Photo by Matt W. Smith
Winter has come to Ottawa, smothering us in her immense white wings and piling up snowy drifts that look you in the eye as you walk down the street. We all knew she would return, and so some of us made plans. Rock and roll seemed as good an idea as any to me.
Step inside Pressed and one is presented with a sandwich shop that refuses to be known as such. Recent renovations have removed half of the bar and made way for a cozy, couch-cornered nook at the far end of the stage. The eight o’clock door time was strictly adhered to and it wasn’t long before the narrow room was thick with bodies. Coats were thrust beneath church pews, acquaintances were met or avoided, and the bar was rushed.
Shoe Blog were the first band slated, a new act in town playing their third show. With brief snippets they displayed during their soundcheck, an attraction was built and the crowd approached the stage. Shoe Blog are a quartet consisting of bass, drums, guitar, cello, and vocals, and with these elements they create a landscape of psychedelic rock and roll. It is impossible not to speak in the geographical when describing Shoe Blog. They explore a musical topography of progressive and psychedelic styles, borrowing textures and feelings from a vast array of influences; the steady highways of German motorik, the foggy drones of West Coast psych, the craggy mountains of Beefheart, and delicately draw us a map to follow through their world.
Their set was a tightly constructed series of dynamic moments; songs created quiet, entrancing grooves that were stretched in every direction, spiking and rising as guitar chords collided with the crash of the cymbal and sent sparks through the air. Vocalist Rachel Weldon (who also promotes shows through Debaser) chooses small phrases to repeat in mantric obsession, often rising in intensity and subtly inverting and re-arranging her lyric to create a cyclical sense of hypnosis. Her voice bounces off of drummer Ben Deinstadt’s impeccable rhythmic control – he is a fulcrum of energy for the band, the roots that ground Shoe Blog and prevent them from spiraling into the sky. Like the lyrics, the rhythms are always constant, always changing.
They ended the set opposite how they started, with a blistering crescendo of free rock, while Weldon quoted and distorted Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ ending immediately and wounding their audience with the silence. The word ‘encore’ was on the tip of my lips.
Next to take the stage were Toronto’s Long Branch, currently on tour and supporting a 7” single. The quartet play a haunting and often heavy form of Canadian roots rock. There is a distinct whiff of pine smoke to their sound, but they separate themselves from too much familiarity with a triple guitar wall of notes and a beautifully elastic and driving rhythm section. Four voices provide plaintive close harmonies and drift through the thick, often grungy sound – think CSNY transplanted to 90’s Seattle. On paper it seemed a strange choice, sandwiched between the two other, more confrontational acts, but it immediately became apparent how good a fit Long Branch really were in the evening overall.
After Shoe Blog’s tickle and piquing of the imagination, and before Bonnie Doon’s eardrum annihilation, we took a brief sojourn through the somber haze of a dewy Ontario morning, finding time to stop and rock out beneath the waving pines.
Swiftly, before allowing the Ottawans to respond to their biological clocks and head home, the evening’s headliner Bonnie Doon unfurled a massive curtain of doom rock around the perimeter of the room and sealed us all inside the sightless dark of a punishing bass riff. Bonnie Doon is a Scottish phrase denoting the picturesque hills and green fields of the old countryside though there is absolutely nothing pastoral about the Ottawa quartet’s sound. The huge attack of the twin bass and the steely stabs of guitar speak of noisy traffic and concrete walls livid with art and the shouted, yelping vocals are of one desperate to be heard above the din of the crowd.
Their style is a self-described ‘sludge punk’, which is too accurate an appellation to avoid quoting. Their sound pits the high-pitched frequencies of vox and guitar against the rumbling murk of their bowel-loosening low end. Vocalist Lesley Demon shrieks like a corpse re-animated – an uncanny, paranoid howl that is confrontational, at times frightening and totally unfettered by the limits of the human throat. It is the exact voice ones does not want to hear from the shadows of a darkened crypt. Place this voice upon the primal splatter of ripped up fuzz bass and wild, driving rhythms and one has the perfect antidote to February’s placid poison. Listen to two brand new tracks that the band just released below.
The thermal energy generated that night by the three acts was conducted through the venue and rose into the sky, causing the temperatures to climb and the rain to fall, reducing the banks and ridges of snow to a cold, grey soup. The city may now be slowly flooding, but it was all worth it.