By BRUCE DENNILL
Big Wreck: Albatross
This is not their latest album, but as the world outside of their native Canada continues to wake up to the sonic power of Toronto’s Big Wreck, this collection remains the most compelling argument for their being nudged up to the pinnacle of rock achievement, combining the best bits of Chris Cornell and Soundgarden, Guns & Roses and Stone Temple Pilots while outdoing all of them technically and somehow adding strong enough melodies and enough prodigious hooks to give their compositions pop accessibility as well.
That’s a long, breathless, gushing sentence, but it’s all merited by just the album opener, Head Together, which begins with relatively soft Beach Boys harmonies and then explodes into an amplifier-crushing riff. Crank your system to hear the former clearly and the latter will give you whiplash. Listen in a car and you’ll be going 20km an hour faster by the time singer Ian Thornley begins the first verse, such is the joyous adrenaline rush the intro induces. The chorus then provides the first example of his immense vocal ability, setting the bar high (in range and quality) for an album-long display of excellence in that area. The pay-off line – “I need to keep my head together, I don’t need to meet nobody else” – also underlines Thornley’s fiercely independent streak, evident in many of his lyrics elsewhere.
It’s fair to say that such a start would be hard to match, but the basic tenets of Big Wreck’s sound – a quintet of highly-trained musicians, three of whom are guitarists, playing carefully constructed arrangements and providing a complex, layered sound driven by Thornley’s world-beating vocals – are such that, what with the keys the songs are written in, everything delivers a degree of exhilaration, regardless of tempo or other songwriting facets.
A Million Days, one of the album’s singles (it’s ludicrous that Head Together wasn’t chosen) features a profound bass rumble up front and then a looming chorus vocal and quick-fingered guitar solo that is the equal of anything in rock in the last dozen years.
Wolves features a different approach, dropping much of the overdrive (there’s a mandolin!) to allow a focus on melody, particularly a chorus that is the only portfolio item Thornley will ever need should he ever want to submit his credentials for a gig anywhere else. It’s a hook you’ll be singing – an octave lower – for days.
The title track suggests a consistent Big Wreck touchstone, Led Zeppelin, in its jangly intro and booming bottom end, as well as hippy lyrical snippets about “cups of sunshine” and the like, while Glass Room goes all Bloc Party for its spiky initial bars before Dave McMillan’s nimble bassline shoves everything forward into an edgy, alternative anti-love song.
All Is Fair is built around a similar theme, but it’s impossible to be brought low emotionally, as yet another monumental intro encourages you to test the capacity of your speakers. Thornley is also the producer for this collection, and the quality and texture of the sounds he’s overseen emphasise all-round ability. Again, that the sublime combination of lyrical and melodic strength in this tune didn’t see it punted as a single is odd.
Control drops some of the bluster of some of the songs around it. Until, that is, just after the two-minute mark, when an aggressive slide guitar progression leaps out of the mix, followed by a Thornley howl. There is also a long, slow jam as an outro, the sound of a band with a superb musical understanding.
Rest Of The World is a ballad in that it lyric follows a narrative arc, while being the opposite in it’s gut-punching riffs and sub three-minute running time. You Caught My Eye is a lazy drawl of a song, its two-note progression buffed up by a filthy guitar effect, while Do What You Will begins at breakneck pace, including some classic rock, Journey-esque harmonies along the way.
Finally, Time sees acoustic guitars and a fretless bass given some space as the future sound of Thornley’s solo project, Secrets, is suggested.
A landmark album, not given its due when it was released.
- Head Together 9
- A Million Days 8
- Wolves 9
- Albatross 8
- Glass Room 8
- All Is Fair 9
- Control 8
- Rest Of The World 8
- You Caught My Eye 7.5
- Do What You Will 8
- Time 7.75