Canadian, he was born in Paris and spent his childhood flying back and forth to Mexico with his father, the celebrated (yet allegedly abusive) writer, actor, and radio host Jacques Languirand. Imbued with a sense of creativity and curiosity, Pascal began studying electronic music at McGill and cinematography at Concordia at age 18. In an article from the website Amazings, he describes his earliest self-directed studies. “Above all, I loved experimenting. I used to do so with tape, especially with my four-track recorder, with the electric guitar, something like Pink Floyd, playing with echo, the bass. Therefore, I based my work on the manipulation of sounds. My university studies, in actual fact, did not have any real usefulness for me. I preferred to experiment on my own.”

These approaches culminate on De Harmonia Universalia, originally released as a cassette on Languirand’s label Minos. He plays every instrument himself, with an array of electronics that includes the Roland Guitar Synthesizer and Farfisa Synthorchestra (a favourite of his kosmische counterparts Klaus Schulze and Cluster). “Inesperdistan” sets the scene with vocoder-drenched vocals pitched up to sound like a haunted boys’ choir, before “Abalii” sails into the distant galaxies of New Age with washes of cymbals and swirling pianos set adrift on synthesized bliss. “Atlantis” is the album’s mystical centerpiece, as Languirand’s voice returns alongside acoustic guitar strums, welcoming listeners to imagine they’ve arrived on Plato’s mythical island somewhere in deep space. 

The pair of lengthy pieces that fill side two, “O Nos Omnes” and “Nova”, introduce cycling arpeggios that wouldn’t sound out of place on soundtracks such as Tangerine Dream’s Thief or Vangelis’s Blade Runner. Fulfilling that prophecy, Languirand’s next album Vivre Ici Maintenant includes his themes from the television series of the same name. Yet while Languirand’s early releases share a searching quality with Tangerine Dream and other giants of the space music genre, his sonic explorations are less rock-oriented and ostentatious. By including lyrics sung in Latin with the plainspoken delivery of Gregorian chant, Languirand’s music is rooted in ancient times and earthly forms of reverence, welcoming everyone on his voyage. 

In 1983, Languirand found his greatest commercial success with Trans-X’s infectiously catchy “Living On Video.” Jamming on keytar above pumping synth bass and a relentless onslaught of electronic hooks, this infectious earworm blasted onto dancefloors around the world. As he explains in a 2016 interview with Inner Edge Music, the group’s name was a direct response by Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” (revealing his continued interest in German elektronische musik) yet Trans-X’s sound shares more traits with the Québécois strain of Italo Disco popularized by the label Unidisc. World tours with fellow Montreal new wavers Men Without Hats led to sales of two million copies for Trans-X’s debut album and a platinum certification in Mexico, where they remain rock stars to this day. 

Languirand returned to experimental realms on the ’90s albums Ishtar and Gregorian Waves, and has most recently tied together the various threads of his career with New Age elements woven into the 2020 Trans-X single “Carry Me Away.” With his trademark asymmetrical haircut and oversized sunglasses, he has settled into the role of a veteran artist hovering between the boundaries of pop star and cult figure. If you have found comfort lately in the contemporary abundance of softness, take a trip with De Harmonia Universalia and float away to a soothing realm somewhere beyond.

Population II
À la Ô Terre
Castle Face Records
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Amon Düül II; Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd; the feeling of staring at an album cover while you’re baked out of your skull at age 17

Population II left a heavy impression on me with their performance at this year’s Taverne Tour, the accidentally pre-pandemic timed music festival spread across various Montréal venues in the last weekend of January. The young trio’s timeless approach to psychedelia was also impressive enough to land them a coveted spot on John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees’ Castle Face Records. Their full-length debut is a seamlessly orchestrated rock ‘n’ roll timewarp, not resembling anything remotely linked to the year 2020. 

Showcasing their instrumental agility, Population II flow from one section to the next with passages of dreamy ambience turning on a dime into tumbling drum fills and earth scorching riffs. An eerie wash of organs floats underneath the slow drip of songs like “Ce n’est rêve” and “Attraction” as the band mesmerizes with snaking repetition. Singing drummer Pierre-Luc Gratton pulls off an impressive trick with agonized moans produced like “I Am The Walrus” delivered at the same time as his relentless motorik, letting loose in moments like the delirious conclusion of “À la porte de demain.” 

Until the days when the words ‘psych festival’ no longer sound like a distant memory, spark one up to À la Ô Terre and relive the hazy memories.

Jesse Locke 

Kass Richards
The Language Shadow
Good Cry Records
Toronto, ON / Boston, MA
RIYL: Julia Holter; Palace Brothers; the lost cities of your imagination

In 2017, Kass Richards was welcomed into the ever-swelling ranks of the U.S. Girls live band, becoming one of 20 collaborators surrounding Meg Remy for the recording of her latest album, Heavy Light. That collective experience at Montreal’s storied Hotel2Tango studio proved to be so creatively fruitful that Richards decided to continue the experience in the same location with a smaller version of its congregation. Her debut full-length features co-production and keys by Basia Bulat, the Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury on guitar, and U.S. Girls’ Geordie Gordon adding to the atmospheric instrumentation.

The Language Shadow has the bones of a rustic singer-songwriter project, with Richards initially recording her vocals and nylon string guitar live, yet by improvising its accompanying arrangements the album is imbued with a mystical quality. This is reinforced by the sacred source texts she chooses to adapt, including passages from Shakespeare’s The Tempest on opener “Full Fathom Five,” which sets a gorgeous tone for the album with its shimmering Appalachian dulcimer. She continues to pay tribute with a wonderfully sparse cover of the Kinks’ “Strangers,” but it is Jennifer Castle’s immortal “Nature” that receives the most reverent treatment thanks to the sweeping cellos of Zou Zou Robidoux.

Sara Ludy’s surreal 3D animated video for “Atlantis” provides a fitting visual to the song’s weightless, meditative sound with a shadowy figure levitating into an otherworldly aurora borealis. Rather than searching for a literal lost city, Richards seeks an experience of forging connection between open hearts through the timeless power of creative expression. As the song swells towards its mournful conclusion, she intones a universal plea: “I don’t wanna die alone with my own thoughts.”            

Jesse Locke

Jennifer Castle – Monarch Season

Jennifer Castle
Monarch Season
Toronto, ON
Idée Fixe/Paradise of Bachelors
RIYL: Linda Perhacs; Kath Bloom; dad-mode Bill Callahan

Over the past 15 years, Jennifer Castle has quietly built up a devoted following with her beautiful, humane folk music. From her early days at intimate Toronto venues like the Tranzac Club and Double Double Land to her jam-packed winter solstice concerts each December, she has spent the past decade recording and performing with a large band, adding pieces to her caravan until it became a choogling country-rock chuckwagon. That changed in 2019 when Castle’s solo tour dates opening for Neko Case inspired her to make her sixth LP completely on her lonesome, returning to the spare sound of her origins as Castlemusic

Finding time away from work as a doula, Castle was joined by producer Jeff McMurrich in her rural home by Lake Erie. Recording with the light of the moon and the sound of the water lapping through her windows, she wove together the understated sonic tapestry of Monarch Season with only her voice, acoustic guitar, piano, and a healthy dose of harmonica. On these nine songs, Castle’s quivering voice and unhurried melodic approach meditates on big ideas including justice, the environment, and how cities aren’t changing fast enough to keep up with their problems. 

In a sly nod to soul singer Jimmy Ruffin, Monarch Season closes with Castle posing the question “what becomes of the broken hearted?” She might not have an immediate answer, but does believe in bringing troubled people together, packing sheet music inside copies of the album so anyone can sing and play along. 

Jesse Locke  

Aquakultre & DJ Uncle Fester – Bleeding Gums Murphy

Aquakultre & DJ Uncle Fester
Bleeding Gums Murphy
Black Buffalo Records
Halifax, NS
RIYL: A Tribe Called Quest; The Pharcyde; Songs in the Key of Springfield

Hot on the heels of his excellent May 2020 album, Legacy, Aquakultre returns with another electrifying full-length collaboration with DJ Uncle Fester. As Gary Suarez wrote earlier this year, the one-producer-one-rapper format is a storied recipe for sonic consistency. Bleeding Gums Murphy proves this point, serving up jazzy, Native Tongues-influenced hip-hop with socially conscious lyrics from a crew at the top of their game.

While Legacy found Aquakultre’s Lance Sampson backed up by his band of hyper-talented instrumentalists, here he’s joined by a gaggle of guest rappers that includes fellow Haligonians Ghettosocks, Tachichi, and Corey Writes. The scorching sound of live sax played by Anthony Rinaldi bolsters Uncle Fester’s boom-bap production on album standout “Hard Reset” and the crackling, sample-filled “Eye To Eye.” 

Another recurring element filtering throughout these 11 songs is the voice of Bleeding Gums Murphy himself. The genius jazz man behind Sax On The Beach was misunderstood by everyone except Lisa in his lifetime, but Aqualkultre’s second standout album of 2020 should propel him in his rise as a musical hero.

Jesse Locke

Itchy Self – Here’s the Rub

Itchy Self
Here’s the Rub
Celluloid Lunch Records
Montreal, QC
RIYL: Neon Boys; Mirrors; reading zines instead of the internet

Joe Chamandy (Protruders, Kappa Chow) continues to push back against the modern world with the tunefully scuzzy proto-punk of his new band Itchy Self. Rounding up a gang of longtime collaborators and fresh faces – including Chris Burns of cult ’80s garage-rock group Terminal Sunglasses – this five-song EP also marks the first release from Chamandy’s zine-turned-label, Celluloid Lunch

The band’s Sailor-Ripley-esque belief in individuality and personal freedom is showcased in the EP’s opening song, “B What You B”, before this motivational theme is flipped into a sarcastic call-and-response on “God Bless The Ego.” Here’s the Rub’s title track is an onslaught of Quine-style skronk, but the band prove they’re capable of slowing things down on “Reprobate” and the bent Velvet Underground strut of closer “Playin MTV.” Carrying on the traditions of what they call “de-professionalized rock music,” Itchy Self scratches hard to reach spots that have been there for decades. 

– Jesse Locke