Fifteen years ago, Big Wreck broke into the Canadian rock scene with their debut album, IN LOVING MEMORY…. The LP spawned a trio of hits – “That Song”, “The Oaf”, and “Blown Wide Open” – and became a bonafide success, achieving double-platinum in Canada (which, to be fair, is actually a tenth of the units required to hit a similar benchmark in the United States). With such instantaneous success, the band decided to do a bit of experimenting on their sophomore effort: THE PLEASURE AND THE GREED was released in 2001 to mixed reception and nowhere near the success of its predecessor. The album was nonetheless a significant creative victory for the group, sporting a sprawling runtime (a colossal 16 tracks over a 66-minute runtime), shifting time signatures and a sporadic sonic palette. But the reception for their sophomore album was so poor, in fact, that the internal issues within the band could no longer be ignored. They broke up a year later, prompting frontman, guitarist and primary songwriter Ian Thornley to pursue a solo career that would go on to last another 7 years.
Now, in 2012, the primary songwriting team of Ian Thornley and Brian Doherty have reunited to bring Big Wreck back from the dead with ALBATROSS, otherwise known as “Ian Thornley Unleashed”. An accomplished vocalist and guitarist, Thornley found himself floundering in a label-fuelled industry throughout his solo career, where his recordings were often taken from him, remixed and distilled down to more palatable rock. This was particularly the case on his sophomore, TINY PICTURES, which, despite an impressively diverse level of instrumentation for radio-ready rock (Thornley is fond of both the mandolin and the banjo, as well as ample amounts of slide guitar), was fed through all kinds of machines before being released as something entirely different than Thornley’s initial intention. And though Thornley managed to achieve modest success through his solo venture – his debut, COME AGAIN, spawned a trio of top ten singles, with another pair coming from the sophomore effort – you could practically feel how stifled the artist was in his voice.
Enter ALBATROSS, Thornley’s most accomplished and focused effort to date. Self-produced, the album has absolutely no signs of label tampering: the production is lush, the structures are atypical and the instrumentation is whatever the band deems appropriate at any given time. With over ten years of songwriting experience under his belt since he last went creatively insane on a record, ALBATROSS represents a glorious combination of both the massive hooks and radio-ready melody lines that Thornley’s solo project encompassed and the musical creativity missing since the group disbanded over a decade ago. What we’re left with is a staggeringly strong record that pulls from all of the best parts of these musicians’ fifteen-year history.
At a perfect 11 tracks and 49-minute runtime, the album neither overstays its welcome nor underplays its value. What really sets the album apart, however, is the band dynamic: these boys can play, and they play phenomenally together as a unit. The band is so tight, in fact, that one wishes that there were more instances where they were just jamming over these wonderful compositions; the extended outros to both “Control” and “All is Fair” dabble in this jam-esque quality that the record embodies, but I couldn’t help but want more. And despite the fact that one gets the feeling that the group will turn these relatively short song lengths into 20-minute sessions on the stage, I just wanted a touch more on the record itself. Still, the compositions are gloriously diverse and varied from track to track, throwing all structural assumptions out the window: just when you think you’ve reached the chorus, Thornley throws in a second part that introduces the real hook. These songs are organic, catchy and powerful in all of the right ways – the kind of songs that would be internationally recognizable radio hits if the world were a just place.
The musicians are flawless. Finally getting a real chance to show his chops, Thornley rips solo after solo on this record, often throwing out a pair in a single track. There’s a loose quality to his playing that is absolutely refreshing in a rock record – the band isn’t afraid to leave a few off notes or mistakes in the tracking, and the result is a very human record. Doherty, of course, compliments Thornley to a tee, and there’s no denying their chemistry; one would think that no time has passed since THE PLEASURE AND THE GREED, as the two guitarists sync up to absolute perfection. Newcomer Brad Park does a perfectly adequate job on drums, though it’s tough to stack him up against the truly wonderful Daniel Adair who tracked many of the songs on TINY PICTURES – instead, he’s currently having his vocal and percussive talents completely wasted in Nickelback.
New bassist Dave McMillan, on the other hand, takes the reins from Dave Henning and emerges as one of the standout sections of the record. If anything was seriously lacking on Thornley’s solo outings, it was the distinctive and masterful bass guitars that permeated Big Wreck’s first two records. Here, McMillan does an absolutely terrific job, syncing up with Park and dancing his way around chord progressions, weaving in between Thornley and Doherty with such effortlessness that one can’t help but wonder why the hell any bassist would be content to just follow the progression. He often comes out on top, supplying some of the most memorable instrumental moments on the record, particularly on the absolutely staggering “All is Fair”, where the whole band is clearly firing on all cylinders, not to mention his complete dominance in the penultimate track, “Do What You Will”, where call-and-response guitar-fills make way to a toe-tapping bass line.
Thornley outdoes himself on the lyrics, too. Despite always having been as impressive a word-slinger as he is axeman, there is a certain elegance to the variety and breadth of lyrical content on ALBATROSS, from love and sex to questions of determined living and everything in between. But the most emotionally devastating lyrical display shows up in the album closer, “Time”, a reverential lament on the passage of (you guessed it) time: “If I could go back in time / What would I change of mine? / I’ve wasted way too much of it / Just wishing I could go back in it”.
Ultimately, Big Wreck’s latest represents a powerful, exciting new direction for the band. Anybody who has long been a fan of any of these musicians should be smiling from ear-to-ear for the entire runtime and counting off the days until they get a chance to see them perform it live. As one of the finest rock albums in recent memory, this is the album to beat this year. An absolute masterpiece of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll.
Standout tracks: All of them. Every track is perfect. If pressed, however, “Glass Room”, “All is Fair” and “Control” are an unbeatable, back-to-back trio.