Written by Elliot Cole
Having spent some time in the Victoria area recently, I can testify to the warmth of the people, the splendor of the enchanting coastal landscape, and the quality/potency of the beer. But underneath that charming veneer is a bustling music powerhouse, only now being fully recognized for its creative prowess. Thanks in part to the rhythmic dance-punk stylings of former Soundcheck cover darlings Hot Hot Heat, the Vancouver/Victoria music scene has launched itself from a well-kept secret to a proverbial goldmine of talent.
Once cast in the shadow of Seattle’s fame, acts like Destroyer and The New Pornographers are writing a new script for the region, a script well-versed in pop leanings and a broad spectrum of indie rock nuances. The scene itself is consistently incestuous: all of the bands are inherently connected at the hip-ster (sorry…had to do it). Vancouver and Victoria are constructed around a range of supergroups, collaborative efforts involving members of Wolf Parade and Black Mountain, among others. Of course, no scene is without its flaws. “Bands are generally supportive of each other, but for some weird reason, promoters only want to book cover/tribute bands,” writes one local.
Setting the Scene: Bands that you've probably already heard
Hot Hot Heat
The New Pornographers
You Say Party! We Say Die!
Lay of the Land: Bands you should also hear
Ladyhawk’s take on indie rock is saturated with the rough edges of true southern rock n’ roll pioneers. The vocals are impassioned and gnarled, the guitars distorted, the choruses reverb-laden and coarse. These Okkervil River labelmates are at their best when the amps are resonating with fuzzy density and the words scratch singer/guitarist Duffy Driediger’s throat. Ladyhawk is held together by their seemingly innate ability to sound as if they are on the brink of falling apart at any given second. Through the mess of guitar solos, driving bass lines, and booming percussion, Ladyhawk is volatile, raucous, and engaging, all at the same time.
Bend Sinister –
Their name couldn’t be more appropriate for their sound: Bend Sinister makes twisting 1970s prog metal that is at times cheesy and at times vividly charming. It’s a variable, nonlinear exploration into what made over-the-top groups like Queen amazing. This is the type of music that Guitar Hero was created for…compelling, dramatic, and overwhelmingly fun.
The Organ –
The Organ broke up in 2007, but they left a lasting impression on the Vancouver scene by crafting melancholic pop music that fits somewhere between The Cure and Pretty Girls Make Graves. With their mope-infused 1980s influences in check, the band ascended quickly after a strong SXSW buzz. Although their brief run is over, the back catalogue is still worthy of a listen.
Swan Lake –
Worthy of the supergroup status with which they’ve been anointed, Swan Lake is made up of members of Frog Eyes, The New Pornographers, Sunset Rubdown, and Daniel Bejar of Destroyer. The shaky vocals, treble-happy production, and ethereal instrumentation made Beast Moans a sleeper album in 2006. Sure, it’s annoyingly abstract and overly disordered, but those qualities also make for Swan Lake’s greatest attributes. Their dizzying style needs dedication to absorb, but ultimately pays dividends.
A severely underrated folk pop group, P:ano fuses a wide array of sounds with their sparse, lighthearted style. They utilize an instrumental breadth similar to Andrew Bird: it’s minimalist but nuanced, complicated but seemingly simple. Often compared to The Fiery Furnaces, P:ano’s endearing qualities shine throughout their whimsical, but sometimes elusive, songwriting.
The Book of Lists -
Featuring members of Radio Berlin, these Vancouver shoegazers are entrenched in a sound rooted in 1990s predecessors like The Jesus and Mary Chain. They maintain pop sensibilities, but are consciously not too polished. The vocals are straight-faced and direct, but the music is an immediate clash of echoing cymbals and vibrant distortion.
Pink Mountaintops -
Few bands have as much buzz going for them as Pink Mountaintops, Black Mountain frontman Steve McBean’s side project. Equal parts traditional rock n’ roll and bouncy, unabashed gospel, Pink Mountaintops will have even the most sinful of heathens enamored with their diverse tunes. Each song is drastically different, but the band shines when they make you shake your booty. Tambourines, scratchy guitars, and airy, churchy keyboards have rarely sounded so good.
Anemones quietly moved from Vancouver to Montreal in 2006, but their laid back, fuzz-laden style of pop will surely be heard from in the years to come. They’re bit psychedelic, a bit atmospheric, and it’s a bit ridiculous that they have yet to be signed.
The Mohawk Lodge –
Compelling and soulful, The Mohawk Lodge’s breed of indie is a more rock n’ roll, less dreamy version of Band of Horses. Appealing, wavy vocal lines soar over songs driven by six strings. They are a few big performances away from grabbing the blogosphere by the balls, and they are inevitably the next big thing from Vancouver. The Mohawk Lodge are a must-hear, with catchy “whoa ohs” to match their more poignant woe.
The Doers -
The Doers are ripe with contradiction. They shine with volatile art rock songs ingrained in post punk, but as soon as you’ve become accustomed to their aesthetic, they play a ridiculously goofy, linear song about doing your taxes. It’s a melding of Elf Power, Q and Not U, and euphoric drugs.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? –
They Shoot Horses is an assembled mess much in the vein of Man Man. They are goofy like The Unicorns and they’ve got the synth-heavy hooks to get away with it, too. They are either headache-inducing or Ritalin-defying, but always novel.
No Kids -
Featuring two members of the aforementioned P:ano with a few other contributors, No Kids is Vancouver’s low-key answer to the Parisian Phoenix, approaching the listener with amiable, glittering pop music. No Kids pens songs that are heavy on the harmonies and falsetto vocal lines while being complimented by vivacious percussion.
Blood Meridian -
Blood Meridian plays theatrical folk-country that openly steals its influences from southern songs about cowboys and the devil. Named after a western novel, they are more than content evoking scenes of six shooters and stagecoaches.
You didn’t think that we’d forget that Vancouver has flow, did you? Birdapres’s hip-hop is highlighted by steady, deadpan release that is nonetheless engaging. It’s self-aware and comfortable in its own skin, full of humor and dry wit. His 2004 release with fellow Canuck mcenroe showcased his indie rap talents for the masses.
The Neins Circa -
The Neins Circa was discovered by Carl Newman of The New Pornographers. It exudes a Beatles influence, but with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor all of their own. They are overwhelmingly spry and sugary, like a candy bar coated in pop rocks and blanketed with whipped cream.
The Sessions -
Even our neighbors to the north are subject to the new wave craze, and The Sessions serve as a marvelous example. The 1980s echo throughout songs like “18 Candles”, a track that sounds like a capable single for the next Killers album. The Sessions are bred for the big time with an epic, rock star approach anchored by dancing bass lines and Franz Ferdinand-esque riffs.
Sweetheart’s guitar-fueled indie rock acts as the bastard Canadian child of The Strokes, but played by a bunch of youngsters that look more invested in pop punk wristbands than hipster nightclubs.
Secret Mommy -
Experimental noise pop that is as creative as it is redeeming, Secret Mommy (which, for whatever reason, makes me think of Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire) is the most unique act on this list. It plays as a sonic collage, with wildly varied sounds racquetballing from speaker to speaker. Secret Mommy spent a significant amount of time recording clips from random public occasions, be it the bouncing of a basketball or the laughing of children. That effort culminates in a truly inimitable and layered style.
The Paper Cranes –
With poppy “bop bops” mingling with their hipster post-punk, Victoria-based The Paper Cranes are infectious enough that you may need to get tested after hearing them. You’ve been warned.
Richard’s on Richards
Sugar Nightclub (Victoria)
http://www.vancouverpodcast.blogspot.com/ - A Vanouver-centric podcast that covers many of the bands on this list…and more.