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TBTS Reviews: Big Wreck, Albatross

March 15, 2012
Big Wreck, Albatross album art

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.

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13 Comments
  1. March 15, 2012 10:31 am

    Outstanding my friend!

    I concur wholeheartedly! Thank you for putting concisely and in musical terms what I could not.

    http://www.thornleyfans.blogspot.com/2012/01/albatross-track-by-track.html

    • Paul the Geek permalink*
      March 15, 2012 10:49 am

      Wow. I just read your track-by-track. You really nailed each song’s various pedigrees. Good call on the ZZ Top and XTC influences; I think I recognized them subconsciously, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And I’m glad I’m not the only one who smelled Mark Knopfler on “Control”.

      Nice work!

      • March 15, 2012 12:12 pm

        Thanks Paul. I’m kind of a Thornley/Big Wreck savant. I can only “really get” and then write about their music. it’s weird. Thanks again for your write up. It all adds up to promote them. AND DO THEY EVER NEED PROMOTING!!! Great job!

  2. jay permalink
    March 24, 2012 9:05 pm

    Ian Thornley is the most underrated dude ever. He puts on a live show 2nd to none.

  3. Nick Domy permalink
    March 24, 2012 11:24 pm

    The intro to albatross reminds me of a another song and I’m thinking it’s a Zeppelin song but can’t pin point it please help its been driving me nuts for a few days thanks

    • Paul Dmytrewycz permalink*
      March 25, 2012 1:06 am

      I kinda felt that too when I first heard it. But I think it’s just Thornley’s guitar tone on the 12-string that’s reminiscent of a lot of Zep stuff. Jimmy Page was a big fan of the electric 12-string.

  4. Chris permalink
    April 10, 2012 9:19 pm

    For the commenter who can’t nail down the beginning of albatross, I’m thinking Over the Hills and Far Away.

    Control, to me, snacks of Fleetwood Mac meets Like a Stone by Audioslave. And a 3 minute guitar solo at the end of a song in the digital age…what balls!

    This is a quality album to be sure, in an age where albums don’t matter any more! Congrats to a band with a rare example of artistic integrity over industry driven quick profits.

    To be sure, the best live act I’ve ever seen…the only equal (different, but equal due to importance) was PJ on 9/11/11 with Uncle Neil! And that’s counting over 90 live acts (Big Wreck 8 times, 3 since back together, and tix to may 12, VIP passes in Hamilton!)!

  5. howy de glopper permalink
    August 14, 2012 4:19 pm

    Thanks for an honest review by someone who actually listened instead of having a preconceived notion. Fan or not, I am also, I think your spot on unlike another site whose reviewer obviously wrote before listening.

  6. The Grape Soda of Wrath permalink
    May 14, 2013 8:49 am

    Had I not been Toronto on business a year ago (yeah, what took this so long be released in an actual, tangible medium in the States?) and saw a billboard announcing the upcoming release, I would never have known. Anyway, this thing absolutely f**cking kills. My God I have missed this band. A couple of questions:

    1. Is “neo prog” a title slapped on anything that has excellent musicianship, yet lacks 15-minute song suites, multiple passages of 11/8 time, and heavy use of Mellotron? If so, I’ll grant it.
    2. Now that BW has some new material, will we ever find out what a “pocketbook Brando” is? (yes, 16 years later and it’s still bugging me)

    • Paul Dmytrewycz permalink*
      May 14, 2013 10:09 am

      Despite BW being one of my favorite bands of all time, I had no idea this record was coming out until I saw a quickie blurb about it on MetalSucks. It was so random, and I got so excited that I actually had to leave work early!

      To answer your questions:
      1. I think you’ve pretty much nailed “neo prog.” It’s basically prog with less self-indulgence.
      2. I read an interview with Thornley a long time ago where he answered this very question. He said it’s just his throwaway phrase meaning “a bad actor.” He also said that the lyrics for “The Oaf” are utterly meaningless and were written about 5 minutes before they recorded the song. Also, the songs that we’ve all come to know and love are actually the “stripped down” versions; meaning they record a LOT of guitar overdubs that never actually make it to the final mix.

      The more you know…

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