Associating music with landscapes is an aged practice made more popular by the shuffle function of the iPod, which, if it treats you kindly, presents you with a soothing yet uplifting soundtrack for a long bus ride to nowhere as the world before you wreaks with possibility. Wintersleep, who hail from Halifax in Nova Scotia, with their tranced, jammed-out take on contemporary rock and roll, are a band that could negate the need for a shuffle function. They evoke landscapes with ease. Yet when Wintersleep rolled into the Commodore Ballroom, a dated venue better suited to host wedding receptions, something had to give.
And seeing as how the Commodore has held its ground since 1929, the onus was on Wintersleep to harness the crowd and turn the room into their own musical landscape.
First came buzz band An Horse, a bombastic two-piece outfit from Brisbane, Australia. I closed my eyes early on in their set and heard a harsher Tegan and Sara. Their chunky, thick rhythms quickly brought the crowd out of the tables surrounding the dance floor. They filled their short set with tunes from their debut record Rearrange Beds, leaving the crowd banter for another day. Judging by the rousing applause, the scores of hipsters probably could have done with a longer set from An Horse.
With the dancefloor at capacity and the dedicated crowd hungry for Wintersleep, Johnny and the Moon came next. Unfortunately, they couldn’t manage to find their groove and win over the crowd. What’s more, it was as if the folk rockers didn’t even care. Though the band presented a full-on sound, complete with banjos, saxophones, and keyboards, their uneven set lacked the emotion that An Horse delivered in spades and which Wintersleep pride themselves on. Lead singer Dante DeCaro certainly had opportunities, with transcendent possibilities in their rootsy, earthy sound. Yet it’s difficult to take a band seriously when their lead-singer chews gum during their set. I found myself looking at my watch more than the band.
Wintersleep had their finger on the pulse of the crowd and appeared promptly for their 10.45 pm set. Punctuality is a badge of honor in rock and roll, especially when fans suffered to see a band they have become dedicated to. Wintersleep fans thrive on transcendence, knowing that a humble act, which draws comparisons to Tool and has opened for Pearl Jam, doesn’t come around that often. Wintersleep’s sound is the very embodiment of enigmatic distress.
Opening with five minutes of instrumental madness amidst a screaming crowd, Wintersleep found their groove almost immediately. They quickly worked their way into the tripped out “Miasmal Smoke and the Yellow Bellied Freaks”. Drummer Loel Campbell and bassist Mike Bigelow provided understated yet potent rhythm; amidst far-reaching and sometimes jangly guitars, Campbell and Bigelow were the reason Wintersleep kept the crowd’s collective hearts thumping in unison.
Some have said that Wintersleep make music to fall asleep to. Yet, as the band worked their way through “Encyclopaedia”, a new tune packed with dark harmonies that easily evokes Interpol at their best, I realized that Wintersleep actually make music to dream to. The crowd stood mesmerized by Wintersleep’s tireless work ethic.
Wintersleep kept everyone on their toes, teasing the crowd with a lengthy jam before the shadowy groove of “Laser Beams”. Then, throughout “Oblivion” the band worked in circles, trading lead singer Paul Murphy’s monotone vocals with delicate guitar work. Wintersleep might be the softest hard rock band in Canada’s indie-rock lexicon. There is a sound of desperation in the band’s urgency; a sound that begs listeners to disappear from the venue and free themselves of conventional thought. All this on a Thursday night, no less.
The show peaked during “Weighty Ghost”, easily the most reluctant pop hit the band has released. Aptly featured in One Week, a recently released film dedicated to exploring the vast Canadian landscape, the song’s jangly, sing-a-long chorus and stomp-along drum beat recently propelled the band to mainstream success in Canada. How a subtle, moody rock band elicited fist-pumping out of the crowd was not beyond me but in actuality all around me.
Wintersleep defy pre-conceived notions of how a rock band should look, sound, and act. They beat the stage to a pulp but at the same time keep their distance from each other. They created their own fortress of rock and roll solitude.
By the end of the set, the crowd was drenched in sweat. Many around me looked confused as to how they would find their way home. Wintersleep don’t rely on acoustics or a good looking room to keep their live set afloat. Their music calls for an expanding state of mind. After three albums and constant touring, fans of Wintersleep will no doubt have to clear a little more room in their subconscious for gigs like this one.