Clara Engel
Hatching Under The Stars
Independent
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Ora Cogan; Aidan Baker; Ulvesang

Though this album came out in April, with the days getting shorter and as we head toward longer bouts of darkness and cold, it feels perfectly suited for fall. The stark toolkit of voice and guitar that songwriter Clara Engel has always evoked a nocturnal sensibility. With Hatching Under The Stars they lean into those darker proclivities to create a dreamlike expanse that’s among their best work.

For the better part of 16 years, Engel has plumbed the darkness of experimental folk, spinning tender songs that feel indebted to traditional or devotional music while still sounding wholly original. Here, Engel draws on that wealth of experience in an immaculately constructed and produced record. Highlights like “Preserved in Ice (for Marc Chagall)” and “Little Blue Fox” find Engel crafting distinct tableaus of poetic imagery. Their spare instrumentation gives plenty of space for imaginations to take hold, as each song blooms into a stirring beauty.

– Michael Rancic

Sarah Davachi
Cantus, Descant
Late Music
Calgary, AB / Los Angeles, CA
RIYL: Kali Malone; Grouper; sailing through endless skies

On the first release for her Late Music imprint, Sarah Davachi holds a mesmerizing pipe organ séance. Cantus, Descant was recorded in various sacred spaces throughout Vancouver, Los Angeles, Chicago, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. There has been an influx of similar projects in the past decade, with keyboardists recording in churches until only the cleaning staff are there to keep them company. Yet the prolific Calgarian composer has always done things a bit differently than her peers, adding ghostly pop elements to contrast the divine stillness. 

In an interview for Tone Glow, Davachi explains how the pipe organ in Amsterdam that’s most prominently featured on Cantus, Descant was recorded over several hours of playing and experimenting, then later edited into short snippets. After returning to her home in Los Angeles, she added electronic touches such as the melodramatic sound of a Mellotron’s orchestral samples. The album’s most stunning moments occur when Dacachi weaves her own voice into this haunting tapestry, such as “Play The Ghost,” where she borrows a watery effect from Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan.” She has hinted at a future release of all vocal songs in this vein, yet no matter where she brings listeners next, it’s sure to be spellbinding.

– Jesse Locke

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

Shabason, Krgovich & Harris
Philadelphia 
Idée Fixe 
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Bill Callahan; Japanese New Age; mindfulness 

Philadelphia is both timely and timeless. Shababson, Krgovich & Harris lazer in on daily life and the mundane, turning inward back when it seemed like more of a choice to do so – the album was created pre-quar, between 2018 and 2019. Its opening song, “Osouji”, walks the listener through a deep-clean of the home not too unlike a mindfulness meditation exercise you may have turned to when you realized you were going to be inside for several months: “wiping baseboards / the radio on / and seeing things / that have been here / and considering them.”

Philadelphia’s carefully placed instrumentals soothe, achieving the group’s aspirations of paying homage to Japanese New Age music. The trio’s soft sounds meld perfectly with Krgovich’s vocal register and gentle lyric delivery, devolving into meandering loops on “I Don’t See the Moon” and “Friday Afternoon” that are reminiscent of Shababson’s solo saxophone work. A personal favourite from the collection, “Tuesday Afternoon,” comically yet earnestly documents a walk down the street set to Boards of Canada-esque synth leads. Philadelphia awards the concentrated listener, who may otherwise miss Krgovich’s subtle description of a man “Sippin’ on / Gatorade / exhaling.” 

It is these observations – the ones nobody usually writes home about – that make the album so special. While we’re all paying attention now, Shababson, Krgovich and Harris knew that we should have been all along. 

– Katerina Stamadianos

FSHKLL
Sashimi Shoreline EP
Independent
Charlottetown, PEI
RIYL: Cold Warps; Terry Malts; Tacocat

FSHKLL are goofy and playful, but don’t call them egg punk. They let you know how much they hate the versatile shelled viand on lurching Sashimi Shoreline track “Eggman”: “No eggs in potatoes, no eggs over easy, no eggs in a bun,” singer Brad Deighan decries. 

Elsewhere, the five-song EP is relentlessly catchy, like on the positive mental attitude anthem “Dark Thoughts.” “Let’s do something great and focus on the positive,” he encourages. The soda shop punch of power-pop bottle rocket “Run-Out” makes it the most fun song you’ll hear about beating up Nazis. FSHKLL can pack a wallop, too. They come in hot with snarling EP opener “NYST,” on which Colin MacIsaac’s bass lines swing like a sledgehammer. 

Sashimi Shoreline ends in similarly hard-hitting fashion with the sarcastic “Canadian Dream.” “We comin’ for you,” Deighan warns on “Run-Out.” FSHKLL aren’t coming for me, though, so I’ll gladly chase them for more.

– Leslie Ken Chu

Squidney the Dude
Ben | Habits 
Independent
Halifax, NS
RIYL: The Microphones; Akron/Family; Grouper’s Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill 

Squidney the Dude appears bundled up in a heavy fall jacket on the cover of Ben | Habits. You might feel like reaching for yours when listening to the two eponymous singles. Their lingering, low-hanging chords dangle timelessly. “Ben” thrums with plinking guitar and robust bass before a toasted guitar solo breaks up the sense of hibernation, as does the chirping of birds. “Picked up a couple of habits along the way / temporary as coffee stains,” Squidney mutters on the next track. Habits tend to stick, but the song feels as faint as a fingerprint on a window that’s fogging back up. Here’s hoping Squidney the Dude makes a habit of releasing more songs soon.

– Leslie Ken Chu

Greg Orrē
I Am In It Volume One
Independent
Saskatoon, SK
RIYL: The Frogs; The Mountain Goats; Regina Spektor’s “Ghost of Corporate Future”

Greg Orrē is learning acceptance and how to be present amidst the flickering piano-pop of I Am in It Volume One. “I was where I was supposed to be yesterday,” he sings over devotional keys on “Yesterday.” Orrē stays positive on “I’ve Learned (I Was a Fool)”: “What seems like the end might be the start of something fresh… Every consequence is a lesson to learn.” 

Self-improvement isn’t always easy, so it’s no surprise that the album, which features contributions from his partner Kristen Boyé, doesn’t fully sit still. Orrē’s soft sermons take unexpected turns. Garbled vocal samples intrude upon “Intro” seconds into him singing over its single keyboard line. His reflections on oneness manifest as jumbled internal monologues laid atop one another on “Do You Live Down Here? (Interlude One)” and “What Does I Am in It Mean to You? (Interlude Three).” The synth on “Will I Be Sad in Summer?” sounds like a twisted, mildly upset stomach. Despite such bends, Greg Orrē sounds like he’s finding his way towards enlightenment.

Leslie Ken Chu

Tommy Tone
Finally Punk
Trashtronix
Vancouver, BC
RIYL: The Queen Haters; The Village People’s “Food Fight”; Pink Panther Punk

Tommy Tone has achieved the final state of subcultural metamorphosis, but its spirit was inside him all along. Decked out in his trademark neon windbreaker and shiny black mop, he pushes back against the punk police who want to dress him up in their costumes and pose him like a doll. Anyone who’s been sucked into the Tone Zone knows his forms of artistic expression are far less rigidly defined than the liberty spike brigade. On Finally Punk, his glittering synths and pumping drum machines have more in common with the genre-agnostic innovations that arrived after 1977, poking fun at the rock star mythos while reveling in theatrical performance. 

Those RIYLs at the top of this review share Tommy Tone’s belief that punk is a movement worth satirizing and celebrating in equal measure, yet he shares more sonic traits with Tuxedomoon or maybe even Chainmale. “They Tried To Make Me A Punk” is the album’s rallying cry, before he lets his guard down on the new wave love song, “She’s So Cool,” letting us know there is a sweetness behind the facade. He closes with an acquiescence to the power of caveman rock and roll, as ripping guitars and pounding drums propel “How Does The Mountain Die.” Near its conclusion, Tommy deadpans “I never wanted to have fun.” It’s hard to believe him with this level of commitment to the bit.      

– Jesse Locke

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