Release Date: Jul 7, 2017
Record label: Arts & Crafts
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Whatever the reasons behind the band's decision to take an extended break (none were really given at the time), it would have been possible to speculate on any number of scenarios as to why it happened. At the time, Broken Social Scene had been around since the late 90s and the group had spawned some seriously heavy alternative hitters - not least vocalist Leslie Feist , who forged an amazingly successful solo career, as well as Emily Haines who found herself fronting Metric . It's possible some of the members were just kind of busy.
"The cynics fucking hate me. I know that much. They're not fans." I'm willing to bet Broken Social Scene ringleader Kevin Drew takes that personally. From the start, Broken Social Scene have made recklessly celebratory music that left their countercultural beliefs buried like dog whistles: "They all need to be the cause/They all want to fuck the cause," he sang, rather cynically, 15 years ago on the canonical You Forgot It in People, long before virtue signaling and slacktivism became part of the lexicon.
Seven years after the release of 'Forgiveness Rock Record', all the original members of Canadian collective Broken Social Scene, alongside new guest vocalist Ariel Engle, emerged with 'Halfway Home'. It was a soaring number filled with open chords, massive harmonies and open chords. It truly felt like the Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning and the rest of the gang had never been away at all.
W ith 15 members and a rickety yet ambitious sound, Broken Social Scene have the feel of a Merry Pranksters-style hippie cult, and their shared values and sense of community prove bracing in an age of Trumpian individualism. With members like Feist and Emily Haines back in the fold for the band's first album in seven years, every song is big, anthemic and emotionally invigorating, with the jazzy breakbeats in the rhythm section keeping them endearingly dog-eared rather than pompous. Sometimes all this bluster is needed to paper over middling songcraft and rudderless segues, but for the most part the writing is on point: Vanity Pail Kids rides into battle with dive-bombing saxes and a huge tom-tom tattoo; Halfway Home channels Bruce Springsteen's interstate energy; and Feist gives the title track the kind of wistfulness that avoids twee.
The fifth full-length outing from the substantial Toronto collective -- this iteration is 15 strong -- the aptly named Hug of Thunder is the band's long-awaited follow-up to 2010's Forgiveness Rock Record. A dense, soul-searching blast of civic-minded indie rock/alt-pop comfort food, the 12-track set is mired in the cultural and political miasma of its time, but Broken Social Scene have always been about community -- Kevin Drew has suggested in interviews that the 2015 terror attacks in Paris served as the impetus for the band's reconvening. Leslie Feist, Emily Haines, and Kevin Drew may serve as the group's ambassadors, but BSS are a ship requiring the whole crew to stay afloat, and Hug of Thunder is buoyant with inclusiveness and cautious hope.
Rarely do album names manage to sum up a sound as aptly as Hug of Thunder does for Broken Social Scene. The Canadian collective can switch seamlessly between a rolling crash of noise and sparse intimacy, often within the same breath. It's a trick they've been pulling off for the better part of two decades, and while it's grown more refined, the impact is every bit as powerful.
Broken Social Scene are known for their triumphant, group-sung anthems, but the multi-membered Toronto collective's true strength lies in their ability to balance the grandiose with the subtle. This was particularly true of 2002's era-defining You Forgot It in People: For every glorious crescendo there was an ambient ballad or a patient instrumental passage. Hug of Thunder, which comes after a seven-year gap between albums, highlights the strength of the Toronto collective's quiet tunes.
Freewheeling ensembles and communal combos tend to be both combustible and unpredictable. In most cases, they tend to gather a varied bunch of likeminded musicians with successful solo careers and somehow accommodate each individual's muse and desires. In the past, they were referred to as "supergroups," combos that banded artists of varied backgrounds and notable accomplishments and subsequently attracted attention based on the individual resumes.
When he looks at the state of the world today, Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew sees a crumbling society that keeps getting worse. In the seven years since the Toronto indie-rock collective's last album, the trajectory of our national discourse would seem to support Drew's cynical worldview. And yet, rather than trot out dirges about society's ruin or offer direct socio-political commentary, the band's long-awaited Hug of Thunder simply drives home the message that we must weather the storm of a fracturing, social media-obsessed culture by forging and preserving meaningful human connections.
"With a family, you can’t ever say that it’s over. You just can’t. I’ve always said we’ve made Fleetwood Mac look like a children’s band," Broken Social Scene's convivial "semi leader" Kevin Drew said in 2011, in reference to the sprawling, splintering nature of the Toronto collective. Despite saying that you can't, Drew became known in interviews for implying just that - and when, after nearly 18 months of touring in support of Forgiveness Rock Record and stepping on each other's toes (sometimes literally given the sheer number of bodies crammed onto small stages), Broken Social Scene went on an indefinite hiatus, it looked like it might finally be curtains.
Broken Social Scene is a canonical band whose canonical album, 2002’s You Forgot It in People, is one of the shining examples of early 2000s indie. The sound Broken Social Scene conjured on that record, and their 2005 self-titled follow-up, was wholly distinct but elusive. Always beautiful, the band shifted modes and styles throughout the recordings with a freewheeling looseness that was guided by clear emotional precision.
ROCKS LIKE: Chvrches, the New Pornographers, Grizzly Bear WHAT'S DIFFERENT: It only took seven years, but they finally got the band back together—all 15 original members of the group, too, including Leslie Feist and Metric frontwoman Emily Haines. Their secret weapon on album No. 5 is the newest addition to the group, Ariel Engle. Her distinctive, elastic tone is a welcome one that adds earthier tones to the group's usual splashes of primary colors.
Band names are sometimes taken for granted. Not that there's any formality to how the name Broken Social Scene came to be, as it kind of came up jokingly during a discussion key members Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew had over Drew's elaborate use of keyboards (he jokingly named one of his pre-BSS projects John Tesh Jr. and The Broken Social Scene). But the name has really taken a life of its own.
What is it with Broken Social Scene? Not a whisper for years and then the collective members shower us with releases as if they're all on some cosmically aligned creative cycle that hits the sweet spot after increasingly long fallow periods. Already this year we've seen welcome returns from the Charles Spearin-featuring Do Make Say Think, and new Feist material after respective eight and six-year gaps between records. Added to which there's the prospect of the second album from Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton expected later this year.
In the opening to season three of HBO series The Leftovers, a woman in the 1800s climbs her roof to prepare for the end of the world, an apocalyptic flood her church predicted will arrive. When it doesn't, the pastor announces the date was wrong and reschedules a new Armageddon, but members of her congregation, including the woman's family, lose faith. After three more instances, she stands alone on the roof sobbing, realizing she was wrong again.
The fifth Broken Social Scene album comes after a seven-year wait, but this ragbag group of musicians - 15 at the latest count and corralled by Kevin Drew - have retained their all-encompassing sound, with the bells, whistles (and horns) of previous releases present and correct. Theirs is a maximalist approach, Americana stretched into the stadium, widescreen and sun-bleached. One welcome return is Leslie Feist, who brings more to the songs she fronts here than the other singers manage.
Broken Social Scene's second and third albums, You Forgot It In People and Broken Social Scene, remain two of my favourite records of all time. On those records they perfected a crucial balance of accessibility and experimentation (although the chaos of the self-titled, which erred toward the latter, turned some listeners away). The grand exuberance and sheer messiness of their sound truly made you feel like you were listening to 20-odd people rocking their hearts out in a room, with so much feeling and energy and love to share that they couldn't dwell on the same motif or arrangement for more than twenty seconds.
It was not without a certain trepidation that one awaited Broken Social Scene's appearance at the End Of The Road festival last summer. The Canadian group serve as the very definition of 'sprawling collective', with all the downsides that come with that tag. Given free rein, they have been known to meander on and on - then on and on some more, before topping it all off by going on and on some more - and one show at the Astoria in London in 2006 springs to mind, a set so long and boring that Transport for London had knocked down the venue and started building the Crossrail station before the band even got to the encore.
Seven years after their previous album, and a decade and half removed from the record that earned their spot in the canon of 2000s indie, Broken Social Scene are back–all 15 of them. For the first several songs on their warm and rewarding comeback album Hug of Thunder , it often sounds as though every member of the familial Toronto ensemble is playing at the same time. After a brief ambient introduction, it's one anthem after another: "Halfway Home," a superconnected slab of feeling from de facto bandleader Kevin Drew, with too many guitar tracks to count; "Protest Song," an Emily Haines number that makes up for its decidedly non-polemical lyrics with a martial snare drum crescendo that might convince you to join BSS's revolution even if you don't know what it's about; and "Skyline," whose cyclical structure gives it the feeling of a long, triumphant coda to the two songs that came before.