Freewheeling ensembles and communal combos tend to be both combustible and unpredictable. In most cases, they tend to gather a varied bunch of likeminded musicians with successful solo careers and somehow accommodate each individual’s muse and desires. In the past, they were referred to as “supergroups,” combos that banded artists of varied backgrounds and notable accomplishments and subsequently attracted attention based on the individual resumes.
Whether Broken Social Scene qualifies as the latter is strictly a matter of opinion. A far flung ensemble that counts 18 musicians in their current configuration, few of its members are widely recognized outside their native Canada. Singer Leslie Feist may be the best known of the bunch, although the collective also includes founders and co-conspirators Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew, Emily Haines and Jason Collett, all of whom can boast their own careers of note. Still, with only five albums in Broken Social Scene’s combined catalog over the past 18 years and membership that varies from outing to outing, consistency isn’t necessarily key, or anything followers and fans can count on.
For most observers however, the wait between offerings proves to be well worthwhile. The band’s sound tends to be orchestral, ornate, expansive and psychedelic, with synths, samples, brass and mash ups of guitars, keyboards, percussion and voices adding deep layers to the mix. It’s a panoramic approach to say the least, and it takes an experienced producer like Joe Chiccarelli, who helms this current effort, to try and hold in all together.
Fortunately, choosing Chiccarelli seems an appropriate move, given his experience with other artists that tend to favor a similarly spacious and sprawling style (U2, My Morning Jacket, Manchester Orchestra and Cage the Elephant among them). So while there’s an enhanced exhilaration resounding through songs such as “Halfway Home” and “Vanity Pail Kids,” a sound that finds them soaring, the pulsating tones of the title track and “Protest Songs,” the capricious feel of “Stay Happy,” and the imperial shuffle of “Skyline” predominate, minimizing the chaos and in most cases, making for a delicate mood overall.
Ultimately Chiccarelli deserves credit for reigning in Broken Social Scene’s disparate elements. If he doesn’t always streamline the sound, he does manage to make it appear more contained and cohesive. Given the band’s far-flung approach and considerable number of contributors, that’s a substantial accomplishment in itself. In a symbolic sense anyway, Hug of Thunder lives up to its billing.