TBTS Reviews: Big Wreck, Albatross
Very few bands still make gimmickless rock music in the grand traditions of the late-1960’s to mid-1970’s. Even fewer do it well. Big Wreck accomplishes both, while keeping one foot solidly planted in the present. And they add a welcome touch o’ the prog to the mix.
Let it be known that I am far from an objective reviewer of Big Wreck material; this has been one of my favorite bands for the last 15 years. But, as fellow Tweedster Lloyd has shown, even an unapologetic fan can still write an honest and compelling review. I’ll try.
Big Wreck started out in the mid-90’s as a group of students at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Within a few years they realized it was more fun to jam and write songs than actually go to class. In 1997, Atlantic Records released their debut album, In Loving Memory of…, a surprising and solid collection of powerful neo-prog-rock that you could actually sing along to. Guitarists Ian Thornley and Brian Doherty laid down guitar tracks that were thicker than late-90’s Christina Ricci*. Bassist Dave Henning expertly played a Hamer 12-string that added a deliciously fat bottom end ([additional Christina Ricci joke here]), taking the multi-string bass tones favored by Kings X’s Doug Pinnick and Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament to a new dimension. And drummer Forrest Williams’ style was unmistakably evocative of John Bonham. In fact, the band’s open-tuned riffing coupled with Thornley’s Cornell-esque vocal style had many reviewers describing the band as “Led Soundgarden.” The band’s live performances epitomized the word “tight”, and Thornley’s guitar collection was drool-worthy to say the least.**
The first album’s two big singles, “The Oaf” and “That Song,” got some airplay in the United States, leading to commensurately modest sales. However, the band did better in Ian Thornley’s home country of Canada, and that remains where their popularity is centered. A second album, 2001’s The Pleasure and the Greed, was similar to In Loving Memory of… in scope with perhaps just a bit more polish, thereby breaking the long-held rule that bands’ sophomore efforts must necessarily be bombastic exercises in self-indulgence. Alas, it received even less airplay, despite the strength of singles like “Inhale,” which is admittedly a little bombastically self-indulgent, and “Ladylike,” with its opening banjo riff (yes, banjo riff) matched by a lead guitar dripping with overdrive.
The original Big Wreck line-up parted ways in 2002 (for reasons that were never apparent to this heartbroken fan) and Ian Thornley went off to release two eponymous albums of, frankly, watered-down radio rock. And thus there was no new Big Wreck material for 10 years. Then lo, the skies opened, and the angels spake… and Big Wreck’s Albatross dropped on March 6. As soon as I found out (quite by accident, actually), I immediately bought the MP3s from Amazon and listened to the whole album twice via their online Cloud Player.
I wish I could say it’s quite the same as the Big Wreck I loved. It’s not. It’s half the original line-up; only Thornley and Doherty remain. Henning and Williams are gone, replaced by strapping young lads Dave McMillan and Brad Park, respectively. And the whole thing is augmented by third (!) guitarist Paulo Neta. Not a true reuinion, but 10 years is 10 years. I’m just happy to report the album actually meets or exceeds my expectations.
I daresay the new material is a tad more focused. Perhaps this is thanks to co-producer Nick Raskulinecz, whose repertoire consists of some of the best (and unfortunately also some of the worst) hard rock to come out since the genre’s 90’s heyday. He produced Deftones’ near-flawless Diamond Eyes and one of the Foo Fighters’ better albums, One by One. His ear for song structure and flair for capturing the nuances of guitar tone has helped these albums stand out.
Albatross is no different. These aren’t three-minute pop songs. They average about four-and-a-half minutes, juuuust right for a solid rock song with a slightly extended intro and guitar solo. This is still the Big Wreck formula, but Thornley seems to have refined his songwriting chops in the last 10 years. The outliers are the six-and-a-half minute “Control,” a psychedelic, moody Dire Straits jam with blue roots, and the under-three-minute “Rest of the World,” an angry, speaker-shredding riff-rocker.
And the guitars. My god, the guitars… Thornley’s tone is nigh legendary among guitarists who know him. Thanks in part to Raskulinecz’ production, you can almost hear each individual waveform in the growl of distortion that pours forth from songs like “Do What You Will” and “You Caught My Eye.” Honestly, the guitar solo in the latter embodies everything I love about Big Wreck and Ian Thornley’s technically proficient yet immensely soulful playing. Any Led Zeppelin fan would recognize their sleeve-worn influence on “All Is Fair.” Fellow Tweedster Kristoph Jung helped me nail down Zep’s “The Wanton Song” as the direct ancestor, and the guitar tone during the solo unabashedly mimics “Fool In the Rain.”
The album flows nicely, with obvious first single “Albatross” and easy sing-alongs like “Glass Room” and “A Million Days” (a sing-along with a blistering guitar solo? Yes, please!) rounding out the collection. Big Wreck’s albums always seem to close with a quote-unquote “deep,” epic anthem. In Loving… had “Overemphasizing,” whose slide-guitar solo still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. The Pleasure… had “Defined by What We Steal” with its overlapping melodies and soaring vocals. Albatross dials it back with “Time,” an acoustic, vaguely Lennon/McCartney-esque tune with almost lullaby qualities.
Big Wreck was always a “band’s band.” The original line-up was pretty much the perfect blend of trained musicianship and pop songwriting; and they even threw in the occasional odd time-signature to keep the math-rock nerds interested. Many touring hard rock musicians at least know them, and many lament the fact that they’re not more popular. They could easily supplant the Nickelbacks and Shinedowns of the radio world, and we would all be better off for it. If you have any affinity at all for guitar rock, or hard rock n’ roll in the tradition of the 60’s and 70’s greats, you should check out Big Wreck. They really are giants of the genre, even if they’re not well known.
* Actually, the late-1990’s remains my favorite era of Ricci’s career. I mean, have you SEEN Buffalo 66?!
** The first time I saw Big Wreck live, in Cincinnati, Spring 1998, they were travelling with 17 guitars. And I don’t mean 5 or 6 Les Pauls and some Strats. There were 17 completely unique and interesting guitars sitting in a row just off-stage, each one at the ready for whatever necessitated its particular tonal characteristics. I specifically remember a beautiful orange Gibson Tennessean, a 3-pickup Les Paul Black Beauty with gold hardware and a Bigsby tailpiece (dubbed “Elvis” by its owner), Hamer USA 6- and 12-string electrics, a tobacco-burst Les Paul custom, a Parker Fly, an original (not reissue) Danelectro 12-string, at least one Paul Reed Smith 10-top, a pre-CBS Stratocaster, and a couple of custom jobs I couldn’t identify. Their poor guitar tech was really earning his pay. All this was played through Thornley’s gorgeous-sounding, impossibly loud Matchless head and cabinet.