Big Wreck – Ghosts – an album review

Big Wreck – Ghosts (2014) – an album review

Waitaminute, didn’t these guys release a new album, what, last week or something? No? It was 2012? Dayam, time flies. Anyway, I did a review of Big Wreck’s 2012 comeback album, Albatross, and the very next week, (sorry, I’m still not over the time dilation thing, here), they have a new album out. Let’s see if it measures up.

Big Wreck Ghosts cover

tl;dr Version: Big Wreck? 11 out of 10. Automatic proprietary scoring system for any album released by Ian Thornley, really, but Big Wreck deserves it.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Okay, you got me. Yes, I still have to review the album, and no, I’m not going to start ranking the albums. These reviews are still free, you know. Get your own frame of reference, already. But yeah, new Big Wreck album, and only two years after their last. It’s a good time to be a music fan, I tell you.

Boring Version: The thing is, new Big Wreck albums are, by their very nature, worth celebrating. This is a band that was pretty much killed stone dead in the prime of life by an ambivalent record company that couldn’t be bothered to support a great act. That they got back together in any configuration and are making great music again, supplied by one of Canada’s premier singer/songwriter/guitarists, is nothing short of a modern day media miraclw. You have to appreciate that, whether you’re a Big Wreck fan (like me) or not, there aren’t that many truly legitimate comeback stories in rock and roll that don’t involve gobs of money, coming out of retirement, coming out of drug rehab, or making a tribute to someone’s death.

So, where did we leave off? I did a review of Albatross back in 2012. It was pretty well received. I probably ended it with ‘I hope they make another album really soon’, or words to that effect. Guess Christmas came early for me, huh? 😉

Thing is, I’ve had this album for a couple of months now, but haven’t really had time to review it properly. I still don’t have time, but it’s almost 7 AM, I’ve been awake since 4AM thanks to our new kitten, I have my Beats by Dre Studio headphones on, and I can’t have any scotch this early in the day without my wife looking at me funny, so, let’s write a record review instead, shall we?

THE REVIEW:

A Place To Call Home starts super slow, with a moody, detuned guitar riff that eventually gets a wall of Brian May guitar harmony that brings in the meditative vocal chorus which is the antidote to the intro of Albatross, until the chorus proper kicks in and lifts to a great place before shifting to become a gritty rock verse. The verse is good. The chorus is classic Big Wreck/Thornley material. It’s also a great set-up for the album, despite being mid-tempo. The intro riff returns to escort us out and into the rest of the album. I wish I could say more about this tune, as it’s an important one for the album, and I’ve heard it several times at this point. I really like it, but it’s such a meditative number, it’s hard to compare it to anything else they’ve done.

I Digress opens big and brash and dirty, starting as it means to go on. It’s got more in common with Thornley than Big Wreck, but it’s a great song, nonetheless, with at least two or three great hooks holding it all together (which, if you know BW/T music, is pretty much Thornley’s MO in a nutshell; Hooks! And damned be he that first cries, hold, enough!) There is this great little bridge that stretches the chorus over a chasm of space, and then builds back intot he gritty riff, giving Ian a chance to wail in classic BW fashion, before going into a classic piece of guitar work. Two parts Jimmy Page, two parts Randy Rhodes, and and very articulate, right up tot he Brian May wall-o-guitar finale.

Ghosts is the title track, and it’s got a strangely familiar ring, if you know your Canadian AOR rock from the early 80s (Turn Me Loose, Ian? 😉 ). Ian has never been afraid of stealing a classic riff or two, so long as he can warp them to his will, and this song’s verse is no exception. It also gives new bass player Dave McMillan a chance to shine with a classic sinuous bass line that carries the tune while the guitars work their magic over the top. It goes out on the bass groove, with more wailing guitar in a low, minor key, all the while that metronomic rhythm guitar plucks away at the bass strings. Great song, and a great title track.

My Life is carried in on a big piano riff, and just soars. The production on this one is spacey and huge. It feels like classic Big Wreck without actually sounding like any Big Wreck tune you already know. I guess that’s the best way to describe the shift in Ian’s writing: it’s more economical than it was in the 90s, but it’s still incredibly melodic and moving. This is a wonderfully expansive piece, and the guitar solo soars in Jimmy Page glory.

Hey Mama is a deep Mississippi Delta blues number with some sinister Ozark-meets-Bayou vocals. The tune has even more in common with classic Led Zeppelin than the last few tracks, and you can definitely hear it in the instrumental section, which sounds like it fell off the back of Physical Graffiti. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think I was listening to a Tea Party album (soon). Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this tune is derivative. Anyone who has read my reviews before will know that my musicologist tendencies don’t go so far as to dismiss ernest homage, when done right, and this, ladies and gentlemen, is note perfect.

Diamonds strums in like a boat on a river, again evoking Led Zeppelin, this time along the lines of II or IV, until the soaring verse arrives, when Ian’s voice carries it to someplace slightly more… positive? It’s uplifting, even though the lyric is contemplative and reflective, discussing a relationship in some decline. It’s a classic Big Wreck song. It just head faked you with the Zeppelinesque intro. This one could have been right off of The Passion and the Greed. The slide guitar solo lilts and soars in that way that slide rarely does it its articulation. Beautiful song that grows on you with repeated listens.

Friends floats in with some mandolin playing quietly over an AM radio sound effect, until the main riff intrudes and clubs it like a baby seal. It’s another massive Zepplinesque riff, but the song structure and verse/chorus are pure Big Wreck. That double neck with the mandolin that Brian Doherty picked up comes in pretty handy on this number. Such a great groove. The rhythm section has really melded into a fine-tuned machine, switching genres and tempos and rhythms without missing a beat. The instrumental section presages the outro, which comes back after the reprise of the bridge and chorus, and takes us out on a great wave of disjointed guitar histrionics worthy of a King Crimson solo. Very nice, in a not so nice way.

Still Here washes in on a waves of distorted sustain joined by an echoey guitar riff that ushers in a troop of marching guitars, before making way for the bass and a load of chiming acoustic guitar and washy. Very evocative vocal arrangements and performances, again sounding for all the world like a classic Big Wreck song. This is the longest song on the album, but it doesn’t really feel like a long number. The melodic groove and hook are so compelling, it just won’t let go of you. This one is growing on me. Big wall of washy, 90s alt-rock guitars, supported by that great combo of bass and drums that gives it a quality that those no-fi bands didn’t have. Nice hand percussion punctuates the outro.

Break slides into first with a slow waltz of a rhythm with even slower, breezier guitars, and an elegiac chorus. Who do they think they are? U2? 😉 Just teasing. It’s a gorgeously-produced number, just this side of overdone, but in a welcome fashion. If my ballads were half this lush, my wife would smile more. The instrumental is another Zeppelinesque piece, and welcome. There is a bridge that takes us back to the instrumental section, and it’s just as good the second time around. Nice bridge hook, too. Another quiet refrain, just a bit of keening guitar underneath an acoustic, with Ian over top, and then the rhythm section slowly meanders in. Big finish, and if this were Albatross,it would probably be the closing number.

Off and Running is all classic rock, like something off of a Lynard Skinnard/Allman Brothers album, complete with Hammond through Leslie cabinet. Not quite Southern Rock, but a very close approximation, and perhaps even an improvement, for me. It eventually breaks into a huge Bonhamesque drum-heavy bridge section that just takes the song to a whole other place. The return of the verse/chorus is warm and heartfelt, and just makes you feel good for having been on the journey, even if it feels like a trip down a long open country road. It feels like the summers of my childhood at my grandparents. Very nice feeling. Hammond in church organ mode for the outro.

Come What May is a return to Thornley territory, and not a moment too soon. This album has already ended twice, but we’re going for a distance record, folks, so it’s time for some big guitar hooks and aggression. Gorgeous chorus with all the trimmings. The more of these I hear, the more I think Ian’s sensibilities span a lot of the same music collection I own. The vocal arrangement is straight out of the Beach Boys-by-way-of-Yes. And then it ends like something off of a strong Foo Fighters track, all hard edges and switchblade sharpness on that intro riff.

War Baby is a classic 80s Tom Robinson social commentary pop song redux. I liked the original, though it hasn’t aged well. The Big Wreck treatment makes it otherworldly.

A Place To Call Home (Reprise) bookends the album with big acoustics and some resonating madness, along with an entire wall of Ian Thornley singing. It’s an old trick that gave classic 70s albums the patina of Progressive Rock grandeur, and fell out of favour in the last couple of decades. For me, it’s a welcome element, and makes me think I must have missed something revelatory about this album, like the subtle underlying theme of the album that just puts it square in the middle of my taste zone. Well, whether there is one or not, the Beatles taught us that reprises make albums smarter, and this one is, too.

SUMMARY
Well, folks, we have the second album in the rebirth of the band called Big Wreck. They’re still not charting the way they should be. This stuff isn’t quite as immediate as 1997’s In Loving Memory Of…, or some of Ian’s solo work, but it’s a finely-crafted and produced album with layered performances and lyrics that invite repeated listening. I know this album works, because a girlfriend of ours borrowed the album off of me back in June, and I only just got it back a few days ago (September). It’s a great album. Please go out and buy it. Let this band know they count. Don’t let them fall apart due to record industry indifference again.
And enjoy.

© 2014 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

2 Responses to “Big Wreck – Ghosts – an album review

  • I’m thrilled to see an American talking about this band. They’re such great talents and this isn’t even my genre (by a long shot) but I just love this band. I hope they get more love and people buy this record.

    • They ARE a fantastic band. Sadly, I’m not sure about how they’re doing Stateside, as I’m a Canadian, too. But thank you for visiting, nevertheless.

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