For every five bands that seem to overstay their welcome, recording that one album—or maybe two or ten—that just ruins everything they had achieved before, there are twenty bands that never come up with the goods at all, and one shining example of a band whose output was so good but so short, we can only conclude that they left us too soon. In 2001 one, we lost one of the Good Ones™… or did we?
tl;dr Version: Big Wreck is back! This isn’t Big Wreck circa 1998, and it isn’t Big Wreck circa 2000. It’s 2012, Ian Thornley is in a better place these days, he’s back playing with his old friend Brian Doherty, and this is what they made together. Deal with it.
‘Splain, Lucy Version: Actually, that’s pretty much all you need to know. The Boring Version will cover the rest, but honestly, either you were a fan and are looking forward to this album as much or more than me, or you never got what all the fuss was about, and this album might seem less interesting to you than either of their original releases. It’s a more relaxed, savvy, urbane Big Wreck, which might appeal to the casual listener, but for all that, it’s big and meaty and bluesy, so if you’re not into that, well, you can skip to the end and I’ll tell you if I think it lives up to snuff and try to convince you that it’s worth giving a try even if you’re not a fan.
Boring Version: For those of you who prefer smooth jazz or heavy metal, you may be forgiven for not knowing that Big Wreck, a band that practically invented its own genre—Progressive Blues Rock—left us prematurely in 2001, after a disappointing tour due to an amazing lack of promotion of their sophomore album, the sleeper classic, The Pleasure and the Greed. It seems the record company were counting on them to record another In Loving Memory of…, which, though a brilliant album with a slew of hits and some non-hit material that was just as good if not better than the release material (nobody does that anymore, it seems), wasn’t as thematically coherent and gripping as TPATG turned out to be. However, what it lacked was hit singles.
Rather than suffer an ignominious career death recording albums with less and less support from the record company, the band chose to go their separate ways, with Ian going on to record two amazing solo albums (Thornley’s Come Again (2004) and Tiny Pictures (2009) that nevertheless rarely managed to capture the magic that was the Big Wreck sound.
Then, last year, while fulfilling some touring dates for his 2009 album, Ian wound up getting back in touch with his old bandmate, and after some palaver, discovered they were both in better places, mentally, and decided to get together. Brian ended up doing a fill-in gig for Thornley’s other guitarist, playing a combination of Thornley and Big Wreck numbers, and they both enjoyed it so much that Brian ended up joining the tour and, essentially the band. By the time they reached the It’s Your Festival here in Hamilton (which, yes, I attended), they were being billed as Thornley and Big Wreck, but the sign behind them clearly said BIG WRECK, and Ian himself asked the audience what they were being billed as. As it turned out, you really could put the two acts together, minus the original drummer and bassist, and get the Big Wreck sound in spades.
After that, news leaked that a new album was in the works, but we all wondered if it would be the follow up to Thornley’s previous album, which had been fun and had lots of great material on it, but had still somehow failed to hit the mark for a lot of people (I want these people strung up, you understand…). And then the big news came last fall: it was to be a Big Wreck album. And there was much rejoicing. Then they were forced to take shelter and wait out a rather odd winter where it snowed in places that usually got no snow, and stayed warm where it ought to have been cold, and they were forced to eat Sir Robin’s minstrels… and there was much rejoicing. And then, at last, the trailer (albums have trailers, now. It’s a funny old world) arrived, and it sounded meaty and heavy and everyone looked fantastic, and yes, you bet there was rejoicing.
And now I finally have a copy of the album to review, so that’s what I’m gonna do, even though I’m a couple of weeks behind the zeitgeist, because you know what? Fuck it, it’s Big Wreck, and even if nobody reads it, it’s the first time I’ve had a chance to review a new Big Wreck album. So here we go.
Head Together opens with a Tibetan chant noise, as if reviving the spirit of something laid to rest, and with the first cheery sounds of guitar, you wonder if they aren’t playing the wrong album, until Ian screams in the background and the guitar and drums kick in, and dammit, there they are! That’s bloody Big Wreck! Listen to the five mile high hook, that wall of guitars. Excuse me while I go shed a tear for a moment. I could have heard this tune on the radio and would have headed right out and bought the album regardless of who it was by. Slide guitar solo in place, soaring Tibetan chant teasing before the hooky chorus returns, slightly broken drum beat, shift the goalposts and go out on a beat change.
A Million Days starts with a strange little guitar noise, and then the bass and drums escort in this very Big Wreck-style tune that sounds like an outtake from TPATG, strained vocals and all, plus another of Ian’s endless collection of catchy hooks. Listening to the bass line, you might almost be fooled into believing that the original rhythm section had returned as well. The sound production on this tune is wonderful, in that the choruses and verses and bridges are nice and distinctive without being obtrusively so. A nice classic 80s/90s hard rock guitar solo brings us back to the chorus, which is really more of a refrain, and leads to a nice outro that includes Ian hitting a note that makes you almost wonder whether he sneaked in some Autotune, but not intrusively so if it is.
Wolves is a relaxed affair with a nice driving rhythm that will sound great when you’re driving home from work. It sneaks in some 7/8, but you’d be forgiven for not noticing, the join is so smooth. Tasteful use of mandolin, and a nice reminder that Big Wreck was also a brilliant band acoustically. Oh yes, this will be the song that makes you forget you just had a shit day at work. Big Outro! Woo!
Albatross is the first release from the album, and it starts with a slow, bluesy intro on acoustics and clean electrics, soon joined by a beefy riff and the rhythm section. Ian sings the verse with a wall of acoustics, and then the first chorus with the bass joining in. This leads up to the slide guitar bridge, and the band reunites (no metaphor), in what sounds like a nephew of Under The Lighthouse. Lovely song, and Ian sounds like he’s enjoying himself, despite the blues.
Glass Room opens interestingly, with a jaunty bit of art rock guitar followed by a bouncy bass line and 90s drum rhythm, and a bridge/chorus that reminds us just what it sounds like when a gold medal songwriter shows off how good he is. A little bit reminiscent of The Matt Good Band at its best, if I can be forgiven for drawing the comparison. It’s a favourable comparison, I assure you. I’ll have to play this one for my buddy Gary and see if he hears it too. It’s a great song. This is gold.
All Is Fair is huge. Zeppelin huge. Opens like a drill to the brain, and the drums take you back at least as far as Mistake, if not Kashmir. It’s Big Wreck, dammit! Big Bloody Wreck came back,and they wrote me a love song. So damned good. The guitar solo will continue reminding you of Jimmy Page, by the way, and if you don’t like that, you can piss off. Bridge of harmonized vocals, and U2esque delay guitars, followed by the biggest drum sound yet. I hear a lot of Greed in this number. Call it a validation number. Great outro.
Control starts off chiming at us with a fat guitar and little kotos playing some slightly gamelan pattern, before a very Eagles-esque verse creeps in, followed shortly by a prototypical Thornley chorus. It’s a nice, relaxed song, and you are reminded that Big Wreck could slow down effectively, too. The solo section ramps things up a bit with a very UnEagles-like buzz saw guitar section that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and then we’re in the land of pretty choruses and you feel like the sun came out, until that bit of buzz saw bridging returns, and then goes out slowly on that Eagles groove again.
Rest Of The World is a bastard nasty rock number right out of the gates, sounding like a bit of a hybrid of the Big Wreck sound and Thornley’s heaviest solo numbers, which I just happen to love, so this is great for me. It’s rock with blood and fur on it. I’m gonna love this song forever. Fuck off, don’t judge me!
You Caught My Eye is a bloozy, woozy groove in a ZZ Top Tex-Mex vibe, straight up love on the wrong side of the tracks after too many tequilas. Man, I remember those nights. It’s flawless slow burn blues from start to finish. Lovely.
Do What You Will has a really nice groove to it, and one of Ian’s massive chorus vocal hooks, and the bass gets a nice workout in here. Walls and walls of guitar falling all over each other, even though it’s really just three guys. They break to go into a bridge with just bass and a bit of piano chording, and then the band rejoins and builds to the instrumental, which is really just a a headfake to the biggest wall of vocals Ian has dared to throw at us in ages. Great number.
Time begins on a nice big jumbo acoustic with some keys piping woodwinds in, and then the first chorus is a wall of mandolins and stuff, and the verse gets bigger, metronome drums ticking away before bridging to the chorus, which is starting to sound more and more like a psychedelic Beatles number, at least to these old ears. Instrumental section with no guitar solo break, just walls of vocals and drums. A lovely song that, like other Big Wreck closing numbers, makes it pretty clear that you’re going to have to listen to it a few times to get everything out of it, even if it does so in a much more positive vibe than previous album closers.
I won’t lie. I love this album. Aren’t you glad I don’t rate these things. How sick would you be getting by now of me always giving out 9s and 10s, anyway? The secret is, don’t go pro, and only review what you enjoy. You’ll live longer.
But seriously, I love this album. It’s not the album I was looking for, but it’s the album I didn’t know I needed. It’s got as much aggression as I need it to have, but it also has a more open, positive, almost spiritually uplifting quality to it that the previous albums, including Thornley’s solo albums, didn’t really have.
Okay, you still need a convincer, right? Okay, here goes: Ian Thornley is one of a mere handful of Canadian songwriters who gets it right every damned time. The perceived failures of his previous albums are not his failures; they’re the industry’s failures. Ian writes fantastic tunes, plays fantastic guitar, sings his ass off with one of the most distinctive voices in the business, and co-produces some of the most beautiful albums ever recorded. You might hear perhaps five albums this year that will sound this good. If you’re trying. It’s a gorgeous, meaty, ballsy, tweaky, clever, gutsy album, and its only fault, if you can call it one, is that it’s not longer.
Now go buy it.
© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle