Big Wreck: Albatross

Big Wreck
Anthem / Zoë

Big Wreck may have initially formed in Boston, and have been cited as influences from acts as diverse as American Idol winner David Cook (which probably does nothing to bolster the group’s street cred) and hard rock band Submersed (maybe a little bit better on the cred part), but they are a rousing Canadian outfit that has had their most popularity on Canadian soil (as lead singer Ian Thornley is Canadian). Their 1997 debut album In Loving Memory Of … was a tremendous radio hit in Canada — if I could earn a dime every time I’ve heard “The Oaf (My Luck Is Wasted)” or “Blown Wide Open” on Canadian rock radio (and I don’t listen to much of it largely owing to the fact I have shoddy reception in my apartment), I could easily retire to my own personal Caribbean island paradise. In fact, until a little band called Nickleback came along, Big Wreck was the darling of Canadian radio: In Loving Memory Of … even went double platinum in Canada, and had a fair bit of chart success stateside. The reason that Big Wreck made a name for itself in Canada is largely due to the fact that FM stations are required, as part of their obligation after obtaining their licenses, to play a certain percentage of Canadian material — most new commercial radio stations licensed since 1999 have to play at least 40 percent — and there’s only so much Rush, Tragically Hip, April Wine and Max Webster that a Canadian rock radio station can play, after all. And if you play exclusively new rock, there’s even less to really choose from — and this was especially true in the late ‘90s. (I’m clutching at straws to think of other Canadian rock bands that broke big during that period, and my recollection is that, aside from Tal Bachman, who was a one-hit wonder, it was indeed a particularly dry period for new Canuck rock.)

So, yes, Big Wreck has gotten played to the point of exhaustion, but there’s another reason for that too: Thornley sounds a lot like Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, so much so that it’s hard to distinguish between to the two — something that Canadian radio would naturally gobble up in the void when Soundgarden initially stopped making albums. And Big Wreck has a monumental classic-rock sound that owes a great deal to Led Zeppelin, which also makes the band particularly radio friendly, and I would make the case for the fact that Big Wreck is kinda like Canada’s version of that venerable British hard-rock outfit. And, yes, folks, I’m keenly aware that Rush, in their early days, was dubbed “Led Zeppelin Jr.”. It bares mentioning, in a somewhat ironic move, that Big Wreck is currently signed to Anthem Records, which was the label started in the ‘70s to give Rush more control over the distribution of their albums in Canada.

However, it has been 11 years since we last heard from Big Wreck — the band disbanded after 2001’s poorly promoted The Pleasure and the Greed, and Thornley was particularly dissatisfied with the demands that the major record label they were signed with were making on him and the band. In the intervening years, he went on to form his own band, simply called Thornley, which was successful, too, as they had the backing and support of Chad Kroeger from Nickleback. Still, absence must have made the heart grow fonder, and here we are with another Big Wreck record. Eleven years may be a long layoff, but, if there’s one thing Soundgarden proved, there’s clearly an audience that’s fond for the days of ‘90s alterna-rock and getting back together might be a natural thing to do when there’s a lot of money to be made in reunions. That said, Big Wreck hasn’t reunited in totality — only Thornley and guitarist Brian Doherty are the remaining original members — but despite all of that, Albatross, the group’s third studio album, marks a bit of a return to the big, pummeling sound of the old band with just a bit of added commercial gloss.

And it’s been a pretty big success in their home turf, too — the title track (which was released as a single in November 2011) went to No. 1 on the Canadian rock/alternative chart, the first time the band has pulled off such a feat on a singles chart that I’m aware of, or any chart of any major repute for that matter. A big part of that success is that “Albatross” is such a commanding song, and one that’s clearly a classic Big Wreck track, that it makes one giddy with glee that the band could still sound so good. While “Albatross” is clearly the best song to be found on Albatross the album, there isn’t really a duff track to be found on it, either — though it should be mentioned that all of the other songs do pale a little bit in comparison, which makes Albatross something of an unevenly weighted long player. Still, when Thornley unleashes his Soundgarden-like wail on the title track, it’s a moment one can definitely get behind and raise a fist to. Hearing this, you realize just how great it is to have these guys together again and making music, even if the band is now just a version of the line-up from the Thornley days.

There are, however, other interesting moments and touches to the record. “Control” is just that: all restraint during the lengthy guitar solo section, something that sounds a touch bluesy and psychedelic at the same time. Closing acoustic guitar ballad “Time” is quite hooky and catchy, and proves that the group has some level of versatility. Opener “Head Together” starts out with some harmonized voices “ahh-ing” together, making it the sonic equivalent of a pretty early morning sunrise, before breaking out the big, punishing, iceberg-solid rock riffs. However, that’s not to say that the band isn’t above stealing from their obvious influences every now and them: “You Caught My Eye” has that sludgy Soundgarden circa “Slaves & Bulldozers” feel to it and “All is Fair” even sort of nicks the riff from Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days”. So, Big Wreck is not the most original band on the planet, as they are quite derivative at times and stand in as sound-a-likes and knock-offs of much better known American and British bands of yore. Still, Albatross proves that, even 11 years on, there’s still plenty of gas left in the tank, and what the band does, it does very, very well. The band is clearly having a good time — there’s a masculine giggle that opens “Do What You Will”, for instance — and that sense of fun is infectious and a joy to listen to. Here’s hoping that Albatross doesn’t just satisfy the band’s large army of Canadian fans, or at least the 200,000 Canadians that went out and bought In Loving Memory Of … , but makes them huge American idols as well.

RATING 7 / 10