I first met the members of Wolf Parade
in Manhattan at a diminutive venue called Pianos where I’d booked the band as part of a show to benefit a literary magazine. This was several months before the release of Apologies to the Queen Mary, Wolf Parade’s Sub Pop debut. They drove eight hours straight from their hometown of Montreal to play the show. On the way they were detained once at the border and then again somewhere on I-84 South by a New York State Trooper bearing a speeding violation. They barely made the soundcheck. Only three of the four members actually appeared—-keyboardist Hadji Baraka, they told me, was pruning conifers somewhere in British Columbia, living in a burlap tent and eating raw honey. Singer/Guitarist Dan Boeckner was suffering from some kind of virus—-he was sweating lightly and his skin had a translucent sheen. Singer/Keyboardist Spencer Krug was distracted by a dead nine-volt battery in one of his myriad of effects pedals. Only Drummer Arlen Thompson seemed ready to touch down on the rock tarmac and broadcast the calamity. As the band climbed onto the coaster-sized stage to run through “It’s a Curse” for their soundcheck, Boeckner turned to me and said, “We don’t play folk music.” It was part apology, part defensive reproach.
I was more than a little nervous. This was shortly before Montreal’s coronation as rock’s centerpoint, after which every note wheezed by a young Canadian man in a white belt was unequivocally praised by the hype kids in their tacky bunkers. I had convinced the editors of the literary magazine of Wolf Parade’s merits based only on a handful of tracks from their self-released EPs that I’d scraped from the internet and the song they’d recorded for the magazine’s annual music issue—-an unsettling cover of Frog Eyes’ “Claxxon’s Lament” that rose up and then disintegrated into a magnificent shambles—-but Wolf Parade were not yet the draw that they soon would be, and my peers were mildly skeptical.
In short order, though, the band—-a damaged, nauseated shadow of the band, loping angrily on three legs—-put to rest my anxiety by working out a taut, aggressive sequence of songs from the unreleased Apologies…. Boeckner paused between howled verses to spit gobs of mucus into a plastic cup, but otherwise seemed fit as a track star. The three men fell into the songs the way a white-masked brute would fall into his opponent in the wrestling ring—-elbow bared, aiming for the gut or the heart, whatever was most exposed, most vulnerable. The new material they played, most notably the demented slow-motion tango of “You Are a Runner” and the cautious triumph of “This Heart’s on Fire,” showed a more adventurous group of musicians taking turns edging each other out into ever more undefined frontiers. What made Wolf Parade such an exhilarating outfit, I realized that night, was that these were men thirsty for danger with enough skill among them to rappel into the caverns without headlamps. They would not stop short at catchy, hook-laden dance rock—they would learn it, excel at it, and move beyond.
So Wolf Parade does not, it turns out, play folk music. But what music do they play? What problem are they attempting to solve when they light into a song? What error in the world are they seeking to correct by applying their music to its airspace?
At Mount Zoomer, their second album for Sub Pop doesn’t yield an answer so much as lay the old questions at our feet, wrapped in new questions. The band, in fact, issued a two-word warning to the label at one point during the album’s creation: “No Singles.” Much like Boeckner’s declaration at the Pianos show, the warning could be read as a fiery mission statement or an apologetic disclaimer. Either way, it is a colossal record that engulfs the learnings of Apologies… and the earlier EPs and expands upon them. The themes and tonalities that distinguish Wolf Parade are all still audible, but completely reconfigured and reworked over the course of nine sprawling tracks. “After Apologies… we wrote about four or five new songs,” Boeckner said in a recent phone interview, “but we decided to throw them out because they sounded too much like what we’d already done. We could have easily made another Apologies… but what would have been the point?”
Instead, the band committed itself to a period of experimentation, recording long improvisational sessions in the Montreal church owned by The Arcade Fire. These tracks were then cut and pasted into discrete compositions. The result is a complex matrix of components and modules that, thanks to the collective efforts of each band member, never feels labored or fussy. From the nimble opening strains of “Soldier’s Grin” to the eleven-minute aggro dirge of “Kissing the Beehive,” the men hand authority of the songs around among them with a refreshing absence of ownership. Where Apologies… could be read as a good-natured, sweaty volleyball match between Krug and Boeckner, At Mount Zoomer shows the band as a fully coordinated moving front. This collaboration isn’t just a work ethic—-the band’s many offshoots, side projects, and domestic ventures have taken each of them far from their hometown for extended periods, compressing their time as a functioning unit. “It’s hard enough to get us all in the same room at the same time,” Krug said of the band’s approach, “so when we do get to write songs there isn’t really time for our egos to get in the way.”
Arlen Thompson recorded and engineered the entire album, and his attempt to render with an absolute minimum of effects and post-production knob twiddling the crisp, dry sound of the church studio reveals with startling resolution the part each band member plays in holding these songs aloft.
The legion of bearded, sweater-vested critics will want to file this album under ‘Prog Rock’ because it doesn’t offer up sugary cast-offs for the short-attention-span set, but no one ever danced to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It might instead be this generation’s Marquee Moon, or an indie rock Chinese Democracy released thirty years early and sixty million dollars under budget (and without cornrows, to boot). Better, though, to think of it as the sound of a band edging forward into a wispy darkness, one hand reaching out, the other firmly clutching the past.
—-Matthew Derby, March 2008