Call it what you will, death disco, dance punk, what have you, but the current revival of dance-oriented post punk is one of the more exciting trends to come about in recent years, a real shot in the arm for rock music in general, a genre whose sales been stagnating lately. Whether it’s The Rapture’s fantastic “House of Jealous Lovers”, !!!’s ingenious, nine- minute funkfest “Me & Giuliani Down By the School Yard”, or the disco-meets garage rock stomp of Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”, it’s fun to see all these young bands creating such energetic, catchy, and above all else, danceable guitar rock, proving that you don’t need synthesizers and samples to create great dance music.
If everyone else is doing it, why can’t Canada? Toronto, Ontario isn’t known for setting any major trends in popular music, but they can jump on the indie hipster bandwagon with the best of them. So it’s no real surprise that, in the wake of this current indie rock trend, that the Canadian city has their own homegrown dance punk act the locals could drool over. Controller.controller, for the past year, has been hailed as one of Canada’s finest indie acts, their intense, atmospheric live shows in Eastern Canada generating a fair share of buzz. Now signed to Paper Bag Records, the label responsible for such stalwarts as Broken Social Scene and Metric, they’re ready to bring the music to the masses. And you know what? The hype from the Toronto media is completely justified.
History is the band’s first official release, and while the seven-track, 24-minute CD doesn’t quite make history, it’s a record that definitely pays homage to the past. Like the best post punk/new wave bands of the late ’70s and early ’80s, controller.controller’s music sounds stiff, yet propulsive. Drummer Jeff Scheven provides an incessant, insistent disco beat (like PIL’s seminal “Death Disco”), guitarists Colwyn Llewllyn-Thomas and Scott Kaija alternate from miming the melodic synth lines of Depeche Mode and the slicing, angular guitar licks of Gang of Four, and the cool, yet seductive Nirmala Basnayake delivers half spoken, half sung vocals, in the same style as The Slits. As opposed to a band like The Rapture, whose Robert Smith-style caterwauling tends to grate after a while, with Basnayake at the helm, controller.controller are on to something really good here. As she brashly sings at one point, “Let’s rewrite your history.”
The new CD is quick, relentless, and instantly memorable, not letting up for one minute. The title track is dark and hypnotic, Basnayake sounding both coy and threatening, Llewellyn-Thomas and Kaija playing off each other, trading jarring riffs, while bassist Ronnie Morris carries the song with his melodic, fluid bassline. “Silent Seven” has more of a Joy Division feel in the verses, with the chiming, gloomy guitars and the song’s murky lyrics (“So if we’re good/ This means of course that things can only go wrong”), before exploding into a boisterous chorus, not to mention a sly nod to Rockwell’s 1984 hit “Somebody’s Watching Me”. The short, ferocious “Bruised Broken Beaten” is straightforward post punk, while Basnayake turns in her best vocal performance on the searing “Watch”.
As good as those songs are, two tracks offer glimpses at how great controller.controller can be. “Bruised Broken Beaten” combines a jittery guitar riff, a punchy beat, and the unlikely rave-up chorus of “V-one-five-point-eight-five” (according to the band, it’s a medical chart code for a certain sexual dysfunction). The fabulous “Disco Blackout”, though, is the CD’s standout; sounding at first like a Strokes knock-off, it quickly veers off into another direction, the band delivering a dark, pounding sound, the most intense they’ve sounded on the record, as Basnayake sneers away, seeming to address her American neighbors: “You wanna hear about parallels/ How about the 49th/ What keeps you down there?/ What keeps you up at night?”. Evoking the feeling of a sweltering summer night, she then sings, “This city’s getting so hot/ They’re gonna cut the lights,” perhaps an allusion to the great Eastern Seaboard blackout of 2003, repeating the line like a mantra. Much like The Walkmen’s great single “The Rat”, it feels so tightly wound, on the verge of frantic, the kind of exhilarating music that can incite an entire room full of people to move.
History greatly benefits from its 24-minute length; it’s brief, to the point, and monotony doesn’t set in. Whether or not controller.controller is able to build on the great promise of “Disco Blackout” remains to be seen, but when you hear this superb debut, you’ll realize this likely won’t be much of a problem. Right now, they are indeed the band to watch north of the border.