2012-05-28

Album Review: Big Wreck's "Albatross"

About two months ago, Canadian hard rock band Big Wreck returned with a new album: Albatross.

Big Wreck's first album appeared way back in 1997 with a debut album called In Loving Memory Of.... That album boasted their only two "radio-recognizable" hits - "The Oaf," and "That Song." For people who were still interested in hard rock during the late 90s, "The Oaf" is a familiar song, although not a mega-hit. "That Song" was, however, their most successful single, particularly in Canada. In Loving Memory Of... went on to double-platinum certification.

Later, Big Wreck released The Pleasure and the Greed, which I thought was an absolutely phenomenal album full of well-written songs, amazing vocal performances, and hard-hitting, hard-rocking songs that contained a maturity and intelligence not found in mainstream music since the 1996 demise of Soundgarden. Somehow, Big Wreck's press story was one of reformed prog-rockers who hung up their chops in the name of great songwriting. The story never quite seemed to fit. The band was obviously a southern-rock-inflected grunge band. Progressive rock had little to do with it.

Like all good things the 90s gave us, Big Wreck eventually faded away into obscurity, while frontman Ian Thornley released a successful-in-Canada solo album entitled Come Again, and a much-less-successful follow up called Tiny Pictures. While both of these albums contained very strong songwriting and respectable vocal performances, they tended to alienate Ian Thornley's core fan base of hard-rock fans because they were softer and more pop-oriented than Big Wreck's two albums had been.

Eventually Ian Thornley reconnected with Big Wreck bandmate Brian Doherty, found a 3rd guitarist and a new rhythm section, and recorded and released Albatross, billing it as Big Wreck's return to form.

Frankly, the album is not exactly a return to form. While elements of southern rock and groove are still present in the new album, Albatross is at long last evidence of Big Wreck's progressive rock roots. For one thing, Ian Thornley actually shreds on the album - something unheard of on his previous releases.

If lengthy, extended guitar solos aren't progressive rock, then what is? Odd time signatures, of course! Although they are hidden behind extremely tight songwriting, Albatross hosts some odd time signatures as well. Not to mention the presence of double-neck guitar parts and dense vocal harmonies. Albatross is undeniably progressive in execution.

Still, Ian Thornley's incredible vocal prowess gives him the ability to "sing the phonebook." That is, Thornley has always been able to make simple, unassuming melodies sound incredible with his strong vocal performances. Albatross is no different. Rather than becoming bogged-down in prog-rock indulgences, the album instead deftly inserts progressive elements into a sonic core of tight, blues-based songwriting.

The overall result is an album that is both dense and accessible. To my ears, it sounds as though Ian Thornley has finally managed to capture his musical essence free of external pressures and simply make music for the sake of making music.

Albatross may not necessarily be Ian Thornley's masterpiece. Perhaps the best is yet to come. But for my money, this latest album is the closest Thornley has come to-date to crafting his magnum opus. I give it full marks.