Is it too early to declare a frontrunner for my favourite album of 2012? Because I have several already vying for the prize, and Future History’s Loss:/Self happens to be one of them.
I’ve sat on this review for several weeks now, namely because I found myself lost in that lovely realm of music obsession, which does not permit rational analytical discourse, but offers instead the “Oh My God! *replay song*” reaction. It’s been a long time since a band not already on my “love ’em” list stormed onto it, so I’ve indulged.
In case my initial review of their NXNE set hasn’t hooked you yet like the companions I brought with me to a follow-up set at The Annex Live, allow me to introduce you to Future History. Hailing from Toronto, the core of the group is Kevin Ker (vocals/guitar) and Justin Dillon (Drums/Perc/”various household items”). Boasting 40+ instruments and a 35-person stomping/singing entourage assembled from their friends and with a track called “Good Little Robot” in the mix, it’s no wonder that immediately, I think of OK Computer and the era of Radiohead I loved. The bare bones of their sound may be indie alt-rock, but the work is so lush and layered, it morphs into something that feels large and breathes down your neck. Sprawling interludes of loops and guitars lend a prog-rock sound reminiscent of Tool (“10,000 Days”, “Wings For Marie”), with the politically-informed and self-reflective lyrics fitting well alongside Matthew Good and Roger Waters.
If you know me, you are well aware that I have paid a huge compliment to the band right there, and I haven’t even touched the songs yet. Hell, Good has even sampled whales, as do Future History on this album – specifically, “a whale that produced the wrong frequency, which consequently ostracized her from other whales because she didn’t communicate properly.” They also took advantage of being stranded in New York due to Hurricane Irene, capturing nature’s mechanism of loss for their creation.
The layered and eclectic musical toy box employed by Future History also evokes another Canadian treasure: The Tea Party (Transmission in particular). The fearless experimentation pays off on Loss:/Self, taking the listener on a thematic journey through questions of loss – within and without – and finding oneself in the process.
Are you ready for this journey? I’ll warn you now: once you take it, you may not be able to resist repeating the ride.
Ornamental State: “Hello, welcome – what brings you here?” And with that opener, Future History introduces the heart of the album via opener “Ornamental State”, a relatively straight-up acoustic rocker for the first half until samples and a jam carry the listener through a plaintive, desperate outro that feeds into the next track, “Leaves”. “The walls break open and we look the same” and we do. Underneath the outward facade we all master, within us, we’re all human and share the same core emotional and mental processes and needs. The playing field is leveled and the listener falls down the rabbit hole…
Leaves: Have you ever sat alone and thought back on your life, wishing things could be simpler? Ever marvel at how, as children, we long to grow up and be adults so that we can be in charge of our lives and make the rules… only to grow up and miss the safety of not having to have direction and responsibility? This song evokes that painful-wistful feeling. I’m often reflecting in this manner, and perhaps that’s why Autumn is my favourite season: it’s a time to harvest, to prepare for the darkness ahead. Another up-tempo number, yet somber and melancholy. Gorgeous vocal harmonies. “We never stopped to question why we kept it all inside.”
Good Little Robot: To say that current pop culture can be toxic for the mind and spirit is an understatement. One need only look to the way MTV has become RTV – Reality Television – for a glaring example. Documentaries like Miss Representation explain how advertisers package women, sexuality, masculinity and products we need now and the ways we must behave to belong. With a hip-shaking rock melody, Future History examines the loss of self via surrender to external influence in “Good Little Robot” and the fight to reclaim individuality and choice. Huge single potential here.
The Unfortunate Occupation Of The Machine Man: The first interlude piece is haunting and atmospheric, with a child recalling the story of a robot wanting to be human. If you’re familiar with Our Lady Peace’s Spiritual Machines and that creepy feeling from its little Kurzweil interludes, you can appreciate this one. A nice way to shift from the angry track preceding it into the sadder one to follow.
Play The Part: Oh man…. If you’ve ever had to soldier on after a nasty break-up – perhaps the kind where you share several mutual friends – this one will strike a chord. As the title suggests, loss has given way to pretending – to discarding the true self beneath a mask that is demanded. Rich, pained vocals here are allowed to be front and centre, lightly supported by delicate guitar and percussion. “Before I met you, I couldn’t care. Tell me how will I when you’re not there?”
(Don’t) Let This Go: Another of my favourites on this album, a soft, bluesy rock number with poignant lyrics settles in nicely after “Play The Part” – almost a reflection of what lies beneath the mask, and what one must lose to gain back the self. “You knew that I was all but gone,” Ker sings, and the pain is palpable. Gorgeous harmonies on the outro of this one that soar to a crescendo. “We all take what we owe. Beg or steal, now don’t tell a soul.”
Surrounded By Faces: My favourite on the album, hands down, is this song and its driving percussion. Remember that stomping entourage? You’ll hear it here. Again, Future History makes good use of a building sonic swell, unleashing a hard rocking outro that evokes desperation and almost indignant anger. The flaws we all have are what make us – but do we complicate ourselves in seeking or expecting perfection? Thoughts worth considering on a dark night with a track like this. “Surrounded by faces and you’re not here. It’s where I went wrong.”
Coincidence: Our second interlude immediately makes me think, “Trent Reznor”. Moody, layered and almost industrial, it fades out almost as soon as it reaches a fever pitch. Fitting, given the next track.
Hold On/Let Go: Contradictory in title, this song’s an almost bombastic number, shifting vibes and directions back and forth in harmony with the message. Echoing back to “Ornamental State” and its walls breaking open, the walls are again shifting and ceilings are collapsing. “If it’s day to day, action figure, posable man, then we’re holding on against our will.” What do we do? We let go. The final shouting chorus of “I hold on and let go!” gives me chills.
The Changing: I love the intro guitars and keys on this one; it’s almost like a twisted waltz. “We all collide, collapse and hide, left alone and waiting for the pulsing light and the reasons why the colours faded,” may just be one of the most beautifully sad lyrics on the entire album. In listening to this one, one senses a mirror to “Leaves”. The entire album is cyclical that way: one song seems to call out, while another answers it, all the while leaving the listener to ultimately decipher the meaning of the two sides of the story.
Everything: Opening with the subtle scratching of a record player left grinding in that final groove, “Everything” shoots off of the lonely flawed soul in “Surrounded By Faces” and finds us in darkness, paradoxically finding light. “We’re not alone through all of this.”
Erasable Ink On A Lost To-Do List (Scraps Of Me): Another shining example of gorgeous vocal layers. I’m a sucker for a good harmony, and Future History’s mastered it. I love this one’s lyrics, allowed to be at the forefront. There’s a closure to this one, a love gone wrong because, “what you gave away was everything you could ever need… you only see the scraps of me.” Acoustic, slow and subtly bitter, yet empowering.
In This Sleep:/Creatures: The album closer is an eerie number, its lyrics foreboding: “But the yearning is lurking in shadows behind me, salivating and hungry, and his face looks just like me.” Like “Coincidence”, this one evokes early Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails, building to a swell of industrial static, falling away to a lonely guitar.
Final Notes: Loss:/Self is an album meant for the introspective listener, one who values music that can poke and prod at the mind and create images unique to oneself. My feelings and interpretations of this album could very well be a long way off the band’s starting point and that’s a good thing: great music should be something you can personalize. An album best enjoyed in the evening (or the middle of the night, if you’re an insomniac like me), Loss:/Self is a concept album executed well. The message isn’t driven home with Captain Obvious’ sledgehammer, nor is it so subtle and vague as to not be cohesive. A dark beauty that deserves repeated listens, Loss:/Self should break this band out into wider appeal if there is any justice in the local music scene.
Overall Grade: A+
Toronto People: In addition to a residency to be announced, Future History will be playing Cameron House (where I first saw them – fab venue) Wednesday, August 22nd. Random factoid: that’s Tori Amos’ birthday, which means the stars are definitely aligned for a great night of music. For more on Future History, visit their website. Below you’ll find a player via Bandcamp for your aural pleasure.