So I know it’s been a couple of months since I blogged anything, but to be fair, my wife and I did just have a baby, and I’ve been both working and studying full-time this semester.
But hopefully now that the semester’s over and the holiday season is fast approaching, I shall have a lot more time for writing, which includes blogging.
Today, as you may guess from the title and album cover above, I wanted to talk about Marianas Trench’s new album Astoria and why it’s my top pick for best album of 2015.
Before I get into everything I love about the album though, I feel I should throw in a quick parental warning – which I can totally do as a new parent – about the language on the album. Tracks 1, 3, 11, 13, and 17 all have swear words, (which I shall be editing out myself for my family) so if you’re averred to hearing things like that (and don’t have the music editing know-how) maybe just skip those tracks.
As a bit of background if you’re unfamiliar with the band, Marianas Trench are a Canadian pop-punk-rock band who have been making music the last sixteen years or so. Lead-singer-songwriter Josh Ramsay fronts the band, but all four members sing, and the band is known for throwing some Beach Boys-style harmonies into their songs every now and then.
Astoria (2015) is Marianas Trench’s fourth studio album. Their previous albums were Fix Me (2006), Masterpiece Theatre (2009), and Ever After (2011), which although I didn’t hear until 2012, was definitely my top album of that year, and possibly 2013 as well.
Honestly, in my songwriter’s opinion, Ever After was one of the best crafted albums I’d heard in a long time. It was what an album should be. A cohesive story. A journey. A gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) with both lyrical and melodic motifs recurring throughout to thread it together. I didn’t really think their next album could ever live up to it.
I was dead wrong.
Not only does Astoria live up to Ever After but, in my opinion, it surpasses it.
So Josh Ramsay had been in a relationship with an actress named Amanda McEwan since 2009, consequently, Masterpiece Theatre and Ever After were all about her. Somewhere there in 2013/2014, they got engaged, and after Ever After and producing Call Me Maybe, Marianas Trench were now an arena band and everything was going amazingly, but Josh found himself creatively stuck. The band had released a small EP between albums, but the song juices just weren’t flowing for Josh and an album just wasn’t coming like it was supposed to.
Then his Mum got really sick. And he and Amanda broke up. So the wedding got called off. And Josh ended up in hospital with Pancreatitis. And then at the lowest of lows, and album burst forth, and in his own words, he couldn’t get the ideas down fast enough.
The whole experience with its highs and lows felt so cinematic to Josh, like a coming-of-age story that he wanted the entire album to have cinematic coming-of-age quality and feel to it. Since his favourite coming-of-age movie growing up had been The Goonies, set in Astoria, Oregon, they named the album Astoria and Josh wrote an epic album opener and closer in which “Astoria” is both a substitute for the name Amanda, a place in which this epic coming-of-age experience is taking place, and a name for the experience/story itself.
To reinforce this central cinematic theme, he pulled apart epic 80s songs and albums “like Thriller and Pet Sounds” to give the whole album an 80s arena rock feel. Songs on the album bring back sonic ideas from classics by Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Pink Floyd, The Beach Boys, and many others.
Not stopping there, the whole album was recorded entirely on instruments and tech from the 80s, (with modern editing and mastering obviously) and Josh even went so far as to only wear vintage 80s clothing during the recording process.
Josh even composed segments of film score to act as filler pieces between songs on the album, and sometimes to fill out songs as well, which were all performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
But more than all those cool little pieces of thematic live-action poetry, what really makes this album, at its most basic level, great, is songwriting and lyrical prowess therein. Lines like, “what doesn’t make me stronger kills me” and “I sat down at the piano to play some of your songs, you don’t know how the words go, but you sorta’ sang along, and I’m here to remind you what’s lost is never gone”, both tickle the twist-loving portion of my brain and wrench the strings in my heart that have known what its like to experience heartbreak.
But what I think is the ultimate show and tell of how great this album is from a songwriting perspective is the bridge of Dearly Departed, (a play on both marriages and deaths/endings in and of itself) in which Josh references at least 11 other songs from his two previous albums, all of which were obviously about Amanda, and does so so very smoothly that I only really picked up a couple of them errantly in the first few listen-throughs.
My shock when I finally “got it” was literally comparable to being kicked in the face, except that instead of pain, I felt like I’d been made victim to the greatest, most satisfying practical joke of all time.
So I’m giving Marianas Trench’s Astoria four and a half goonies out five (if weren’t for the swearing, I would give it five) and can hardly recommend it more as my top pick for the year 2015.
Honestly, the only way it could be a better all-encompassing journey was if the whole album were a feature length film-clip (back to back with the whole Ever After album, of course) that I could experience in the cinema in 5.1 surround sound.
Heck, they could throw Masterpiece Theatre in there too and we’d get the whole story. It would be like a modern opera from the perspective of a single central protagonist.
And it would be epic.