Album Review: Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, Club Meds

Review: Dan Mangan, Club Meds8.0/10

Arts and Crafts, 2015

Vancouver native Dan Mangan has quietly evolved into one of Canada’s premier indie troubadours.

From the quiet, unassuming indie-folk of his 2003 debut EP All at Once, to the orchestral swells of 2011’s Juno Award winning Oh Fortune, we have seen Mangan gradually add layers to his singer-songwriter balladry. With the highly-anticipated release of Club Meds—the first album credited to Dan Mangan + Blacksmith—we see his sound move further away from the established  template he has worked with over the past decade.

Mangan is now positioned as a bandleader rather than solo artist, freeing him and his band to experiment with soundscapes and song structures not necessarily found in his prior work. The reverb soaked, mid-tempo pieces that dominate the album are reminiscent of legendary former label mate Broken Social Scene’s more atmospheric work. These ambient tendencies are tempered by Mangan’s knack for witty lyricism and fat-free composition, ensuring punch isn’t sacrificed for moodiness. This carries the album through some of its duller moments.

Album opener Offred’s wistful electronics and lumbering, off kilter beat complement the sparse, emotive guitars and desperate vocals that fill out the mesmerizing track. It sets the tone for the rest of the record— a decidedly introspective affair—letting audiences know they shouldn’t expect another Robots or Road Regrets. Vessels unfolds similarly, with a huge amorphous piano riff acting as lede while a well-placed horn and guitar freak-out acts as kicker; an outstanding, moody slow burn. Mouthpiece—the most conventional track on the album—follows. Its shimmering, dense reverb, interlocking lead lines, and cutting gang vocals enhance the relentless guitar and drum attack evoking fear, anxiety, and uncertainty more successfully than Mangan has on prior records.

The album’s middle section is where Mangan and company fall flat at times. The pacing tends to drag, promising starts languishing in repetition or overreach. Kitsch strives for nuance and gradual progression, but crushes itself under the weight of its own ambitions. The clever guitar lead and gravelly vocals end up buried below a cacophony of repetition and messy mixing. The reach is admirable, but the result is an unsatisfying, mediocre dirge. War Spoils similarly flounders, Mangan’s vocals feeling distant behind the foreboding, droning atmosphere. It’s like Godspeed You! Black Emperor with none of the anticipation or emotional crescendo.

However, these missteps bring us to the thrilling conclusion of the album. The eerily aloof synth lines of the title track flow into the noisy, dynamic electronics and nervous rhythms of Pretty Good Joke, but the true peak of the record comes at its close. New Skies is a sprawling work, moving from an unassuming intro to a breathtaking climax of swirling horns and guitar that feels like the demons of Mangan’s soul being violently exorcised. The instrumental cluster-fuck and disorienting emotional rawness of the track is oddly reminiscent of 30, closer of Danny Brown’s brilliant 2011 album XXX. The appeal of emotional authenticity transcends genre taste, tradition, and tendency; it is what connects all great art.

Dan Mangan + Blacksmith have put together an album that, while imperfect, manages to move the sounds we associate with Mangan in brave new directions. It may alienate some fans, making it even more admirable. It’s boring when artists sit on their haunches; content to wallow in sameness and mediocrity, floating through their careers on autopilot. Club Meds is Dan Mangan’s rejection of stagnancy; a successful one at that. He and his band have managed to make one of the nascent year’s finest Canadian indie albums; besting anything Mangan has done before in the process. Adventure is a beautiful thing when it turns out well.

By Mike Westwick

Connect with Mike on Twitter @westwick_m


Concert Review: Mother Mother

There is no question what happened at the Royal MacPherson theatre in downtown Victoria on December 10th. Mother Mother came home, and an exuberant homecoming it was.

The band is now referred to as a ‘Vancouver band’ in the music press; their rabid Island fan-base knows otherwise. Originally hailing from Quadra Island, this band found their legs in Victoria’s vibrant music scene and built a strong following here.

They are in the middle of a run of three sold out shows at the theatre. One show had to be added when the first two sold out in a matter of days. This is a massive achievement for any band, let alone one who doesn’t sell out venues this size in far larger cities.

Toronto band Ubiquitous Synergy Seekers (USS), kicked off the festivities with a frenetic energy that carried their entire forty-five minute set. Ash Buchholz may have provided the vocals, but the undisputed frontman of the group was turntablist, backup vocalist, tiger onesie-clad, human clusterfuck Jason Parsons. I mean this in a loving way—the dude was everywhere. During the band’s biggest hit Shipwreck he whipped the crowd into a frenzied dance party sing-a-long that had all the kids losing their minds—the high point of their set.

USS has always been an exercise in style over substance. The batshit craziness of their live sets compensate for a somewhat banal brand of song-writing accentuated by the stereotypically aggro, modern-rock styling of Bucholz’s vocals. That being said, if you want a band to get a room of people ready to rock, USS is definitely the opener for you.

With USS’s priming, the anticipation was palpable as the house lights went down and the roadies got to work setting the stage for the headliners. The room exploded as the band walked out under cover of shadows and the first notes of Have it Out reverberated through the theatre. Lead singer Ryan Guldemond need not have sung the lyrics, the crowd would’ve had that covered. The relentless, driving keyboard and guitar riffs of hit single Get out the Way followed seamlessly. “I’m not antisocial, I’m just tired of the people,” Guldemond laments during the bridge of that song. He and the band seemed anything but tired of these people dancing at their feet.

In presiding over the crowd, the band did not forget about their long-time fans. There were healthy doses of fan-favourites peppered amongst the new material. The pacing of this was fantastic and demonstrated the evolution of the band since Touch Up. The fact that the crowd sung about disliking life in a ‘dirty town’ with equivalent zeal as living in a monkey tree showed their fans had come along for that ride.

The undeniable highlight of the night came when backup vocalist and keyboardist Jasmin Parkin emerged from behind her instrument to deliver a rousing, soulful cover of Lana Del Rey’s Video Games. Her voice was breathtaking—you could almost see the crowd’s mouths collectively fall agape. Talented frontman Guldemond’s step back from the spotlight, while unexpected, was ultimately thrilling—the element of surprise only adding to the brilliance of the moment.

The show was not without its flaws. While the band seems to be gaining confidence in their technical prowess, there were certain moments where this manifested itself in overzealous instrumental wanking. This detracted from the tight structuring that the band is known for on their studio albums. While this diminished the impact of certain songs, it’s not as if they went all Phish on us.

Petty grievances aside, the show wound up just as it started. The crowd remained ecstatic through the encore. Guldemond stopped for a moment; seemingly making eye contact with everyone in the theatre, and said “All the drugs are right here in this room;” words of thanks the crowd enthusiastically accepted.

As the band dove into Simply Simple, their final song, friends and lovers embraced and sang along. “I just want it to unfold, simply simple,” the chorus goes. This ode to simplicity was a fitting end to the night; seldom is a homecoming as uncomplicated and triumphant as this.


By Mike Westwick

Mike is a founding editor of The Royal and a student in the Bachelor of Arts in Professional Communication program. 

Connect with him on Twitter @westwick_m