Music Reviews

posted: May 26, 2011

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Fucked up David Comes to Life

Matador CD, 2 LP
Fucked up

Damian Abraham’s intense, throaty voice is one of the most riveting instruments in music. His robust pipes are a human bullhorn, his volatile chords seemingly bulging on steroids—each blustery syllable emanating from the stout frontman’s mouth coming across like the barked orders of an iron-lunged drill sergeant. Of course, Abraham doesn’t sing in the traditional manner. He growls, yowls, huffs, rants, and bellows, the gruff timbre an inherent charm, the violent outpouring sonic flares that indicate his band isn’t putting on any pretense.

And so it is with David Comes to Life, Fucked Up’s latest and most ambitious rule-violating statement to date. A rock opera, the 78-minute-plus set is at once sweeping, grand, determined, confusing, heady, brawling, sprawling, confounding, and often brilliant. Experienced start-to-finish, it leaves bruises and threatens to wear out the listener with panoply of characters, plots, changes, and breathless urgency. The Toronto collective’s triple-guitar attack allows the band to whip songs into frenzies, drop clusters of counterpoint fills and leads, and slam tempos against the wall, building up heads of steam that charge ahead with reckless abandon. Riffs alternately slash and burn (“Serve Me Right”), race into the stratosphere (“Queen of Hearts”), hit with balled-fist force (“Inside A Frame”), and buck akin to an untamed bull busting out of the gate at a rodeo (“Remember My Name”).

Such controlled variation and tonal differentiation underscore the foundation of an album bent on upending expectations and shattering preconceived notions. Fucked Up has operated outside boundaries for its entire ten-year existence; take a look at the group’s name, which isn’t for showy effect. Ostensibly a hardcore band, the sextet long ago blew away the limiting stylistic trappings associated with the genre, imbibing in everything from extremely lengthy jams to flute-driven passages on EPs, seven-inch singles, and two prior LPs that provoke both musically and lyrically. David Comes to Life is certain to invite the typical blowback associated with taking risks, the empty sort that accuses a group of selling out and betraying the sensibility of true punk. The quantity and quality of the melodies, catchiness of the anthemic hooks, tuneful stomps, and highly professional multi-tracked production veritably invite it. Underground credibility and coolness aside, few bands are currently making more meaningful, cerebral, or invigorating noise.

Like most concept efforts, David Comes to Life revels in complexity. The four-act narrative’s principal characters include David, a lightbulb-factory worker; Veronica, his love; Vivian, the proverbial “lady in the lake”; and Octavio, the story’s appointed narrator who also figures into the plot. The latter, which involves myriad twists and turns—and demands a close reading of the lyrics—unfolds as a tale about loneliness, love, fleeting happiness, despair, defeat, and, ultimately, redemption and hope. Abraham handles the male protagonists and gets assistance from the Cults’ Madeline Follin and several other participants to play the female roles. While intermittent, these softer, gentler, calming voices offer a welcome contrast to Abraham’s masculine roar, lending a floating atmospheric element to a record that has just about everything.

Indeed, the 18-track double-album occasionally tries to do too much. Yet for all its flaws, most minor, Fucked Up’s colossal album consistently engages with aggregate arrangements, bigger-than-life personality, piercing one-liners, and ferocious energy. “When he raises the trumpet to his mouth,” Abraham thunders on “A Slanted Tone,” before proclaiming “he tells the choir when to sing,” the paint-peeling song’s centrifugal spin fueling its bull-in-a-china-shop aggression. Similarly, “Under My Nose” refuses to let up, glimmering as the group’s momentum somersaults forward. Not all is rip and tear.

Structured choral maneuvers trigger an avalanche of drama on “Turn the Season.” Abraham’s impassioned tones—his theatrical performances convey fluctuating emotions in the same manner an actor’s diction expresses a character’s physiological state—project pained conditions on the crunchy “Truth I Know,” abetted with glossy pop refrains and ringing treble guitar notes that conjure sympathy. High-voltage blues provides a platform for rhymed couplets and metaphorical pronouncements on the boogie-based “Ship of Fools,” while psychedelic effects send “I Was There” spiraling into the cosmos. Aptly, the song opens the Fourth Act, at which point the protagonist begins to find enlightenment.

Concluding their chronological progression and emotional journey with “Lights Go Up,” Abraham and company exit with upbeat swagger, dancing not to the end of days but to the rebirth of love and life.

–Bob Gendron