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

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

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

Kicksie
All My Friends
Independent
Bolton, ON
RIYL: Jay Som; Boniface; Snail Mail

Kicksie is poised to break out. The Bolton, Ontario-based artist’s emo-accented pop-rock record All My Friends overflows with love – “what would I do without my friends?” Kicksie sings on the glistening “Left Lane” – and compassion – “don’t tell me you’ve given up while you’re still young, sit back and let me remind you that you are enough” on “Half-Hearted.” The sunny guitar-based record isn’t without its fair share of clouds, but Kicksie is devoted to happiness and that makes her songs feel irresistible. Simply put, All My Friends is a joy to listen to. To echo the words of “A Message From Selina,” a vocoder love letter from a friend, go Kicksie!

– Laura Stanley

Pansy Boys
Seasons of Doubt 
Independent
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Fleetwood Mac; Blood Orange; harmonizing

I want to shake every person and tell them to listen to Seasons of Doubt.  In a healthier, pre-COVID world, my hands would (consensually) grab a stranger’s shoulders as I, out of breath, whisper out the album’s Bandcamp tags – “alternative pop…. folk… lush… queer…”, and faint into a bed of roses. 

Pansy Boys – twins Joel and Kyle Curry – simply have the range, extolling the minor tragedies of youthful infatuation across a seven-track EP that sonically elicits the colours and feeling of the sweeping sunset on the record’s cover. Beautiful, streamlined harmonies swirl around soft percussion, piano notes and Eliza Niemi’s cello bows to build the band’s self-described “lush” sound. 

Seasons of Doubt’s lyrics are equal parts gut-wrenching (“I want you to dance/without holding my tears in your hands”) and melodramatic (“Never felt like I belonged to anywhere/except maybe Montreal”), but what really ties the album together is its instructiveness. When you realize “We’re not each other’s property”, you’re likely well-graduated from the way you thought about love in your early 20s. 

Seasons of Doubt wants us to move on, mindfully. Yet it also gives us the opportunity to put on a song and remember it all over again. 

– Katerina Stamadianos

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

Clearance culture is hindering Canadian artists’ creativity

By: Michael Rancic | Photo by: Chachi Revah

In a cryptic post to her Twitter account in mid-August, Montréal-based horrorcore rapper Backxwash announced that her Polaris Prize shortlisted album, God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It, would be removed from streaming services and no longer be for sale in any format. “Wish I could go into more details but I can’t!” she added, following up in another tweet by comparing the situation to that of Death Grips’ 2011 album Exmilitary

Like MC Ride & co.’s debut, Backxwash’s latest album is sample-heavy, deploying percussion and vocals from oft-used sources like Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” and Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath.” This technique simultaneously situates her work within hip-hop history and forms the heavy metal aesthetic that permeates the album. Alluding to the Death Grips situation hints that some, or all of the musical quotations used on God Has Nothing To Do With This were not cleared for her to use. “Clearing” a sample is a process by which artists attempt to gain the rights to use elements of a song from its rights holder. It’s an intentionally opaque and expensive process that privileges major labels and stifles creativity.

In hip-hop, when an artist can’t clear a sample— either because it’s prohibitively expensive to do so, or they’re denied by the sample source’s rights holder— they often release the song online or on a mixtape for free. But as much as artists have accepted and adapted to this model, it forces them to make an untenable decision: navigate a system not designed for their benefit, or waive their ability to sell their own creative work. 

Non-commercial use exemplified by mixtape culture is enshrined in Canadian copyright law through what’s colloquially known as the “mashup” or “YouTube” provision in our Copyright Act. In Canada, the government defines copyright as “the exclusive legal right to produce, reproduce, publish or perform an original literary, artistic, dramatic or musical work.” The copyrights of a musical work are divided into reproduction rights, handled by Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA), and performance rights, which are handled by Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN), and Re:Sound for songwriters and recording artists, respectively. 

Things get a bit more complicated when factoring in sync rights for TV or film, background music, mechanical rights, satellite radio, etc. Even though we have our own set of laws to protect these rights, for Canadian artists like Backxwash, the terms of sample clearance are dictated by American major label corporations and American case law, and policed through non-Canadian tech companies like Spotify, YouTube, or Soundcloud. 

“We’re seeing a lot of enforcement by algorithm,” explains Brianne Selman, scholarly communications and copyright librarian at the University of Winnipeg. With streaming becoming the most common way for people to listen to recorded music, services like YouTube (with its native Content ID technology), or independent companies like Dubset (recently acquired by Pex) use proprietary fingerprinting to identify sound sources in order to sniff out copyright infringement. 

This method is likely a contributing factor to how Backxwash’s samples were discovered by copyright enforcers. “We know computers are making decisions, but we don’t know how and we don’t know based on what,” says Selman. It’s unclear what technology Spotify uses, though we know they acquired Echo Nest in 2014 after that company developed audio fingerprinting technology. Distributors that work with Spotify, like DistroKid, also license third party digital fingerprinting software. 

These automated copyright infringement algorithms happen at a stage before an artist can even speak to their use of a certain sample and its place in their song. The technology circumvents legal frameworks, thereby entrusting private tech companies with the role of what is or isn’t legal. The algorithms also don’t take into account where an artist is from and therefore the nuances of laws that exist in a global market are lost. Selman says they don’t provide a trustworthy method for tracking actual infringement, citing a recent case where claims of copyright infringement were levied against the sound of static. To the delight of noise musicians everywhere, no one owns the sound of static, but that didn’t stop people from saying they did. 

At the University of Winnipeg, Selman works with faculty and students to explore their rights as creators and users, a knowledge base which also connects to her work with the Cultural Capital Project, a research-based initiative that “aims to establish a ‘radical monetization’ of the music industry based on equity, connectivity and sharing.” Members of the project were involved in petitioning the government for fairer use laws around copyright in the recent 2018 Copyright Act review. 

“You need to be accessing other people’s creative work in order to make your own. That’s part of how creativity happens,” she explains. “Things like remixes and sampling and those really fantastic ways of using other people’s intellectual property in totally new ways are really innovative and aren’t things that we [as a country] want to be shutting down.“

Selman says that while copyright law is meant to uphold the rights of songwriters like Backxwash, the system is unfairly stacked against those not on major labels. “Copyright formalities absolutely hurt independent artists at this point, even though that’s who these laws are supposedly written for,” she argues. “The creators, the people who generated the work that has copyright, are almost never able to take advantage of the law.” 

The law is also incredibly difficult to challenge given how consolidated the industry is in Canada. The “big three,” represented by major labels Warner, Universal, and Sony, account for about 75% of the total market share here. The recent American federal appeals court decision that sided with Drake over his use of a Jimmy Smith sample, defining it “transformative,” feels like a monumental step forward for how the courts understand sampling. However, it obscures the fact that Drake was likely able to obtain use of the sample in the first place because he’s on Warner, the label that also owns the publishing rights to Jimmy Smith’s Off The Top, the 1982 record that “Jimmy Smith Rap” first appeared on. 

“[Within the same label] you can get those samples much cheaper, much easier than [Backxwash] can, because it’s all within the one big family,” Selman states about how the law, influenced by the major label system, benefits artists who operate within that system. If you’re not Drake, clearing a sample can run anywhere from $4,000 to $20,000 USD to get permission from both the owner of the recording masters, as well as the owner of the composition itself. That’s a huge price tag when you also factor in how the Cultural Capital Project has found that the average Canadian musician makes around $17,900 a year.

It’s also these same record companies who are lobbying against copyright reform, and pushing for longer term extensions so that rights holders can retain their rights over longer periods of time. Longer terms prevent new artists from freely quoting or referencing those creations in their own work. The recent signing of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (which takes over for the previous North American Free Trade Agreement) means that Canada is now obligated to extend copyright terms from 50 years to 70 years after an author’s death. While our trade relations have greatly influenced this course of action, the change has long been advocated for by Music Canada, the organization that lobbies domestically on behalf of the Canadian shells of the “big three” labels. 

That hip-hop is predominantly a sample-based style of music, means that these copyright laws often disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized artists. Sampling is historically not the only way copyright law has been used as a tool to disenfranchise non-white musicians, stripping them from the control, autonomy and financial benefit of owning the rights to their own work. Academic and entertainment lawyer Kevin J Greene has focused much of his own scholarship on this very subject, noting in an essay titled “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag: James Brown, Innovation, and Copyright Law:”

The founding fathers established copyright law as a means for increasing cultural productivity by giving economic incentives for the creation of artistic works. Analysts note that “in large part, the early music industry [ in the United States] was built largely on the creativity and innovation of black composers and artists.” One would think, then, that black artists would have been among the prime beneficiaries of copyright law given their astounding contributions to the world of music. However, the actual history of black cultural production and the law is one of inequality rooted in racial animosity.”

New Feeling reached out to Backxwash to comment on the matter, but she declined. It’s completely understandable that she can’t or won’t comment on the situation because the threat of litigation, over not just uncleared sample use but talking about the rights holder(s) who flagged an issue or issues on God Has Nothing To Do With This is very real. Now, she faces a potential Polaris Prize win, and save for the prize money won’t be able to reap the reward of the storied “Polaris bump” in album sales that winners experience after being thrust into the spotlight

Backxwash could potentially try re-releasing God Has Nothing To Do With This without the samples, and recently revealed in an interview with Complex that she even entertained the idea, but ultimately resolved that they made it what it was. “I was experimenting to go sample-less,” she says. “As I started making these beats, they sounded cool, but the idea of the sample is telling a story, and I miss telling those stories. When it’s coming off a VST, it’s hard to see what that story is. Even if it sounds incredible, I’m not connected to it. With the samples, I’m connecting to those sounds.”

Basic Instinct 
Late Bloom
Independent
Vancouver, BC
RIYL: HÄG; Divide and Dissolve; languid riffs

Basic Instinct’s Late Bloom arrived on 4/20 like any self-respecting sludge album should. With this release the Vancouver-based duo do more than just adhere to genre standards or cliché – when the smoke clears, Late Bloom is one of the year’s best metal releases.  

Featuring former members of Hard Bitch and Joyce Collingwood, Basic Instinct takes the raw energy of those punkier beginnings to split sludge metal wide open across this record’s six tracks. No one song sounds alike. With a wealth of confident ideas, the band keeps their material consistently sharp. Album opener “Fresh” begins with marching drums and a slow, creeping riff that flips into a churning, black metal ferocity on a whim. Vocalist Carly Glanzberg is just as versatile as the band’s instrumentals: summoning a deep bellow that sounds at ease alongside the low-end her guitar provides, or a quiet coo on the restrained “Dark Turn.” That song revels in the ghostly, urgent tension invoked by percussionist Joy Mullen before turning into a magnificent slow burn.

On Late Bloom, the brand of metal Basic Instinct offer up is molten and malleable in their capable, creative hands. 

– Michael Rancic

Baseball Hero
Salvation Mountain
Independent
Winnipeg, MB
RIYL: Diet Cig; Palehound; Alex G

Baseball Hero’s Salvation Mountain is a scrappy and emotionally charged EP. The band – Allegra Chiarella (vocals/guitar), Mirella Villa (vocals/bass), and Lino D’Ottavio (vocals/guitar/drums/production) – are a tight team who make taught, lo-fi, grungy pop-rock tracks that sometimes whine as loud as the feedback from a baseball announcer’s microphone. On the rambunctious standout, “Emo Song,” Baseball Hero sound like they’re having an absolute blast, despite Chiarella cringing at the past: “think of all the stupid things you’ve done in front of everyone.”

If the self-described “slo-pitch slowcore” band had their own baseball card, the blurb on the back would probably read something like this: “The Winnipeg trio aren’t afraid to get their uniforms dirty and lead the league in sliding head first into other players. When not on the field kicking up dust, they can be found in the dugout helping teammates work through their emotions.”


– Laura Stanley