I first heard about Canadian goth power-pop unit The Birthday Massacre through a brief article in Rue Morgue for the band’s first official full-length album Violet back in 2005. I was hooked immediately by their dark fairytale concept, which came through in both their music and their inventive visuals. That style continued through follow-up release Walking With Strangers a couple years later, as well as the 2008 Looking Glass EP, and essentially hinged on a “naughty but nice” formula, in which a core of down-tuned, chunky riffage and aggressive, head-banging rhythms is overlaid with spunky ‘80s retro synth-pop leads. Adorable lead singer Chibi parallels this schizoid musical nature by alternating sweet, airy verses with low, close-miked and often heavily distorted choruses. The end result is a potent and totally unique blend of crunching industrial metal and sparkling, hook-filled power-pop, wrapped up in doom-filled lyrics, delivered with a knowing wink.
Equal parts live album and greatest-hits compilation, the band’s new CD Show and Tell – which hits stores today from Metropolis Records – is a yardstick for how effectively they carry off this style in a live situation. Read on to discover what we found…
According to the band, their European tour to promote Walking With Strangersincluded a stop in Hamburg, where they did an intimate show (under 500 people) at the club Knust, during which a German media outfit documented all aspects of the performance. Hearing these recordings, the band concluded that the material was strong enough to serve as a perfect time-capsule of their live show, and they put a plan in motion to mix and master the tracks for what would become the band’s first live album in their ten-year history. (The video footage will be released on DVD this summer, once the band completes the 5.1 surround mixdown.)
Opting for a raw, unpolished sound, the band discarded any overdubs or other sweetening tricks, so what you hear is as close to the live Birthday Massacre experience as you’re going to get short of plunking yourself front-and-center at one of their small-venue gigs. That said, there’s surprisingly little variation between the band’s sound on this recording and that of their studio tracks – in some cases it’s nearly indistinguishable, aside from more dynamic and aggressive vocals. That minor quibble aside, this CD serves even better as a hits compilation than a live document – although I’m betting the forthcoming DVD will make a much stronger impression, due to the band’s energetic and playful stage persona.
Taking the stage (I assume) with a brief hello from Chibi, amid growing applause and the creepy ambient strains of instrumental intro “Before Dark,” the band launches immediately into the lo-fi synth sequence of “Video Kid,” quickly revealing the strength and clarity of Chibi's singing voice, which has steadily improved in precision and confidence since the band's self-released debut Nothing and Nowhere. The slightly more sinister tones of “Lover's End” (one of my faveViolet tracks) are front-loaded with harsh, growled vocals, counterbalanced by a sweetly melodic chorus and torn in half by a creepy Nine Inch Nails-style bridge.Strangers track “Goodnight” is a little less punchy, limiting its dynamic range to fairly bland verses and a wall-of-sound chorus.
“Falling Down” kicks the '80s New Romantic vibe with synched guitar/keyboard arpeggios, Gary Numan-style synth leads and Chibi's forceful approach. After a moody intro, the title track from Violet goes bouncy and playful before the deep guitar dirt of the mid-tempo “Red Stars” plunges the show into darker corners (to the apparent delight of the audience). Popular single “Looking Glass” is predictably not quite as adventurous, but Chibi's impassioned delivery sells the chorus hook nicely.
“Remember Me” is moodier, more low-key ballad, with a surging bass line and a remarkably warm vocal; “Unfamiliar” has a deeper, grander feel, demonstrating the unique chord patterns for which TBM is well-known, and boasts a rich-sounding female/male call-and-response vocal in the chorus. The beefy opening of “Walking With Strangers” telegraphs the solid, punkish power that follows, climaxing with a massive bridge that restates the chorus melody, solidifying it as the most powerful track of the set. “Weekend” is more stately in structure, but it's still big fun, with giant springy synths and a slap-back guitar lead.
“Horror Show” keeps things in high gear, ably carried by Chibi's pure tones, and “Kill the Lights” – one of the best cuts from Strangers – builds gently before exploding into stacked heavy riffs and bell-like keyboards. The first of two encores is the excellently sinister “Blue,” which features Chibi flipping madly back and forth between a fluffy lilt and a demonic grunt (hinting at Skinny Puppy's Ogre), with the instruments cleaving lock-step to the same schizophrenic pattern to the very end. “Happy Birthday” closes the set in elegantly evil style, leaning heavily toward the darkest shades of the TBM spectrum, ending in a coarse, ecstatic explosion of sound.
As closely as these tracks tend to adhere to their original studio versions, the songs collected in this performance are nevertheless a perfect representation of TBM’s quirky style – and a testament to their skills at the mixing board, thanks to a tight, clear and powerful mix that is equally immersive on massive speakers or tiny earbuds. Although it may fall short of greatness as a live album, Show and Tell suggests that its upcoming visual counterpart could very well be impressive to behold. At any rate, we’ll be sure to let you know... and since there's also a new studio album in the works this year, we'll keep our ears to the ground for the latest on that one too.