Fond of Tigers
Release the Saviours
(Drip Audio; 2007)
By Mark Abraham | 1 December 2007
I went to see Fond of Tigers last May at the Music Gallery here in Toronto. For those unfamiliar with the venue, it’s a converted church hall that tends to spank music with the kind of reverb audiophiles dream of. Putting a seven-member, two-drummer electric combo in there spanked the church; Skye Brooks and Dan Gaucher raised the roof off that motherfucker, the wash off their cymbals forming like a tangible glaze of fudge that filled the air and sent more than a couple music fans fleeing. Guess it wasn’t a prog-geek audience. I was sick, even a bit feverish, but I managed to make it through most of the set (the throat lozenges stopped working as the band was working its way towards the climax of “Pemberdunn Maple Wolves”; we slipped out the back before the band launched into an encore that we could still hear reverberating down the street).
The sound in the church didn’t really allow the kinds of subtle accents and interplay that Fond of Tigers excel at to shine through, but seeing this band live proved a couple of things: first , the nauseating time signature play that undulates through their music like an urban landscape in real time is really that impressive, and, second, “Pemberdunn Maple Wolves” is some next-level shit. Fond of Tigers-the-prog group works because the band laces ’90s crescendo fetish with calculated free-improv interludes, ’70s grit, and a strict adherence to jazz’s conceptual approach to arrangement. Not all six guys are always playing, preferring instead to skip between the poles of full-on abandon and slippery, sinewy grooves. The band also succeeds in almost every case because their time signature tomfoolery never descends into geek-gravitas; these shifts are carefully constructed around melodic and harmonic composition, as opposed to providing a launching pad for guitar solos. Or, you know, Dream Theatrics with no actual pull.
And that’s a crucial point, because a song like the four-section “Pemberdunn Maple Wolves” could easily become a frantic 12-minute stretch of nonsense. Rather than simply playing fast and tricky like some Mars Volta shit, members of the group take sides, alternating in their enunciations of points and counterpoints, lobbing squalls of feedback-laden mush at crisp piano cascades and the two-note two-second crescendo that drives the song’s middle section. The raging third section is notable for the intricate way the guitar guts an elliptical riff that adds an extra note on every other iteration; the result sees the band switching between complex and common signature at the same time that the internal dynamics of the guitar riff resist common expression. On top of this structure, the violin, horn, and keyboards keep shifting the implied chord, dynamically altering the tonal impression of that riff throughout; they don’t, however, shift on intuitive measures, adding to the implied and explicit complexity of the time signature while simultaneously, without sacrificing any sense of velocity or strength, continually sucking the emotional bottom out of the song. It’s an effect that only gets more literal when the final section, sprightly and gorgeous with time akimbo to the point where I had trouble counting it out, springs to life like a celebration. And, sure, it sounded like I just gave a low-tech description that might count as geek-gravitas, but here’s why all this stuff matters: prog, post-rock, or jazz — whatever you want to call this, it rarely sounds this pretty, this expressive, this emotional, this bracing. And, really, when you can convert the numbers of geek-out glee into something that actually sounds heartfelt? That’s the point, right? And not just, “dude: that shit’s in 7/8! Rawk!”
That centrality of melody serves the band well over the course of Release the Saviours. Even in the depths of “Born Again Ready,” a sparse, slinky free-improv piece, the band emphasizes particular points of interest: a spry guitar strum-pattern from Stephen Lyons that eventually draws the other instruments into a coherent rhythm (briefly), Jesse Zubot’s wonderful violin-manipulation duet with trumpeter JP Carter that ends the track, or Morgan McDonald’s evil-lullaby keyboard riff that revs the whole mess up in the first place. And, seriously: best free improv I’ve heard in years with the possible exception of MoHa! Elsewhere, on “A Long Way to Temporary,” drummers Brooks and Gaucher layer time signatures on top of one another. The opening of the track is nauseating, with bassist Shanto Bhattacharya joining with one of the drummers to lob depth charges into the mix. Just when everything seems about ready to collapse the band builds to another cheery height that provides a bed for a gorgeously restrained trumpet solo from Carter, Lyons’ heavily distorted guitar now buried in the mix like a raucous party next door. There’s some really great effects employed at the end of the solo that stretch stray notes from various instruments across panned channels as Zubot adds bongo-like violin plucks to the drummer-driven sheen of high hats and rides. That expansive tone shifts as the drummers lay off their cymbals while the band redirects the melody. And like the band-wide changing tonality in “Pemberdunn Maple Wolves,” the individual musicians are also full of similar tricks. Like, check the way McDonald repeats the same implied chord trick towards the end of “A Long Way to Temporary” by capping each oblong riff with a different sheer piano note. Effortless and gorgeous, with minimal prodding from the booth, these moments flourish through the album. And while I’m absolutely fine with letting production finesse these tricks for color, hearing a band draw such lines in real time is always a treat.
The only criticism I’ll make, and what will likely keep this album from my top ten this year: even if this is an incredible improvement on A Thing to Live With (2006) in almost every way, I still find myself wish the band could stretch the tonal dynamics they mine brilliantly in individual songs over the stretch of an album. There’s something a little paint-into-corners about the way the band constructs songs: they don’t necessarily sound the same, and certainly “Born Again Ready” defies expectations in several very good ways, but I’m not catching an implied narrative that spans the album or links the songs together as distinct pieces of a whole (or even just distinct pieces, given the way album-format has lost its cache). But, I mean, that’s a minor complaint: when you’ve only been in existence for a year, what’s the difference between “awesome album” and “all-time classic”? Fond of Tigers is, two albums in, working towards something explosive and beautiful and coherent, and the way to get there is just as brilliant as the destination. Even if the last track is a half-assed joke that I was really hoping was a production error. It isn’t, but the good news? It’s the only truly geeky moment here, meaning there’s 56 minutes of “holy shit” to get through before the “huh?”