As we begin the irresistible tilt towards a new century's third chapter, the pursuit of novelty has become a thankless chore. By this point, everything that brings us joy, every work of art that sets off that warm, pinging sensation of beauty, increasingly does so by tapping into an existing motherboard of references and ideas. Even the idea that everything's been done to death is worn to bits, already soft pulp by the time postmodernists started chewing it over. So what's new? Who, in 2016, has the audacity to call themselves 'challenging', or not flinch from having such a label tacked on them? New Fries, at least, whose brief debut album More arrives loaded with more exclamation marks than questions.
Perhaps it's as much a reaction to their home scene in Toronto, where Broken Social Scene and its component galaxy of Arts & Crafts luminaries (Metric, Feist, etc.) dominated in the mid-'00s. Prior to that, it was Paper Bag Records who first signed BSS, and who boasted the noisier roster of the two labels, with controller.controller, Tokyo Police Club, and You Say Party at the forefront of an emergent dance-punk scene. One suspects that New Fries (singer and guitarist Anni Spadafora, drummer Jenny Gitman, bassist Tim Fagan, and occasional keyboardist Ryan Carley) would find themselves more at home in the latter camp, though interviews suggest they have mixed feelings about the kind of dancing appropriate at their gigs: "We definitely want people to dance," Gitman told an interviewer in 2014, before stating that the project was "challenging... we're not making something you want to groove to" the following year. At any rate, they've put together an awkward and unsatisfying LP in More, which undoubtedly qualifies it a challenging listen.
"Gertrude Stein Greeting Card From Pape/Danforth" ushers in the first tentatively danceable moment on the record, energetic bass and drum stabs eventually succumbing to power-drill percussion, before the whole thing transforms into an eerily focused post-punk meditation. Indeed, for a group who pride themselves on being at least 50% "non-musicians", there's a pleasantly measured approach to some of the record's slower moments, building tension until it collapses back into chaos. Then, as the walls finally crash down, the band lie naked in all their experimental, confrontational pomp.
Now, chance and chaos are wonderful elements to bring into your band ethos, particularly in a live setting, but they take a counter-intuitively huge amount of practice and hard work to get right. No Wave (and its modern appropriation) especially looks easy, but perhaps it takes a record like More to realise it isn't. The band first go for the jugular on "90 Year Old Girl", where a tightly-wound rhythm section skitters across a few bars before everyone hits their instruments as hard as they can. Woo! "Mary Poppins' Pockets" offers a return to the danker post-punk scratchiness, and then everyone hits their instruments as hard as they can. Woo! "Butter & Spice Breeze-y" kicks into life with a tightly-wound rhythm section, before... well, I guess the spoiler's out.
The only kind thing left to say about New Fries is that they're probably an absolute riot to see live. But capturing that energy on record takes ingenuity, variety, and either a god-given ability to nail a jam on the first pop or - more likely - an awful lot of editing next to a decent producer in the field. Who were the last group to really capture that free-form jam band thing successfully? No Age, maybe? Regardless, New Fries leave me with the odd sensation of a band who are hard to love at times, but equally hard to hate. I hope they manage to get their shit together, because in between the riot of exclamation marks, there are some intriguing ellipses waiting to be heard more clearly.Release: 25th November 2016, Telephone Explosion