Wednesday, October 21, 2015

album review: 'astoria' by marianas trench

This is one of the big ones, folks. This is one of the albums I've been looking forward to all year, from a Canadian pop rock band that's been quiet too long. A group that may have started with a debut that seemed to come at the tail end of a commercial boom before quietly becoming an absolute powerhouse up here with hit after hit after hit. A group that for no adequately explained reason has ever really crossed into the US even despite having irrepressibly catchy songs, solid production, excellent songwriting, and one hell of a frontman. Why is that?

Honestly, I'm not sure. I'd argue a big factor was distribution - the band's star-making, damn near classic record pop rock Masterpiece Theater didn't hit the US until September of 2010, over eighteen months after it was released in Canada, and while we couldn't get enough of them across 2011 and 2012 with the excellent record Ever After, the US charts were in a profound state of turbulence in the collapse of the club boom, I'm not really blaming them here. Thankfully they got that settled through a deal with Cherrytree and Interscope, but a bigger part of it is that Marianas Trench were a different sort of pop rock act, taking much of Fall Out Boy's theatrical ambitions and writing and marrying it to a far more lean and melodic sound, trading the obnoxiousness for populist cleverness. By their second album they had built a three-act structure for a loose conceptual framework, by their third album they embraced all-out narrative storytelling, and after the EP Something Old/Something New that contained satirical tracks like 'Pop 101', one could think that Josh Ramsay's writing was in danger of disappearing up its own ass. But I wouldn't agree here, and when I heard the loose conceptual framework behind their upcoming record Astoria, instrumentally inspired by 80s fantasy and adventure films, I realized we might have something so damn earnest that it transcends irony or satire and just becomes flat out epic - and that's not a word I ever use lightly. So you can bet I was psyched to hear Astoria - does it live up to my high expectations?

Folks... this album is pure concentrated wonderful. I've reviewed a lot of genuinely great albums this year that took a bit to grow on me, but this slice of pure new wave pop rock hit me immediately and I haven't been able to break free. Eclectic yet refined, ridiculously clever yet anchored in a powerfully heartfelt lead performance that shows Josh Ramsay delving into even more personal material with one of the most elastic and potent voices in pop music. And sure, it's self-referential, theatrical, and loaded with little interludes that allows Ramsay to draw on the formula Spielberg and John Williams' perfected, but it also gets how to make those pieces work in a pop context. Man, it's been a long wait for this, but I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have this.

But I can tell there'll be a fair few people who might be initially put off by how few obvious rock elements there on this album - Marianas Trench have been on the path towards pure pop for a while, but this is probably the album where the rock is most qualified. The easiest analogue might be a pop musical with cinematic ambitions, complete with an orchestra of horns and strings with more of the melodies anchored to soaring keyboards than the rubbery, elastic guitar lines. Oh, they're still here - Marianas Trench aren't surrendering the tightness and roaring swell that gives their songs such huge presence - but on first listen I can see why many would see this as the slickest, most polished record they've ever released. Of course, when you dig into the subject matter you'll realize that's far from the case, but it's much more indicative in the melodic subtleties. I could go on about how the five instrumental interludes damn near perfectly encapsulate how a subtle instrumental chord shift can grab the heartstrings, or how the razor-tight drum work shows exactly how you can have prominent percussion without overshadowing the melody, or how the synth choices show exactly how you can make a record clearly calling back to the 80s while still sounding modern and undeniably Marianas Trench. And then there's the individual songs that take Ramsay's killer melodic compositions and inflate them into distinctly textured entities, like the razor-sharp new wave of 'Burning Up' to the cowbell and chunky guitars on 'Yesterday', to the island-inspired percussion on 'Who Do You Love' that still anchors itself in the guitars to the fantastic crescendo of 'Wildfire'. And then there's the heartbreaking piano line of 'One Love' that calls back to 'Fallout' and 'Beside You' or the piano rock of 'Shut Up And Kiss Me' that reminds me more than a little of the best parts of 'Stutter' - really, there are so many callbacks all over this record that knowing your Marianas Trench well makes this such a deeper experience. And that's not even counting the four distinctive instrumental shifts of the opening title track and they all kick ass, or the perfectly elegant and powerful reprise of 'End Of An Era'. 

Hell, I'm struggling to find points instrumentally to criticize, and if I were to stretch, I'd say I didn't love the buzzier tone on 'This Means War' or that cascade against the hi-hats on the chorus of 'While We're Young', but both songs still stand out as great! But really, I can sum up the melodic skill and power of this album by the fact that the stripped back ukulele track 'Dearly Departed' with the hints of ghostly strings doesn't manage to come across as cliched and if you're a longtime fan of Marianas Trench the bridge will hit you like a ton of bricks. I didn't it was possible to make a stripped back ukulele pop song resonate as more than hackery anymore, but Ramsay pulled it off. And that's mostly because he delivers a virtuoso vocal performance on this record that pulls him all over the spectrum, from the rough-edged screams for which he's known to a ridiculously solid falsetto to his lower, more subtly emotive range where he shows he doesn't need to rely on the multi-tracked harmonies to land an emotional punch. Of course, they're still here as well in all of their brilliantly arranged glory, and combined with some of the meatier guitar progressions that show up and the outright lyrical references draw more than a few links to Queen, more specifically circa the era of Highlander. And although Ramsay is playing things closer to the chest that the epic, world-bending sprawl of that film, he proves with this record that if they wanted to bring back the bigger riffs, they could pull it off.

Now I mentioned that 80s fantasy and adventure movies play into the instrumental character of this album, and on first listen I was digging for where they'd creep into the lyrics... and they do, but in a much subtler way than I expected. Because here's the trick - the self-deprecation, the outsized personality, the emo-tinged lyrics that have been Marianas Trench's hallmark, they're all still here, but there is a loosely defined narrative centered around growing up and maturity, rising above losing a great love to move on with one's life to whatever possibilities might come ahead. And Ramsay channels his lowest points quite plainly into the writing on this record: the girl he loved called off the engagement, his mother suffers from Lewy Body Dementia, and he himself spent time in the hospital - whatever spark to break free had to come from within himself, the sort of underlying narrative that runs through the core of all the great inspirational 80s adventure movies. And what I appreciate is how Ramsay's not afraid to go not just dark to his own mistakes - hookups to get over her, petty jealousy - but the raw grief and pain that underscores songs like 'One Love' with lines like 'What if one's true love's the only one that you get?' Easy to consider overwrought until placed in the lonelier context how he's trying to convince himself there is hope for more. Because he does rebuild his confidence make peace with himself throughout this record... and almost on cue, she comes back on 'Wildfire', and he's faced with the question whether to try again. And yet he realizes that if he wants to have any real closure - because he knows they both really haven't changed that much - he does need to grow up, face the music, own up to his own mistakes, make peace with himself, and move on. All of it brought through the masterclass of superb pop songwriting that never needs to rely on formula or cheap references to make it work. Granted, there are songs that if you catch the callbacks to the past ring all the more powerfully, especially if you know the context and to whom they were written about, but Marianas Trench is able to close that door on their past with grace and respect, both for themselves and the audience who they address in the outro stanza that rings as borderline Shakespearian: 'If we shadows have offended / I hope your heart can still be mended / I hope you know that I don't blame you / My dear friend / Always will / Love you still / But Astoria must end'.

Folks, when I went into Astoria I expected it to be good - I've liked Marianas Trench for years, they're one of the few pop rock bands to have survived the end of the boom and have only gotten stronger - but I wasn't prepared for Astoria to get to me like it did. The writing is plainspoken and all the stronger for it, the melodies are ridiculously solid, the production is gorgeous, and Josh Ramsay gives the best performance thus far of his career. Do I wish it rocked just a little harder? Yeah, a bit, but positioning a record with this sort of cinematic swell and still managing to have the melodic, hard-hitting grooves is goddamn incredible. And if you can't tell, this record is a strong 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations - easily one of the best pop albums of this year and another high point in Marianas Trench's discography. As I said, this album is pure concentrated wonderful, and they've been solely a Canadian treasure for too damn long - let's make these guys a hit.

1 comment:

  1. Mark,
    I just wanted to say that you introduced me to Marianas Trench when you gave your special comment on pop music using "POP 101" last year. I immediately checked them out, and by the end of the year I finally had an answer to give when someone asked me what my favorite band was. Everything about this band is perfection to my ears, and I never would have found out about them had it not been for you. I got to see them in Chicago this past summer, and I've been breathlessly awaiting this album ever since. You've significantly upped the already-sky-high hype factor for me. Friday can't come fast enough now.