Fucked Up have the most perfect name for any band in rock history. In two words it bluntly states the truth that lies at the heart of the white noise maelstrom - things are different from what you expect.
Right from the start this Toronto band has been pushing musical and conceptual boundaries. Forming ostensibly as a punk band, they swiftly took on hardcore and twisted it into their own version, with a psychedelic edge, unexpected instrumentation like flute and keyboards, and songs stretched to perverse lengths.
They initially released a series of impossible to find 7” singles, all with related artwork that sometimes landed them in trouble, and sometimes looked like they came from the late 60s, when minds were melting with possibilities. There were also albums that continued this theme, each one more bold and adventurous.
Meanwhile, the band’s gigs took on legendary status. Frontman Damian Abraham's nude stage dives and blood-strewn face were becoming a lunatic motif for a take on the hardcore genre that constantly upended assumptions: lyrics about plants and rebirth, moneys to charities for battered women. All the time, there was a sense of a narrative, and even in their loudest moments there was a deep intelligence to their music.
The narrative itself has come to full fruition on their new album, the 78-minute David Comes To Life rock opera, an album set to a play.
In the punk wars the rock opera was held up as the ultimate example of decadent capitalist-pig rock, the kind of opulent, navel-gazing fodder of faded rock dictators clinging onto power by their filthy fingernails and their tediously long records. It breaks the strict rules of punk and is precisely the reason why Fucked Up have presented this mammoth work.
Their whole history has been mashing ferocious but highly thought-out music with brilliant concepts and Situationist philosophy. They have now made their ultimate statement, tying up all the loose ends and question marks in this sprawling, yet consistently brilliant album.
In anyone else’s hands, David Comes To Life might be a disaster, but Fucked Up are in a different lineage – the concept album, after all, was invented by the Kinks or the Pretty Things and even the Who’s huffing-and-puffing Tommy and Hawkwind’s Space Ritual. You could even include some of the Crass albums as concept albums if you really thought about it – darkly powerful works that let you enter a parallel universe.
Though no less monumental, it is far more melodic than their breakthrough The Chemistry of Common Life. There are more female vocals, which work in perfect contrast to Abraham's highly effective wounded bull growl. The band sound tighter and with more space for the flourishes and imaginative songwriting that entwine their love of fey British indie pop with heavy riffing, and some genuinely twisted turns. Perhaps most grippingly, the triple-guitar interplay between Mike Haliechuk, Josh Zucker and Ben Cook has risen to symphonic levels. They channel musicians from Angus Young, Pete Townshend and Noel Gallagher to Bob Stinson and Lyle Preslar with ease and grace.
The result is better than Sham's That's Life, less desperate than SF Sorrow, a finer cultural self reference than Arthur and Village Green, a better tribute to plants than Dopesmoker, and more a unmixable album than Loveless. But you can hear all these musical touchstones in David's multi-layered melodic filigree.
And then there comes the story...
David Comes To Life is a story of lost love, global meltdown, depression, bombs, guilt and madness. Or is it? A modern day morality tale set to the dour backdrop of a British industrial town in the late 70s, it’s a four-part play that follows the dark moods and inner psyche of the titular hero. At the same time, the reliability of the narrator gets called into question, the tables are turned, responsibility shifts, and the story goes meta.
David loses his lover in a bombing during an undisclosed war . The story then turns into an internal dialogue between David and the narrator, Octavio St Laurent. The ensuing plot sees the roles and characters shapeshifting as the dialogue about love and hate battle it out. It’s a fantastically complex concept that somehow works. The mind-altering subject matter sits perfectly with the intense and at times gorgeous music .
Of course you could always ignore the backstory and just listen to a fiercely imaginative, powerful 78 minutes of blistering, melodic rock'n'roll crossed with all manners of psychic weirdness. Your choice.