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First Play: Hillsburn, The Wilder Beyond

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Andrea Warner

It’s been a little under two years since Halifax band Hillsburn made its thrilling full-length debut with In the Battle Years. From the title alone, its followup, The Wilder Beyond, sounds as if it will push deeper into the wooded sprawl of its folk-rock roots, but don’t be misled. Hillsburn — comprising vocalists Paul Aarntzen (guitar), Rosanna Burrill (violin) and Clayton Burrill (guitar), as well as Jackson Fairfax-Perry (keyboard) and Clare Macdonald (percussion) — has a new sound and it’s a spectrum, with overlapping layers of indie rock and pop, folk noir, sweet soul, and a whole lot of unusual ’80s influences.

The Wilder Beyond is streaming in the player to your left until its release on Feb. 2. Pre-order the album here.

The album opens with “Strange Clouds,” an anthem of upward mobility that’s as much about the people and circumstances one is escaping as it is the triumph of rising above. The music owes a debt to John Parr’s “Man in Motion,” which was the theme song to St. Elmo’s Fire — also about ambition and figuring out how friends outgrow each other, for better or worse. In juxtaposition, it makes the thematic elements of the lyrics even more interesting, and it’s hard to know whether this is an intentional nod, if it’s subconscious, or entirely coincidental.

The latter seems a bit unlikely, as the album continues to evoke strong ’80s vibes while also being thoroughly contemporary. “Cover it Up” and “Young Desire” have bombastic choruses that soar and surge, like soundtracks to those great, urgent movie moments wherein protagonists chase each other around the city, resolve pulsing in the layers of production. There are even echoes of Bon Jovi’s “Bed of Roses” in the crashing, thunderous chorus of epic romantic ballad, “Born Only to Love You.”

The Wilder Beyond is at its best when Hillsburn digs into its harmonies, like “Sun Ought to Shine,” a warm track that glows and shuffles and slowly builds under the swell of a flourish of brass, keys, drums and strings. It’s also really wonderful to hear activist folk-pop tunes like “Bad Behaviours,” which honors the hard work of LGBTQ people who have come this far, and how much more work there’s still to do. “Our privilege is bridges/ someone before us has built,” Paul Aarntzen sings, before pleading, “Love give me courage now.” It’s a powerful yet subtle moment of catharsis, and in many ways, it, too, is a nod to the ’80s, an era of so much important LGBTQ activism, both visible and invisible.

Hillsburn hasn’t rested on the success of its debut; in fact, there’s something truly inspiring about the eagerness with which the band members are willing to experiment with their art and their sound, the intimacy and expanse of what they’ve crafted with The Wilder Beyond. It’s a thought-provoking, ambitious second act, and it only whets the appetite further for what’s to come next.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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