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First Play: Broken Social Scene, Hug of Thunder

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Melody Lau

Broken Social Scene can be overwhelming, for its fans and for its members.

The Toronto band has built a family, a community and a fanbase over nearly two decades, on its galvanizing sounds and messages of togetherness. It’s a feeling that’s often shrouded in metaphors, endearingly encapsulated by leader Kevin Drew’s passionate onstage monologues and delivered through upwards of 17 members. To be sure, there are moments across the band’s first four albums where the ever-changing outfit’s ambitious ideas and staggering emotion have slipped into cloying and ostentatious territory. But, when it all aligns just perfectly, in a swooping burst of horns or a satisfying culmination of harmonies, it can be a thunderous form of embrace.

This is, essentially, what Drew and members Brendan Canning and Charles Spearin try to put into words when asked about the title of their first album in seven years, Hug of Thunder. It’s tough to verbally explain a feeling, an established motto at this point, when it’s become such an unspoken sense of camaraderie between its members. But this ardent place of positivity that the band now guards and promotes so fiercely is not easy to maintain.

“It was on its way to imploding,” Drew admits, citing the band’s ramped-up intensity over the span of its first few records, and the reason they called a hiatus back in 2011 — a term that almost every member now refutes.

Spearin refers to that period of time between albums as a “comfortable pause.” Whatever it was, though, it allowed for people to be, as Canning puts it, selfish and pursue their own passions, musical or otherwise. Many of the members released solo albums and worked on side projects, oftentimes calling on fellow bandmates to play on each other’s records.

"For me, it was wonderful to still be friends and hang out — the pressure of being in a band was gone,” Drew notes.

But then the November 2015 Bataclan attacks in Paris happened. The violence hit Drew and his friends particularly hard because of where it happened: at a music venue during a concert.

“Charles called me after the horrific events in Paris and said, ‘I want to play live again,’” Drew recalls, although Spearin admits that he doesn’t exactly remember this moment. “We all felt that way, and I think so many people did because it was so close to our lives.” But Canning took that sentiment one step further. If they were going to come together again, they needed new music “not only for us, but for the people.”

Hug of Thunder marks a proper, full-house reunion for the band, a process that found the members “building together, from the ground up,” as Drew says. “We’re all seeing this return as just everybody wanting to be here, and we were so grateful that everyone finally came onboard.”

This meant contributions from members who were less present on the band's last album, Forgiveness Rock Record, such as Leslie Feist and Emily Haines. Broken Social Scene also welcomed a new member, Ariel Engel, bandmate in AroarA and married to longtime BSS guitarist Andrew Whiteman.

“With Broken Social Scene, we are, in a way, a great averaging of ideas which doesn’t sound too positive but maybe the sum is better than the parts, in some ways,” Spearin says. “It’s a huge effort.”

While Spearin is severely underplaying the merit of the parts — just think of the many affiliated acts that revolve around the Broken Social Scene universe — he nails the part about the sum. Hug of Thunder is a tremendous celebration of each member and their strengths. Drew has said that he took more of a backseat approach to this record, giving space to other voices, and it pays off, enriching the fabric of the band throughout its 12 new songs.

By the time Broken Social Scene reached its boiling point six years ago, the band became an amorphous entity. It had a definitive sound, but it was tough to tease apart the individuality of its members within it. On Hug of Thunder, songs jump from acoustic anthems to pummeling basslines, a wild but more distinct display of talents that shine best when Engel takes the mic (“Stay Happy”), or when Canning’s bass is simple and effective (“Hug of Thunder”), or when drummer Justin Peroff’s rhythms aren’t crowded with walls of guitars (“Protest Song”).

There’s joy on every track, and that’s even reflected in the band's recent live shows. “We realized that we were good friends and that we were doing this and we can radiate that from the stage,” Spearin says, of the band’s time on tour so far this year. “That’s the only thing we have to offer.”

After six years, what they have to offer is more than enough.