Joseph Shabason and André Ethier come out of the kitchen with Fresh Pepper

Joseph Shabason and André Ethier come out of the kitchen with Fresh Pepper

The collaborators compare restaurant industry resumés, and the grind that connects music and service workers

By: Tom Beedham | Photo by: Colin Medley | Art by: Tom Beedham

Rattling off a handful of restaurant gigs he worked on College Street and Queen Street West, André Ethier is filling in a personal map of Toronto’s downtown when he lands on the time he quit a job to tour with the Deadly Snakes and ended up barbacking the original Silver Dollar Room through venue talent booker Dan Burke.

“I was complaining that I didn’t have a job, and Dan was like, ‘Come down to the Silver Dollar.’ That was horrific,” Ethier recalls. Before it was demolished and rebuilt to exact specifications as a sanitized cocktail lounge on the same site, the venue spent the best part of two decades enduring an era of sticky-floored underground guitar music and the occasional onstage brawl—not to mention the notorious after-hours party space downstairs. “My training shift was like, ‘The northwest corner is run by this gang, so don’t go in there; don’t clear any drinks.’ The previous busser had left because he had been given a concussion by some criminals that had picked him up and dropped him on his head on the cement floor.”

As Ethier offers his side of the Silver Dollar Room, Joseph Shabason is having trouble holding back his exasperation. Speaking over the phone from Shabason’s kitchen after lunch at Ossington falafel joint the Haifa Room, the pair is on the line to chat up Fresh Pepper, a band they assembled with peers between pandemic restrictions. The core members are rounded out with Kieran Adams on drums, Thom Gill on keys, and Bram Gielen on bass—familiar names for fans of Shabason’s solo records and work in DIANA; as well as vocalists Robin Dann and Felicity Williams, two more locally in-demand performers perhaps best recognized at the front of Bernice, which also features Gill. 

Like Ethier, Shabason has also put in his time in the service industry, waiting tables and working in kitchens. “I’ve also worked in so many wedding bands,” Shabason says, “[which is also] somewhat service industry—we’d be eating in closets and working with all of the servers.” In fact, Ethier and Shabason report, everyone on Fresh Pepper’s debut self-titled album has spent time supplementing their music careers in restaurants and kitchens.

“They’re very related,” Ethier reiterates. “Two perhaps enjoyed industries in Toronto, but underappreciated for how they grind people down and how difficult it is to grow up [around] and within those industries.”

Fresh Pepper provides a summit for service and music workers alike, toasting their interdependencies and challenging the conditions they bump against with metaphor-rich vignettes. “Dry your eyes Susie Q / An actor’s face at the window when it’s raining,” Ethier sings over a glassy set of keys before an upward saxophone swirl uproots the action and tosses it into glistering dream-like suspension on opening song “New Ways of Chopping Onions.” In the space of two lines, the song calls to mind film, music, and kitchen traditions and trade secrets; the antipsychotic drug Seroquel; even Rutger Hauer’s “tears in rain” monologue from the end of Blade Runner—a bouquet of gestures to some untold obstacles and indignities commonly endured in entertaining. 

On a similar tip, “Seahorse Tranquilizer” features a guest appearance from Destroyer‘s Dan Bejar, stepping in to sing about the meticulous, extravagant lengths restaurateurs will go to provide a comfortable dining experience—”We harvest insane roses,” Bejar sings, Dann and Williams echoing him before Ethier joins in: “Every table gets a rose / Every table gets a candle.” It all gets lost in the busy dining-room chatter that pervades the track, playing off like a floor staff’s collective fantasy. That invisibilized verisimilitude is baked into the Fresh Pepper project.

“It does relate to the pandemic,” Ethier says, though he and Shabason are reluctant to ascribe too much of the album’s influence to its pandemic origins. “Playing live shows and being a band took a hit during the pandemic—[we] more or less couldn’t play shows, and restaurants couldn’t open.”

Writing a record was all they could do to nourish themselves.

“We’d call each other every day and just talk through things in a really nice way, and the rest of the band was very much integral to the record being done, but at the end of the day it was André and I just in the weeds day in and day out—and it felt nice to be there with somebody because it had just been me by myself or with my toddler for so long that to sort of feel like an adult again was doing something meaningful,” Shabason reflects. “Not that raising a child isn’t meaningful, but it’s also fuckin’ monotonous and crazy-making sometimes. And this was just pure joy for me.”

“The time flew,” Ethier adds.

Time figures prominently across the record: screaming into the foreground at the close of “New Ways of Chopping Onions” as an alarm clock telegraphs the opener was all a dream, some ungodly non-billable overtime; closing in with mounting intensity on the jazz noir Davis nod “Walkin'”; sloshing through a lazy river of woozy guitar bends and hungover flotsam and jetsam on “Waiting On”; swirling down the drain after blasting drum skins and assorted percussion implements like so many dishes with hot, vaporous sax fumes on “Dishpit.” On “Prep Cook in the Weeds,” the titular narrator watches flies slowly accumulate on the hands of a kitchen clock—time appearing to slow so much the future erases itself, life disappearing under the weight of agents of decay, the kitchen’s very biochemistry under threat. 

“It’s a horrible thing to be at work,” Ethier says about his lyrics. “The flies have taken the wheel and they’re driving time.”

This could be pretty oppressive imagery, but the band diffuses the atmosphere with a sublime lightness, collectively conveying a kind of zen you could only arrive at through repetition, distance, and mutual support.

“For me, this record was the first time since the start of the pandemic where time kind of dissolved,” Shabason enthuses. “This was maybe the first time we had been allowed to be in a room together in a full year, so I think everyone was really excited, too. It felt joyful and fun and easy and like this kind of collective exhale of just being like, ‘Oh, this is so nice.'”

That’s felt in everything from the loose physicality to the folk wisdoms they elevate to oneiric guiding light. Shabason’s studio consists of one room, so to accommodate Adams’ drums, he and Gill recorded scratch parts on an MS-20 synthesizer and an early 2000s Yamaha MOTIF for the beds but ultimately kept them intact; Ethier’s guitar parts ring out without needing to be resolved. “Congee Around Me” builds itself up into an atmosphere of collective care and nourishment, its characters finding abundance in the elemental simplicity of pantry staples. It’s a dynamic that’s central to the song itself, Dann and Williams supporting Ethier’s vocals while the rest of the band patiently add their parts in brushes and swells.

“I hear it, and it makes me well up,” Shabason says about the song, though he might as well be talking about the album. “It’s everyone working in concert to make this thing that feels so emotional.”

Fresh Pepper‘s self-titled debut is out June 17, 2022 via Telephone Explosion Records.

FREE SPACE: THE FUTURE OF LIVE MUSIC IS WIDE OPEN, BUT WHAT WILL WE DO WITH IT?

FREE SPACE: THE FUTURE OF LIVE MUSIC IS WIDE OPEN, BUT WHAT WILL WE DO WITH IT?

By: Tom Beedham | Art by: Tom Beedham

We heap a lot of importance on concert venues, but places are just spaces, and they’re only as good as what you fill them with. Between March 2020 and the time of this article’s publication, they’ve also spent a lot of time empty, and for a while we didn’t know when—or if—they would come back. Then, 2021 brought gigs back indoors, at least for a moment. With Omicron shutting activity down again, venue operators are back to wondering how to start over, but in 2021, we got a hopeful glimpse of where things will pick up in the future.

The community surrounding venues has been galvanized, organizing quietly and through more formal pandemic-minted advocacy groups like the Canadian Independent Venue Coalition and the National Independent Venue Association in the United States. That means some of the smallest black box venues have broadened their solidarity networks across countries and continents, positioning them to access avenues of mutual aid and support, sharing resources like best practices around livestreaming and safety protocols, or even funding streams only large and mid-sized clubs might have previously had the time to discover, let alone pursue.

Approaching a return to live concerts in 2022, brick-and-mortar venues are similarly positioned to reclaim and re-politicize the future of their spaces as stages for exploring harm reduction and community care, improving the material conditions of the communities that move through and surround them in the process.

NEW MODELS

With countless concert venues lost as a consequence of so many months without revenue, space is more precious than ever, which means we should expect radical new approaches to how concert venues are utilized. Where protocol will allow, that should include dedicated streams of matinee programming; bluer skies may spring new venues as collectively owned and operated spaces.

In December 2021, multi-arts venue Sous Bas (based in Hamilton, Ont.) debuted a new program called Sous Bas Clubhouse, a collaborative co-programming model where, for the price of $500 a month, members are entitled to 12 hours of private use of the space and have the opportunity to earn a share of cover charges and bar sales. With a mind toward providing a kind of one-stop hub for work-life balance, the Clubhouse membership also affords members access to a stream of collective activity programming, including exercise and meditation sessions, movie screenings, and more.

As spaces that are in some cases already officially exempt from noise bylaws, it just makes sense concert venues explore more creative applications for the infrastructure they already have in place, especially in denser cities where concert venues and practice space is scarce—that said, some local zoning laws might regulate against the use of performance venues for rehearsal space.

Other venues have pursued membership on a patron level as a means of supplementing the risk of walk-up ticket sales and incentivizing guest attendance.

In Fredericton, the Cap launched Project #KEEPITLIVE, a membership initiative and donation drive offering venue members exclusive access to deals, online discounts and merch, as well as presales for records and concerts.

An effort the Cap calls an “opportunity to build something better than before,” it also echoes the venue’s past—in 1998, the Cap’s original owners opened with a $50 annual membership model that gave patrons a two-for-one deal on their first round of drinks and free cover. 

“Times were different, but we always recognized how the membership created a sense of buy-in from those patrons,” Cap owner Zachary Atkinson explains over email. “We’d always wanted to bring them back.”

Launched in 2020, #KEEPITLIVE attracted 90 active memberships and raised over $25,000—funds that allowed the Cap to purchase plexiglass barriers for table sections, room speakers that let sound be piped into those barriered sections from overhead, new room and stage lighting, as well as camera gear that helps the venue livestream performances (with or without audiences). The funds also helped the venue replace its old mixing console with an iPad-compatible board, eliminating the need for a front-of-house station and opening up more space for physical distancing or patron capacity, when appropriate.

While the Cap offers memberships as a way for patrons to opt into providing additional support, Vancouver grassroots venue and community organization Red Gate Arts Society has pivoted completely to a membership model, requiring any and all event patrons to purchase a $10 annual venue membership.

“The response has been almost entirely positive, despite the delays that it tends to cause at the door,” Red Gate co-director Jim Carrico says over email. Red Gate has experimented with membership and fundraising drives in the past, he explains, “but it was more of a voluntary donation thing, with perks like t-shirts etc.”

Red Gate’s membership program also improves its negotiating position, allowing the organization to present itself to granting bodies and public supporters “as a large community as opposed to a small collective,” accumulating an extensive list of the patrons the venue serves.

Atkinson and Carrico don’t anticipate their venues’ memberships will have direct input on how they are booked, but membership models also pose unique opportunities for venues and event series to decentralize stewardship and democratically address community input regarding policy and booking practices from the bottom up.

HYBRID THEORY

We can’t talk about live concerts without talking about livestreaming, and a return to physical concert-going remains pivotal for communities living with disabilities. They spent years articulating a need for livestreamed concerts prior to the pandemic, only to be glaringly ignored until able-bodied fans couldn’t show up anymore.

Now that we’ve had a hint of the other side, we’ve also seen more of the same.

While many concert venues maneuvered the pandemic’s shutdowns by offering their stages and sound systems to artists performing streamed concerts online, many still returned to operating practices that more closely resembled pre-pandemic routine as soon as local guidelines allowed, abandoning livestreaming elements entirely. 

In this respect, venues like Red Gate and the Cap are leagues ahead of industry ableism, dedicating labour and resources to livestreaming many, if not all, of their post-lockdown shows online.

“We did very much lean into streaming without audiences, and then eventually with reduced audiences once restrictions loosened in New Brunswick,” Atkinson explains. New provincial funding that covered the labour to operate livestreams through the earlier part of 2021 also allowed the venue to pay all proceeds from online shows to the artists.

“Streaming everything is very possible,” Atkinson notes, but with the bustle of reopening, at times it meant livestreaming fell by the wayside. “In all fairness, our streaming efforts did begin to fall short in the spring—our team were also musicians and were looking to be back on stage more often, so that, along with the reduced amount of interest we were seeing online, made us move away from streaming during the summer. We also recognized that more outdoor events were possible and accessibility was more achievable.”

Atkinson also acknowledges some technical limitations. “Streaming with good video and audio takes some diligent work, and no matter how good you are, you’re still at the mercy of your internet connection. Sometimes it just doesn’t want to play nice—we had struggles with it at the best of times.”

Certainly, livestreaming doesn’t come without its challenges, but Red Gate has no plans to leave it behind as live events come back, pushing forward with a new 24/7 streaming platform, Red Gate TV, accessible to venue members and non-members alike. 

“Obviously our main priority has been to provide a space for the local scene to gather together and develop in a supportive and collaborative environment, but we have long recognized that to fully support the local scene we should be doing our best to also provide exposure beyond our own little insular communities,” Carrico explains. “There’s a lot of skills and talents in our immediate circle, so we’ve been able to draw on some diverse expertise in lighting, cameras, network and server programming and admin tasks.”

SHOCK DOCTRINE

Not everyone is itching to gather indoors.

In a November 2021 newsletter titled “The Shock Doctrine Applied to Dance Music,” French writer and culture critic Jean-Hugues Kabuiku calls the accelerated return to live music a reflection of “disaster capitalism.” Borrowing phrases from Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, which articulates that capitalism exploits moments of crisis or “shock” to advance capitalist goals, Kabuiku argues there is a direct relationship between a premature return to live events and the reassertion of capitalist expressions that were muzzled by early pandemic shutdowns, all the more violent in the context of a pandemic.

With the acceleration of COVID-19 variants like Delta and Omicron, some disability activists have also argued the push to bring back physically attended events is inherently ableist, pointing to COVID-19’s ability to spread amongst the community, and the risk that poses to those with compromised immune systems—a reality that is amplified at indoor events, regardless of legal mandates requiring patrons to provide proof of their requisite vaccinations prior to entry, especially when patrons ignore house rules asking that patrons continue to wear face coverings when not actively drinking. (In a recent presentation titled “Disaster Ableism, Academic Freedom, and the Mystique of Bioethics,” biopolitical philosopher Shelley Tremain also builds on Klein’s concept of disaster capitalism to introduce what she calls “disaster ableism,” referring to “strategies and practices that produce, exploit, and aggravate perceived and actual economic, political, environmental, and social disasters and crises in ways that advance eugenic goals.”)

But with governments abdicating public health responsibilities to businesses while wrapping programs that provided financial support for venues to stay closed and staff to stay off the job, the choice to operate isn’t much of a choice at all. Painting all venues with the same brush denies an opportunity for the intervention of harm-reduction philosophy—a direct retaliation to systemically reproduced capitalist harm. Without alternative venues rooted in legacies of harm reduction and consent culture, the only spaces around are those geared toward consumption and risk-taking behaviour.

The first venues financially situated to bring back staff and reopen under distancing guidelines were laissez-faire and corporately owned. Pivoting directly from livestreaming to in-person events, they circumvented mask restrictions by encouraging their patrons to act poorly by practically pushing alcoholic beverages into their hands at every second. For every such space, there exists an ad hoc counterpart that goes above and beyond the public safety standards established by regional governing bodies directly compromised by neoliberal lobbying interests.

When the COVID-19 pandemic created a need for indoor environments to actively confirm patron vaccinations were up to date, Red Gate’s pivot to a members-only model created protective infrastructure for guests and their communities, streamlining contact tracing in the event of breakthrough cases.

A statement on Red Gate’s website acknowledges some concerns about the membership policy “creating more financial hardships for our already strained community, by adding to the expense of a night out,” but as with their regular attendance fees (typically in the $5-10 range), the memberships are available on a pay-what-you-can basis, with no one turned away due to lack of funds—extending the same material benefits of membership to anyone in the community, regardless of their financial position.

In any viral context—no matter how benign—and in concert with membership systems and sliding-scale admission policies, livestreamed events can also be important implements of community harm reduction, offering a FOMO-fighting consolation for patrons that opt out of attending a gig when they’re not feeling 100 percent about a tickle in their throat.

If we’re going back into concert venues in 2022, the ideological conditions will be staggering. Change is slow coming, but industry players in smaller venues and alternative spots are focused on correcting material inequities at a time when they mean more than ever before. The revolution will be livestreamed, and we’re all invited. 

Swimming – That’s OK

Swimming
That’s OK
Chillwavve Records
St. John’s, NL
RIYL: Taking Back Sunday; Attack in Black; defending small towns

No change in the weather
No change in me
I don’t want to leave
But you can’t live for free
You can’t eat the air
And you can’t drink the sea
No change in the weather
No change in me

(Ron Hynes – “No Change in Me”)

On “No Change in Me,” a song co-written with Canadian Country Music Hall of Famer Murray McLauchlan, St. John’s folk legend Ron Hynes sung of Newfoundlanders moving west to Canada’s larger cities in search of better work and opportunities. Originally recorded for McLauchlan’s 1996 album Gulliver’s Taxi, the song was already an East Coast classic by the time it was included on Hynes’s own Get Back Change (2003), but when it’s invoked at the top of contemporary St. John’s emo trio Swimming’s That’s OK, it’s clear younger Newfoundlanders are still feeling that pull, even if there’s a sense of disconnection from the things that once compelled locals to stay: “I played ‘No Change in Me’ / You say it’s relatable / But not your cup of tea.”

All heart-on-sleeve verses, chiming chords, mathy finger tapped guitar breakdowns and lead swapping vocals, That’s OK signals precious nostalgia for the mid-2000s emo boom, but it avoids the pitfalls of the genre’s gendered myopia and toxicity by anchoring its personal loss and defeat to geopolitical abandonment. 

Swimming’s St. John’s hometown is a mutating landscape defined by an exodus for Montréal and the empty void of a long stalled promise of a Costco and a megadevelopment that’s become a wasteland for small town hopes and dreams. On “Driving Past Dannyland,” the band looks beyond former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams’s creeping 2,400 acre subdivision on the outskirts of St. John’s for a better sense of what makes their home great, while “Blackhorse Brigade” and “Bigger/Better” build a case for continuity and roots, lyrics full of local colour and grand declarations.

The band also sets itself apart from its influences by incorporating baroque touches that frequently cast its angst in a sepia glow, trumpets and string sections lashing the songs’ raw diarism to something more patient and mature. That gives tracks like “Winter Is Hell Here” and “Topsail” a sense of isolated naturalism, requiring the band to slow its charge to a static tremble. It also lends  the album’s track listing a welcome pacing and a version of the quiet/loud dynamism that for a time permeated the genre.

You can’t live in the past, but sometimes that doesn’t mean you have to let go of what feels real.

– Tom Beedham

Kae Sun – Midnight and Other Endings EP

Kae Sun
Midnight and Other Endings EP
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Pierre Kwenders; Debby Friday; theoretical physics

“You could say it’s the ending, but I believe we are light years old.”

At first blush, Kae Sun’s hyperbole might seem unintentionally brilliant. A light year is a measurement of the distance light travels in one year, not time. Yet the Space Shuttle Discovery would take about 37,200 years to travel the same distance astronomical light travels in a year, so the math works out. Still, the way “404 Eros” compounds distance and time speaks volumes to the futurism on Midnight and Other Endings.

Swooning over a swelling synth backdrop increasingly invigorated by legato guitar and bass grooves, the track evokes the hyper-connective capacity of the internet and the landscape of fast connections, long distance relationships, and the broken links and browser rabbit hole dives in between, likening the perspective to that of “newborn gods,” all while expressing a desire to belong.

Articulating the cradle of humankind as a sort of well of energy and a landscape to be carried with you, in the EP’s corresponding short film, Kae Sun and co-stars walk into Namibian savannas and twirl onto nightclub dance floors as if by teleportation—a phenomenon that’s mirrored in the overall sound design of the record. 

On “Midnight Creepshow,” a digitally distorted bass kick punches holes in a languid scene populated by wah guitars and a gentle hand drum patter, as if opening portals. They eventually deliver the track to a throbbing scene where the same implements become more textural devices, Kae Sun’s soulful falsetto contorting with abstract autotune. On “Bright Lights,” similar thump gives ambient synth key figures a sense of spinning, upward propulsion. 

For a record ostensibly concerned with endings, Kae Sun articulates everything and everyone in terms of continuum, becoming. Whisking his vision into other voices, the EP is bracketed by a pair of guest contributions from Sam I Am Montolla and Debby Friday, and the latter echoes the record’s “endings” with a cubist memento mori. 

“When I sit at one side of the room and look through the window panes, I see the egg, I see the snake, I feel the filth,” Debby Friday reads on “Philae,” a track title that gestures at once to an Egyptian island and the name of a robotic space lander. “I do not dwell on the question of death.”

Maneuvering the timeless, formless, ever-reaching future of the hive mind, for Kae Sun, it’s impossible to be sure where whatever’s next starts and where it ends, but it’s here, it’s now, and it still has things to show you.

– Tom Beedham

How Music Streaming’s Option Anxiety Birthed Another Single-Serving Economy

How music streaming’s option anxiety birthed another single-serving economy

too long; don’t recommend

By: Tom Beedham | Art by: Tom Beedham

The inconsequential royalties artists receive from corporate music streaming giants like Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, and YouTube Music are no closed secret. 

Last October, the compensation model for those royalties—”pro rata,” where rights-holders receive a market share of all streams—even prompted the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers to demand a switch to a compensation model that pays at least one cent per stream as part of its Justice at Spotify campaign.

The advent of music streaming freed musicians from the limitations of physical media, allowing them to express themselves through seamless, virtually endless means, but play-determined royalty systems created an economic environment that rendered that mode of production increasingly precarious. The value of a track spanning the duration of an entire album was reduced to that of a one-minute punk blast; value is extracted from human labour exponentially the longer a track runs. 

Under these circumstances, tracks spanning longer durations are simultaneously disadvantaged in that even listeners who choose to enjoy longer songs “on repeat” can do so with less frequency than their earworm counterparts over a given stretch of time, and substantially longer tracks demand greater quantitative attention of active listeners than shorter ones. By rewarding all tracks a royalty that is founded in play frequency, consumer streaming platforms devalue the labour of artists creating longer running tracks as well as their aesthetic import and appetites for those listening experiences.

big mood

That cultural devaluation is compounded by corporate streaming’s preference for centralized recommendation systems and algorithmic discovery functions. These systems dissuade listeners from active engagement in favour of more ubiquitous, hands-free “listening.”

Across the board, this typically manifests in endless platform-curated playlists encouraging listeners to defer their selection processes to moods or activities. The editorial impulses responsible for their curation are universally proprietary, but we can assume they are generally concerned with boosting passive engagement (e.g., continued listening) metrics, something longer tracks naturally discourage (though active disengagement—skipping a track, for instance—also generates the kind of valuable, intimate user-data platforms in turn entice advertisers with). 

In this sense, platform-curated playlists function like muzak: an ignorable soundtrack deployed as an ethereal presence that slows down consumers’ visits to environments like department and grocery stores so they enter an explorative state where they encounter, reach for, and ultimately purchase items outside their shopping lists. In their 2018 MIT Press book, Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Music Streaming, co-authors Maria Eriksson, Rasmus Fleischer, Anna Johansson, Pelle Snickars, and Patrick Vonderau observe that the breadth of these mood and activity-related playlist categories “schematize every aspect of daily life” and reframe music “as functional tools for accomplishing a task or reaching a certain state of mind”:

The use of music as a functional device has a long history, especially in terms of productivity requirements in workplaces and the exercise of and resistance to power more broadly. However, while the idea that music can be used to control one’s body and mind is not new, the mode of ‘ubiquitous listening’ facilitated by streaming services seems to correlate with a broader turn toward a utilitarian approach to music, whereby music consumption is increasingly understood as situational and functional for certain activities (rather than, for instance, a matter of identity work or an aesthetic experience). This shift is evident not only in Spotify’s classification scheme but also in other features delivered by the service [such as Spotify Running or Spotify’s partnership with Headspace] … Whereas these examples suggest that music streaming and listening should be used for utilitarian purposes, they also privilege specific ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. In particular, they insist on self-governance through mood control…

That is, a version of self-governance that mutes the autonomous impulses of active track selection. Mood and activity playlists instead perpetuate a passive listening landscape geared toward functionality, disproportionately devaluing music geared toward active or deeper listening. By the same token, works that explore more complex or nuanced emotional territory over a longer timeline fail to fit the narrow parameters described by streaming’s prescriptive playlists. As a result, we increasingly see more substantial works absorbed into the pop machine of corporate streaming. 

rat race

Hedging their bets, composers often “break up” more substantial works to squeeze through the same funnels. But corporate streaming’s increased user conditioning towards a passive listening mode introduces more complications. Even when they play the game, the odds are stacked against them.

When Toronto doom metal trio Völur issued their 2017 album Ancestors, a four-part exploration of different Germanic myths, it received two release treatments. Ranging 10-17 minutes in length, its four original tracks are preserved on physical releases and platforms like Apple Music and Bandcamp, but at the request of their label, their running lengths were also chopped into 17 compartmentalized movements for Spotify.

“[Our label] was kind of like, ‘You should do this; we would like it if you would cut them up into shorter portions for Spotify; that way we can get more streaming revenue,'” Völur vocalist and bass player Lucas Gadke says. He frames the Spotify cuts in terms of reluctance and compromise. “I was kind of like, ‘I don’t like the idea of it, and it’s more work for our mastering engineer, but whatever, we’ll do it.'”

As a whole, Ancestors relishes in the atmospheric, each of its four parts building gradually to a heaving sprawl; out of continuity and out of context, it lands differently.

“Everything kind of starts like BLANGHK!” Gadke muses, mimicking the jarring volume blasts each of the parts’ interior tracks drop the listener into when absorbed out of sequence. “It doesn’t fade up artfully.”

Taken in smaller chunks, the individual movements are also robbed of the nuanced emotional import of the complete tracks, tension robbed of resolve, and climaxes sectioned off from their builds.

“In that capacity, having it chopped up makes it tough to get on a playlist in a meaningful way,” Gadke notes, referring to the role recommendation playlists can play as exposure pipelines to bands’ larger catalogues and the fact that these cuts deny listeners an accurate representation of the band’s work. 


It also disconnected him from an entire platform of listeners.

“I can’t even remember the [sectioned] titles [and Spotify listeners tell me] ‘I love that song you do that’s called this,'” Gadke reflects. “I’m like, ‘what?’ and they have to show me and then I’m like, ‘oh.'”

The English language doesn’t even have an adequate word for this kind of experience—the closest approximation available might be the German “Entfremdung.” Literally translated as “estrangement,” Karl Marx used the phrase to articulate the alienation labourers experience when they don’t own the products they labour to create. Yet even this term falls short in its inability to encapsulate the transmutation of artistic craft to market-ready product—or “content,” in this case.

There’s a precedent for this kind of format-challenged listening experience in terrestrial radio broadcasting, but at least that format offers entire programs and stations dedicated to longer playing music. Station scanners who stumble into a track midway through can learn their schedules and tune in accordingly; streaming platforms diffuse more substantial works by asking them to compete for the ears of distracted listeners as fragments and shadows of their true selves.

Endless possibilities

Untethered from the runtime limits of physical media, streaming should aspire to a music culture that reaches far beyond pop digestibles. Instead, the listening paradigm we’ve entered is the aesthetic equivalent of Appolonian office microdosing: we get all our work done and feel all our feels, but at the end of the day, artists are left chasing micropennies and playlist syncs, and we all dream about a life with more substance.

What if platforms diverted from corporate streaming’s emphasis on passive, function-based listening ubiquity and compensated music labourers based on intentional listening? 

Corporate streaming’s critics have been arguing for user-centric licensing (a pay-out rewarding a percentage of a user’s subscription fee to an artist, relative to the percentage of the time that user spent listening to it in a given subscription period), for years, and in March, SoundCloud announced it would introduce such a scheme. VICE reports “eligible artists will keep 55 percent of the revenue they generate from fan-powered royalties,” attributing the figure to Michael Pelczynski, SoundCloud’s head of rights administration and strategy. 

“The remaining 45 percent goes to SoundCloud—but they don’t keep it all as profit,” VICE reports. “Instead, they use part of it to pay out publishing royalties and cover other costs. Ultimately, SoundCloud retains about 25 percent of the revenues from fan-powered royalties and publishing royalties, which is in line with industry standards.”

Further, only artists enrolled in SoundCloud Premier, Repost, and the Repost Select monetization groups—or roughly 20 per cent of all musicians on SoundCloud—will receive the fan-powered royalties. So it’s far from perfect.

Diverting from the monthly subscription game, Berlin-based platform Resonate launched in 2015 with a “stream to own model,” asking users to pay a ninth of the cost of a track download for the first nine plays, then unlocking it for digital download and unlimited listening. Utilizing blockchain technology to manage payment distribution and keep the process transparent, they take a 30 per cent commission on any income. 

Of course, both of these artist compensation alternatives are still significantly anchored to a replayability vector.

Others are pushing to rethink streaming as a good that public enterprise can provide by funding track licensing with the wealthy class’ tax dollars. In an op-ed for The Week, Ryan Cooper makes a case for nationalizing Spotify, including demands for an elimination of the service’s recommendation algorithm and its “aural wallpaper that one barely listens to.”

Writing for Real Life, Liz Pelly submits that we should build a new, socialized streaming platform from the ground up, gesturing towards proposals like Henderson Cole’s American Music Library, a concept founded on values like free access to information and privacy. That model included a maximum wage to prevent the government from funneling the majority of its funds to already rich pop stars.

Even more endearing to artists working in niche genres, this January, cooperative effort Catalytic Sound launched Catalytic Soundstream, a boutique streaming service carrying a rotating catalogue of 100 to 150 albums showcasing work in challenging avant-garde genres like out-jazz and free improv. With new albums swapped in and out every day, monthly revenue is divided from listeners’ $10 monthly subscription fee so one third is reserved for co-op expenses. After $450 is set aside for a monthly platform-exclusive album, the other two thirds are split evenly amongst 29 of the 30 co-op partners, regardless of how frequently their music was streamed. An intentionally small-scale undertaking, they’re also assembling an instructive guide to forming a musicians’ co-op, with hopes of germinating a larger network where co-ops regularly exchange resources on a pay-it-forward basis.

In an interview with Pitchfork contributing editor Andy Cush, Catalytic Sound co-founder and jazz musician Ken Vandermark encapsulates the intervention’s impact in confident, sober terms: “In a collective like this, you’re shifting the platform, but people inherently understand that they’re not forced to fit into a certain mold to belong to the group. We want all these people to be exactly doing what they’re doing, and being heard.” 

With a focus on centring collective good over market populism, artists have the potential to be freed from arbitrary concerns like earning potential and playlistability, labour valued for what it is. By wrenching music from its extractive vulnerability, we can begin to empower artists to pursue streaming’s endless potential. 

Yes in My Backyard: Guelph

YES IN MY BACKYARD: GUELPH

By: Tom Beedham | Art by: Laura Stanley (Clockwise from top left: Luyos MC by Hong Lam, Vertical Squirrel, Nicolette & the Nobodies by Devic Fotos, Lisa Conway by Arden Wray, M. Mucci, Brad de Roo, Hymns57, Exi, Elaquent by Ryan Antooa, Cots by JG + SHI)

How do you keep a scene alive when the city loses nearly a fifth of its population in its warmest months when students head home from university? In Guelph, Ont., several factors help, including a healthy festival ecosystem (Hillside, Guelph Jazz Fest, Kazoo! Fest), a concentrated downtown, small venues that incubate new projects and welcome experimentation, a supportive media landscape (campus community radio, alternative newspapers), access to other major hubs (Toronto is 100 km away, Hamilton and Kitchener are closer), and good will from local businesses. But perhaps its most generative element is a lax attitude toward musical inbreeding—the degrees separating one act from the next are typically minimal, family trees tangled like spaghetti.

COTS

Steph Yates spent years exploring scrappier energy in Guelph’s noisier spaces. Cupcake Ductape, her delightfully bratty punk duo with Alanna Gurr, stemmed from breaks Scott Haynes took when the pair were providing Shopkeeper’s rhythm section, while Esther Grey’s tiptoed garage pop regularly accommodated guests and textural impulses. Now straddling Guelph and Montreal, Yates steps out for her solo debut as Cots, enlisting a murderers’ row of session musicians (Blake Howard, Josh Cole, Karen Ng, Ryan Brouwer, Sandro Perri, Thomas Hammerton) to turn wide-eyed wonder about travelling through the universe and the gentle, awesome balance of celestial mechanics into bossa nova-infused folk jazz.

M. MUCCI

Whether soliciting patient, downcast melodies from his weathered guitar or droning alongside Guelph’s resident hurdy-gurdy man Ben Grossman in Snake Church, M. Mucci proves himself a rare torchbearer, finding hope in bleak and barren landscapes. On an April 2021 split with Jon Collin, Mucci offered up eight tracks of sparse but affirming guitar music, notes shivering, then shimmering, pushing forward against the march of time. You could cry.

NICOLETTE & THE NOBODIES 

Nicolette Hoang picked her deferential band of Guelph locals (Ian Bain, Nicole Gulewitsch, Emma Howarth-Withers, Daniel Paillé) from pop, punk, and surf acts, but the outlaw-inflected country western that poured out tipped a 10-gallon hat to Dolly, Loretta, and Tammy, boots firmly rooted in the present. On 2019’s Devil’s Run, Hoang finds a place for herself in a town that’s not big enough for another university degree, and now that the band’s double vaxxed, they’re back in the studio, banging out new ones for a road that’s never been dustier.

VERTICAL SQUIRRELS

Weaving psychic impulses into radical collective blasts at the intersection of free jazz, post-rock, minimalism, raga psychedelia, and kosmiche musik, Vertical Squirrels originally formed in 2008 as an experiment in group-improvisation. In recent years, the core of Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, Lewis Melville, and Ted Warren took on a residency at grassroots experimental venue Silence, recontextualizing the project as a living improvised community expression with an open-door guest policy. A sample of those experiments lives on new offering Le gouffre / The Chasm, documenting the events of October 23, 2019, when the group invited Dong-Won Kim and Gary Diggins into the fold.

EXI

Save for private parties and hushed events in secret locations, Guelph was admittedly lacking in the techno department even approaching the pandemic, but with just a single, scant-on-details EP uploaded to Bandcamp, mysterious producer Exi fills the vacancy, summoning throbbing kicks and stuttering, bone rattle snares that penetrate lonely atmospheres like a ghost of the city’s ’90s rave scene trying to manifest a haunted chill out room.

ELAQUENT

A prolific producer and beatmaker, Sona “Elaquent” Elango has cultivated a devout international following but remains relatively unknown locally. Across handfuls of records spanning instrumental hip hop and chilled out jazz and neo-soul, J Dilla is a returning point of reference (to be sure, this past February, Elaquent paired up with Austin’s BoomBaptist and Denton’s Juicy the Emissary on a tribute to the late producer called Komfort Food), but Elango’s refreshingly in the moment. Never idle, quarantine has found the producer two EPs deep in a Bedtime Stories series, Elango’s emotive dreamtime beatscapes locked in and loose like watercolour paintings, swiftly and serenely expressionistic.

LUYOS MC

Having studied under kulintang master Danongan Kalanduyan in San Francisco, the music MaryCarl Guiao makes as Luyos MC engages with the Filipinx gong tradition from a decolonial consciousness raising standpoint. A typical performance opens with traditional kulintang compositions, then branches into more modern and experimental touches like spoken word and live electronic sound manipulations. Increasingly welcoming collaborators into her practice, Guiao has also turned her attention to her contemporaries, “Lake Agco Droplets” draping a vertically-hung web of gongs over respectfulchild’s “drops” and its hypnotic violins.

HYMNS57

Smeared with the dust of so many tape loops, the tracks Steven de Taeye makes under the Hymns57 moniker have an immediate sepia quality to them. Taeye coasts through endless varieties of glistering, glassy landscapes with guitars, synths, field recordings, and found sounds fed through any number of effects; the project lends itself to a unique versatility, all the more captivating with the brevity Taeye typically favours over drone’s endless drifts. There’s an economy to Taeye’s work that allows him to address seemingly endless impressions, each track functioning like an emotional polaroid.

LISA CONWAY

Best known for her solo project L Con, Lisa Conway has leaned into commissioned work throughout the pandemic, contributing full scores for film and theatre, as well as an experimental sound piece for MaerzMusik’s 27-hour livestreamed speaking clock. Harbinger, a contemporary dance work featuring Conway’s sound design and live mixing in collaboration with Victoria Cheong (New Chance), is set to premiere in Paris, and 2021’s Guelph Jazz Festival will feature a sound and light installation of Conway’s in the Goldie Mill Ruins. Sound installations have previously corresponded with Conway’s songwriting practice (2015’s Moon Phone was created in dialogue with L Con’s Moon Milk), so perhaps hints of work to come.

BRAD DE ROO

Brad de Roo scratches an obscure region of dopamine receptors. Joined by Marmalade Duplex bandmate Tyson Brinacombe, each successive outburst expresses an urge that might have occurred to many but few have had the impulse to appease, let alone document; dig through the discography and you’ll find everything from Eno-centric comedy roasts to party albums for no one. On most recent offering No Wave Exotica, de Roo channels the stripped down aesthetic violence of New York no wave through a bass VI while Brinacombe seizes the guitar pedals and uses them like an instrument, naked expression turned warped wonderland.

Why I’m Not Writing About DIY Anymore

Why I’m not Writing About DIY Anymore

By: Tom Beedham

It’s 2017, and I’m sitting on the floor at a noise show at Toronto DIY music and art venue Double Double Land. The night of the fall equinox, the black-painted linoleum is sticky with residual summer heat, and even if you aren’t peeling yourself off the floor with every slight gesture, Alexandra Brandon has you pinned in place. Her electronics generating an abrasive wall of static from the side of the room, the Baltimore-based artist better known as TRNSGNDR/VHS is pacing the sparse, majority white audience and turning the apartment venue into an inverted microscope. 

She has questions, and she wants answers: how much can we really call these venues community spaces if the people living in the neighbourhoods they’re located in don’t show up for the parties? How many people spent money in neighbouring businesses before the show? Since our scenes thrive on cultural individualism, and individualism is essential for free-market capitalism, how are our scenes beneficial for the communities that facilitate them as they are being displaced and gentrified by capitalism? Does anybody here have a trust fund?

Brandon’s shows recently became more about creating open forums for scene dialogue than more (relatively) traditional concert performances. After a quick introduction at the top of the set, establishing some safer space rules, and requesting audience members answer using collective pronouns (“we,” “us,” etc.), she says we’re going to talk about this. If people don’t start volunteering to take the mic, she’ll start picking people to speak. 

It never comes to that, but they’re questions that simultaneously locate the performance, the audience, and the venue itself in relationship to the neighbourhood they’re occupying while putting a question mark next to the scene’s socio-economic bubble. It strikes me that this is easily the most confrontational gig I can remember attending, and I wonder what that says about this scene that often gestures toward community building. Three years later, I’m still wondering what opportunities we’re missing out on by approaching the informal creative environment we call the underground in centralist, individualist terms. Can we really keep talking about DIY and independent music if we truly wish to further the goals that initially attracted us to it?

It’s a bit of a colloquial trip how commonly DIY and independent music are spoken of in the same breath as – and often in conjunction with – community, espousing virtues like accessibility, inclusivity, equity, collaboration, resource sharing. Underground music culture has often – perhaps always – benefitted from inter-scene care and intervention, even since DIY and indie rock became vogue parlance in the 1980s and 1990s. So it’s even stranger how rarely this tenuous relationship goes under a critical lens.

From those early days, DIY and indie were purposefully codified as grassroots alternatives to corporate-major label hegemony, artists eschewing the bureaucratically byzantine formal structural elements of the recording industry (A&R, PR, distribution, publishing, tour managers) while leaning on brass tacks resourcefulness. Their activities necessitate a nurturing zone of communal support that ranges from word-of-mouth good will to informal tape and zine swapping networks.

Marathon van warriors like Black Flag and Hüsker Dü relied on the advice of fellow touring bands in their scene, and Vancouver hardcore pioneers D.O.A. played a pivotal role in connecting them with gigs in the Pacific Northwest.

“The hardcore grapevine had already spread word of the Hüskers, but hardly anybody had heard their music,” Michael Azerrad remarks on Hüsker Dü’s early success touring the Pacific Northwest in Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. In 1981, the band played a week of shows in Seattle after D.O.A. hooked them up with some local punks responsible for Seattle music-forward newspaper The Rocket

It’s a scene tradition that’s sorely taken for granted about artists operating outside of the major system: budgets for booking research are minimal if existent, so bands and solo artists naturally turn to peers within the networks they’re embedded in. 

When Mark Milne, Sandy McIntosh, and Tim Poctocic of Tristan Psionic formed Sonic Unyon as an independent record label based in Hamilton, Ontario in 1993, it was simply a means to release their own music, but soon began promoting other local bands. The basement of their headquarters has often held shows and their business was eventually augmented with a distribution arm that represents over 200 non-majors like Jagjaguwar, Matador, Secretly Canadian, Thrill Jockey, and Warp. 

For Godspeed You! Black Emperor and their label homebase Constellation Records (est. 1997), you’ll be hard pressed to find a history of either that fails to mention the continued role Mile End enterprises like La Sala Rosa, Casa del Popolo, the Suoni per il Popolo festival, or the Hotel2Tango studio play in its existence. From 2003 through 2015, Toronto’s Blocks Recording Club provided a utopian outpost for locals operating outside the heteronormative guitar rock world, producing classics like Owen Pallett’s He Poos Clouds next to mini-CDs from anticommercial MC gangs that screamed over iPod “drummers.” It was about as “DIY” as you could imagine, but it thrived on mutual labour, including communal “make-days,” where labelmates came together to hand-assemble packaging for each others’ physical releases. They eventually incorporated as an artist-owned cooperative.

The energy and material flowing through these separately understood undertakings are intricately woven into narrative tapestries of cooperation. They’re not islands, so why do we talk about them like they are?

In function, the DIY/indie monikers seem to serve little more than a fetishization of the individual, their mythos virtually erasing entire networks of support and care. Furthermore, the groups most frequently erased from these ahistorical myths are too often their marginalized support givers, and artists themselves, even when the projects they contribute to are celebrated for their collectivism: the influences of Haitian and Jamaican music are largely overlooked (or written over with placeholders like “exotic”) in narratives surrounding Arcade Fire; Karen Ng has collaborated with Broken Social Scene on numerous occasions but still can’t get a mention in the seemingly endless list of members attached to their bios.

How do we flip that?

As an alternative, Rosina Kazi – one half of grassroots Toronto electronic duo LAL and a member of the artist-activist collective operating Sterling Road community art space Unit 2 – has been offering that we should extend our understanding of DIY to a DIT (Do-It-Together) ethos for years. 

“[W]e realized very quickly that we didn’t really do things ourselves. Often it was a group effort, as friends, community members, artists, chosen family, organizers, and activists. It is not really project-based, but rather an ongoing negotiated understanding that we can, and are, building and making things happen together to create a new collective future,” Kazi told Toronto Arts Foundation in a recent interview. “As a group of artists we have been collaborating for over 25 years. Without the support of our community we would not have survived.”

For Kazi, a DIT vision serves a larger intersectional, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist project, placing emphasis on collective contribution and consequences. Unit 2 has informed its programming accordingly with community dinners for QTBIPOC (queer/trans/two-spirit folx who are also Black/Indigenous/people of colour) and friends. They have also played host to Bricks & Glitter, an arts festival celebrating talent, ingenuity, caring, anger, and abundance within the same communities. When the pandemic hit, Unit 2 shifted the focus of their community dinner program to a food-delivering support program for street involved communities.

“We want to dismantle colonial and capitalist ways of moving in the world, and so we must do this together,” Kazi says.

A similarly decentralized notion has informed much of writer Liz Pelly and artist/researcher Mat Dryhurst’s writings on so-called independent music.

Having spent the past five years critically examining the streaming economy as a writer for The Baffler, Pelly has frequently questioned the adequacy of “independence” as it is articulated in relation to cultural production, especially in the context of Spotify’s monopolisation of the streaming landscape.

In a 2018 article comparing Spotify’s branding practices to Uber’s, Pelly warns that (1) there is nothing independent about attaching recorded music to an enormous consumer tech platform, and (2) that companies like Spotify co-opt notions of independence in their branding to instill trust in artists and capitalize on their precarity, meanwhile “bind[ing] these artists more tightly to the industry’s new centre of power.”  This twist of irony (3) further allows them to create more bleak conditions for independent music as we have previously understood it.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek seemed to confirm as much in a July interview with Music Ally.

“You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough,” said Ek. “The artists today that are making it realize that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans […] It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans.”

The “continuous engagement” Ek is talking about reads a lot like new content all of the time, and for Spotify’s purposes, that spells a workforce of around-the-clock free labour. Arriving months into a pandemic that decimated live music, these comments gave Ek’s suggestions an especially tone deaf flavour, and many offered where he should go.

“Another suggestion might be to look deeply into the darkest corners of existence, accept the inevitability of death as a lifelong companion, and pull notes like tendons from the corpse of false hopes until [the] universe resounds with uncontrived joy,” Charles Spearin tweeted in response to Ek’s comments. It was a bleak and glib reply, but The Happiness Project artist expressionistically articulated a relationship between labour and wellness that Ek sidestepped all too conveniently in his comments. 

Increased labour resulting in monetary gain that is so miniscule it cannot even begin to approach the cost of project upkeep often leads to burnout. That’s not a complicated calculus. We might additionally consider that a culture which centres the success of the individual alienates them from their peers, simultaneously overcomplicating their access to wellness while reinforcing precarity.

In a 2019 Guardian op-ed, Mat Dryhurst argued that we should cease romanticizing independence, offering a vision of  interdependence in its place.

“We need technical and economic concepts that reflect what working artists have long known to be true: an artist creating challenging work is dependent on resilient international networks of small labels, promoters, publications and production services to facilitate their vision,” Dryhurst wrote. “A vision of interdependence acknowledges that individual freedoms thrive in the presence of resilient networks and institutions.”

For Dryhurst, shifting from a culture of independence to one of interdependence would establish norms around investing in collective organization, allowing artists to pool resources and pursue cooperative-scene wealth initiatives or collectively bargain with corporate brands to invest in infrastructure within their scenes rather than supporting individual artists.

An artist and researcher who teaches at the New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, the Strelka Institute, and the European Graduate School, Dryhurst has turned the subject into an ongoing conversation with the Interdependence podcast he and his partner/collaborator Holly Herndon record with guests from their studio in Berlin, and frequently lectures on the subject.

In a slide Dryhurst uses to articulate some of the distinctions between understanding non-major-supported music as independent versus interdependent, he juxtaposes an independent music paradigm where “LISTENERS RENT MUSIC FOR PENNIES ON STREAMING PLATFORMS” next to an interdependent music ideal where “LISTENERS PAY ARTISTS DIRECTLY ON BANDCAMP/PATREON/MIXCLOUD/CURRENTS.FM.” 

This is not to suggest the Bandcamp, Patreon, Mixcloud and Currents.FM are perfect embodiments of the interdependent music virtue, but that an interdependent music culture would value listener patronage and establish it as a norm. (Also, Canadian streaming royalty rates – some of the worst in the world – might require the former to more accurately read “FRACTIONS OF PENNIES,” but that’s another issue.)

Caption: A teaching slide Mat Dryhurst uses when lecturing on the topic of interdependent music.
A teaching slide Mat Dryhurst uses when lecturing on the topic of interdependent music.

As a culture writer predominantly entrenched in emerging and experimental music, I have to consider how meme-level colloquial placeholders like “DIY” and “independent” can contribute to honest, diligent, and ethical journalism – but of course, there’s an intensely ironic conflict of interest wrapped up in all of this, too: the rise of streaming has coincided with a gutted music media, so how do I continue to employ the use of terms that have been co-opted by brandings that have been responsible for the dismantling of my own field? As Dryhurst suggested in his Guardian op-ed, Spotify “threatens to displace criticism as a source of music discovery. You could be forgiven for wondering if the elimination of the very institutions that lent credibility to the concept of independence is a core design priority.”

But maybe there’s room for change. Utopian as it might seem, the tour-stopping, world-flattening effect of the pandemic has already galvanized musicians and music workers around the world to engage with intersectional activism, banding together to unionize and form cooperatives.  After their formation in July, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) launched a campaign for justice at Spotify at the end of October, demanding the streaming giant “deliver increased royalty payments, transparency in their practices, and to stop fighting artists.” Meanwhile, Bandcamp has adopted a practice of waiving its revenue share for album and merch sales on the first Friday of each month.  On Juneteenth, Bandcamp held a fundraiser that ceded 100% of their share of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, all simultaneously encouraging listener patronage. 

A new culture is emerging, so maybe I’ll write about that instead.

LAL – Meteors Could Come Down

LAL
Meteors Could Come Down
Coax Records
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Erykah Badu; Warp Records; the synth from “Welcome to the Machine”

On their seventh album two decades into the game, Toronto electronic searchers LAL’s pandemic record looks inward to radiate Do-It-Together utopianism. Starting at “The Bitter End” and working their way out, it also feels radically grounded in its articulations of time and humanity. 

While the hypnotic minimalism of “Still Movements” has sound designer Nicholas Murray set the steady tick of a clock against sparse piano notes and bowed strings to give the track a haunted sense of urgency, as singer/producer Rosina Kazi repeats the title phrase, it also feels like a comforting reminder of the dependability of change.

Like the album title suggests, catastrophe looms, but disruption often brings fantastic scenes: “Meteors could come down / Stardust all around.”

It’s an album about resilience, and LAL finds that in the collective with Kazi’s lyrics often situated in the first-person, then expanding to include universal “you”s and “we”s. Even after “Who You Are” and its alien synthesizer reach their peak, Kazi strips the chorus sentiment down to its essence and the track fades into the ambient hum of the listener’s immediate surroundings: “We can be / We can be.”

With its downtempo cinematic sweep and cosmic fatalism, Meteors Could Come Down finds hope in a moment stripped of capitalism’s routine, extending an open hand to show new searchers the way. 

Tom Beedham

Cryptozoologists – Pond Life

Cryptozoologists
Pond Life
Independent
Whitehorse, Yukon
RIYL: The Mountain Goats; The Unicorns, quests

Maybe it’s time to take Cryptozoologists seriously. The Whitehorse band has traded in scrappy art-rock since 2016, but on their latest, they’ve finally married the sardonic cultural critique and existential wandering they honed on Songs for Losers and More Futility Jams with the folky esoterica they’ve always gestured towards and real, meaningful absurdism. 

Overflowing the font of Zach McCann-Armitage (guitar, vocals), Pond Life is a vast and mystical landscape densely populated with clairvoyants, poltergeists, wishing wells, and mushrooms, unlocking a new dimension for the project while scrutinizing the art galleries and punks that have always been in their crosshairs. Their sonic palette is expanded, too, now sprinkling synthesizers and sequenced drums into the mix, but not without some meta-commentary; invoking the legacy of Duchamp’s Fountain and so many readymades, on “White Silk,” McCann-Armitage declares, “repression comes easy in the shape of a solo show urinal.” Peering inside-out and packaged with a tarot deck bearing designs McCann-Armitage collaged on Home Hardware paint swatches, Pond Life just might tell your fortune.

– Tom Beedham