If you've been following FEARnet's music coverage over the past couple of years, you've no doubt seen plenty of virtual ink devoted to the gothic rock combo from Canada known as The Birthday Massacre. There's a good reason for that, 'cuz these cats rock it like nobody's business. They first caught my attention with their self-released album Violet back in 2005, which prompted me immediately to check out their debut record Nothing and Nowhere from a few years before. I discovered that even back then the band had fully realized their sound as we know it today: an enticing fusion of '80s synth-pop and crushing electro-metal riffs, with the sweetly seductive vocals of wildly energetic frontwoman Chibi leading the charge. Over the years they've continued to refine this balance of old and new, darkness and light, to create an eminently catchy style of happy, hooky horror that has become their trademark.
Their fourth studio album Pins and Needles drops tomorrow from Metropolis Records, and I was fortunate enough to get an early listen. Come on in and find out what they've got brewing, and while you're here be sure to check out their chilling new video In the Dark...
The Birthday Massacre arrived at their joyfully macabre style very early in their career: they initially dubbed themselves “Imajica” after the Clive Barker novel, but changed it soon after discovering another band had already adopted that handle. They wisely opted instead to take inspiration from the lyrics of their early song success Happy Birthday – and by doing this, even the band's own name contained that now-familiar juxtaposition of innocent playfulness and bloody mayhem.
Throughout their decade-plus history, the band has created a darkly beautiful fantasy world to house their songs – depicted musically through enveloping ambient soundscapes, and visually through whimsical and often horrific artwork. The band's founding members knew at the outset that they wanted to take a mixed-media approach to their music, staging gruesome, Grand Guignol-style live performances and integrating video and animation. While the band gained a cult following in Canada, it was mainly through their surreal and mystifying interactive website that most of the world was introduced to this groundbreaking synergy of styles. That's how I found them, and I've been a fan ever since.
With the breakthrough release Violet (which grabbed the attention of Metropolis) and the follow-up Walking With Strangers (leading to a very well-received international tour), the band continued to enhance and refine their songwriting style while remaining true to their quirky artistic core. One thing that's continued to expand and evolve over the years is the band's skillful, atmospheric production, which they have now taken to the next level in Pins and Needles – thanks in part to the participation of David “Rave” Ogilvie, whose musical credits include macabre music legends like Skinny Puppy, Marilyn Manson and Killing Joke. The result is a heavier, darker and decidedly more aggressive tone that still feels like a completely natural expansion of their sound. The band's recurring themes of melancholy, psychosis, mystery and murder are front and center as always, delivered with the same menacing hooks and ironically sweet melodies that ender them to new and old fans alike... but with this project, the scope of these eerie, bittersweet tales is expanded to a massive scale.
This becomes instantly apparent with the massive opening guitar blast of In the Dark – the album's first single and the subject of a superb video co-directed by the band and Rod Gudiño, creator of Canada's premier horror magazine Rue Morgue. Instead of wasting words explaining how this track sets the tone for the album, how about I just show you instead? Give this vid a play or two and we'll continue from there...
Not only does this short film (and the song itself) capture the band's essence of creepy atmosphere and fragile beauty, it also establishes Chibi's amazing presence behind the mic and in front of the camera – mixing manic, hurricane-force physical energy with a softly touching vulnerability that drives home the song's themes of human frailty and loneliness. “I love some of the bitterness of the lyrics,” Chibi says in her overview of the track, “but to such a pretty melody... I LOVE this song.” The Blade Runner-like synths that open the following track Always give way to a heavy, droning guitar and synth riff, with a colder rhythmic undercurrent and wide sweep that really demonstrates Ogilvie's sinister touch. Horror sound effects open Pale, which then pumps up a warm-sounding music box pattern into a Gary Numan-influenced synth line that ranks among the group's best. It also is one of the first tracks to layer Chibi's vocals with those of bassist OE, which are light and airy but provide a dreamlike undercurrent that suits the track perfectly, making it one of my faves on this record.
Control reasserts the band's potential for maximum heaviness, but it's also one of their best dance-yer-ass-off cuts, with a knockout vocal from Chibi (who even gets a robotic vocoder treatment in a couple of spots), and there's a sweet and gritty lead guitar line in the bridge. “I'll admit to having danced in my kitchen to this one,” Chibi says... and I don't blame her a bit. The haunting but bouncy ballad Shallow Grave is inspired by the notorious murder of Elizabeth Short – better known as The Black Dahlia – and lyrically examines the bitter irony of achieving pop-culture fame after a violent death. It's a natural fit for the band's mirror themes of fearfulness and fun.
The ominously gloomy mid-tempo ballad Sideways, with its lyrics about haunted hallways and highways, shifts the album to a brief pensive period, but it's still strong enough to get your feet stomping. The band remains in that tense mode but gears up for a release of high energy for Midnight, where banshee moans drifting through the opening are ripped open by a lighter-toned but no less manic riff that explodes into a powerful chorus of layered vocal harmonies. Chibi has said she tried to channel the energy of Heart's Ann Wilson for the album's title track – which also features their all-time heaviest guitar riff – and while she personally feels she could never reach that level, I think she comes a lot closer than she gives herself credit.
Two Hearts has a grittier, punkier feel that gives it an angrier instrumental edge, but Chibi's satiny vocal smooths out the rough textures while maintaining a sardonic edge itself, and there's a breathtaking guitar/synth lead that gives way to a soft pre-breakdown vocal interlude before the instruments finally burst in a metallic cacophony. Sleepwalking takes that darkly chaotic feel to a much deeper level, while continually ramping up the feeling of urgency through battering riffs and a pristine, surgically sharp vocal delivery that makes it another solid standout in the band's catalog (and I suspect this will be the next single). The album closes on a suitably dramatic note with Secret – which reportedly went through several revisions before the band picked their final version, but the end clearly justifies the means: it's among the band's most epic works, with soaring keyboard washes and a reverb-soaked wall of guitars, but also maintains a core of intimacy thanks to the delicate but pure vocal harmonies from Chibi and OE.
While much darker and more menacing in tone, strangely enough Pins and Needles is probably The Birthday Massacre's most approachable album, thanks to its two-pronged delivery of indelible melodic hooks and frighteningly massive instrumentation, which has matured in leaps and bounds from wildly entertaining to positively unforgettable. This is hands-down TBM's best work – if you're new to their sound, it's a perfect place to start, but if you love them already (as does your humble author), they'll sink their lovely sharp hooks even deeper into your heart this time around.