Review: Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder

Broken Social Scene were the band to be a decade ago. They had two critically acclaimed albums under their belt: 2002’s You Forgot It In People and 2005’s Broken Social Scene. They had a devoted enough following to sell out three nights in a row at the same venue. And perhaps most importantly, they became a brand.

Broken Social Scene wasn’t just a band that released influential albums, it was a unifying force for over a dozen different Canadian musicians who each had their own projects. You could therefore call the band a “supergroup,” but as with fellow Canadian rockers The New Pornographers, applying that term here seems somewhat incomplete. Have you ever heard of the bands Metric, Stars, Apostle of Hustle, Do Make Say Think, or of the singer Leslie Feist? They all have key members in Broken Social Scene, which functions as the common thread allowing these bands to boost one another’s popularity. And if you needed any further evidence of the power of the Broken Social Scene brand, members Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning each released a solo album under the heading “Broken Social Scene presents…”

However, this brand has faltered a bit during the last ten years. While Broken Social Scene released the well-received Forgiveness Rock Record in 2010, it failed to reignite the hype that propelled the band to indie rock stardom only a few years prior. Its disparate members instead focused on their main projects, and each of the aforementioned related bands were more active than Broken Social Scene. Soon, the dynamic switched from “I should check out Feist’s solo albums since I like Broken Social Scene” to “I love Feist, so maybe I should check out that band she was in.”

After seven years of absence, Hug of Thunder reinvigorates Broken Social Scene as an indie rock force, and is their most cohesive album to date. It plays to the band’s strengths of making anthemic rock songs, potentially an obvious consequence of having fifteen members participating on the album, but tones town the band’s experimental tendencies in favor of a more straightforward approach. For instance, after the album’s mellow, instrumental opener “Sol Luna,” it explodes into “Halfway Home,” full of energetic riffs and catchy hooks. Between opening guitar notes that echo Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and a closing horn section that echoes the band’s own “7/4 (Shoreline)”, Kevin Drew lets out shout-along lines like “you said we’re halfway home, you said survive” and “if you never run, never run, how they gonna catch you alive?”

 

Hug of Thunder isn’t just cohesive, it’s also the closest Broken Social Scene have come to making upbeat, pop-oriented rock songs. They dabbled with this a bit previously on tracks like Forgiveness Rock Record’s “Texico Bitches,” but there’s a fairly triumphant quality to the majority of Hug of Thunder. On the misleadingly-titled “Protest Song,” Emily Haines sings in soft tones before revealing the true meaning of the track with a climactic chorus of “we’re just the latest, in the longest rank and file list, ever to exist in the history of the protest song.” “Vanity Pail Kids” opens with industrial-sounding synthesizer and pounding drums, only becoming more chaotic as it goes on to make the band’s most intense song since “Chase Scene.” And while these tracks feature the band’s typically-cryptic lyrics, at the end of the album new vocalist Ariel Engle sings “things’ll get better, cause they can’t get worse” on “Gonna Get Better,” evoking the chorus of the similarly-titled Beatles song.

Even during Hug of Thunder’s quieter moments, the band refuses to sound subdued. “Stay Happy” recalls the sophistication of the Broken Social Scene-affiliated band Stars, and with lines like “Rise and shine with dirt in your eyes, sun in your head and never forget that it’s alright,” it’s more obviously-titled than “Protest Song.” Feist’s powerful voice dominates the title track, where she’s backed only by a bassline, a simple drum beat, and sparse guitar notes. The result sounds quite a bit like her solo work which, if you haven’t heard her recent release Pleasure, is high praise. The only tracks that really break the album’s defiant spell are the dreary back-to-back tracks “Victim Lover” and “Please Take Me With You” which, despite their earnestness, have an effect that’s almost too sobering.

Some moments of Hug of Thunder defy much elaboration beyond “classic Broken Social Scene,” synthesizing the band’s lengthy career into a distinctive style. For instance, Drew’s reverberating voice is immediately recognizable over the acoustic strumming of “Skyline,” permeating with the same energy heard on Forgiveness Rock Record’s “World Sick.” The opening guitar notes of “Towers and Masons” are somewhat reminiscent of You Forgot It In People’s “Cause=Time,” while its uneven beat pushes it into the math rock territory of Broken Social Scene’s “7/4 (Shoreline).” And the instrumental intro of “Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse,” along with the entirely instrumental “Sol Luna,” both briefly return the band the post-rock roots found on their 2001 debut album Feel Good Lost. In other words, Hug of Thunder contains much of Broken Social Scene’s distilled essence.

The fairly straightforward nature of Hug of Thunder raises questions about how much of Broken Social Scene’s past success was driven by novelty. Thinking back, the largely instrumental “KC Accidental” is driven by an insanely catchy melody that’s all of four notes, “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl,” would be nothing without Emily Haines’s vocoded vocals, “Windsurfing Nation” featured a guest rapper, and “7/4 (Shoreline)” has its irregular time signature in the song’s title. There’s also a degree of irony for a band that once chose the slower, less radio-friendly version of a track (“Major Label Debut”) to be put on a studio album, allegedly because the faster version had too much hit potential, now releasing an album full of upbeat rock songs ready for regular rotation. Yet Hug of Thunder doesn’t come off as having chart-topping aspirations or a desire to thrust the band to the forefront of the indie scene once again – it’s just an honest portrayal of Broken Social Scene as we’ve always known them.

Rating: 8/10