By David DeRocco
A staged terrorist attack on the United States blamed on Muslim extremists kills the President and wipes out most of Congress. In the resulting chaos, a totalitarian Christian theocracy rises to overthrow the U.S. government, suspending the Constitution under the guise of restoring order and systematically stripping away civilian rights, especially those of women.
The above scenario sounds highly plausible in 2015 given U.S. paranoia over brutal anti-Western Islamic jihadist groups like Isil and the never-ending universal female fight for equality; but it’s actually the very prophetic plot of Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale. That dark tale of female subjugation at the hands of government oppressors is not a subject you’d expect to hear in the typically vapid pop songs of Demi Lovato or Katy Perry. It is, however, the inspiration for a brilliant new concept album by Montreal progressive-folk indie band Lakes of Canada.
The band’s new album, Transgressions, is a remarkable achievement for not only managing to do the powerful subject matter justice, but also because of the circumstances that inspired the recording. Lakes of Canada lead guitarist and singer Jake Smith wrote Transgressions in the aftermath of the death of his mother, who was murdered in her home in 2010. While enduring the grim task of organizing her belongings he came across her copy of The Handmaids Tale, and was instantly captivated by Atwood’s masterful depiction of a society where extreme misogyny and violence towards women is the accepted norm.
“It’s crazy how relevant that book is today,” said Smith, who joins guitarist Tim Dobby, bassist Greg Halpin, keyboard Sarah Morasse and drummer Conor O’Neil in Lakes of Canada. “If anything, it’s more relevant today than it was in the 80s. It’s unfortunately a relevant problem, not just in Islamic countries but in other nations around the world. The reality is that violence against women and the oppression of women, and sexism in general, are still huge problems in the US, in Canada, in the U.K. Unfortunately because those are still problems they need to be talked about. As a band we believe in this crazy idea that women are people and don’t deserve that kind of treatment.”
Pouring his fragile emotions into his art was definitely a cathartic process for Smith, who found himself channeling what he’d read into songs like “The Handmaids Tale Part 1,” The Sons of Gilead” and “Eden.” His bandmates were equally inspired by the songs, and they actually suggested the idea of a full-blown concept album.
“Music has always been very therapeutic to me, and especially since my mother’s death,” said Smith. “There’s something really validating and really nice about channeling those things into a piece of work as opposed to just being sad. Not to say I wasn’t during parts of the writing process. But it felt good to at least be doing something with those emotions rather than just swimming in them.”
The resulting 12 tracks on Transgressions could easily have wound up an anthology of dark, morose songs in the hands of lesser musicians. To their credit, Lakes of Canada – a prog/gospel/rock/folk inspired quintet whose musical hybrid is equal parts Strawbs and Mumford and Sons – have managed to create a vast musical landscape rich in orchestral folk-rock and lush choral harmonies that hopeful rather than depressing. Songs like “The Fall,” with its thundering drums and inspired vocals, the “Ghost Riders in the Sky” vibe of “The Sons of Gilead” and the uplifting four-part harmony of the title track make this Jace Lasek-produced (Arcade Fire) album the best thing to come out of Montreal since smoked meat.
Smith says the aurally optimistic sound of the concept album was more deliberate than it was organic.
“I definitely put a lot of intention into that given the subject matter we were writing about. I think it would have been very easy for it to be way too sad. We really didn’t want that, “A”, because it’s not that enjoyable to listen to and, “B,” it’s not very marketable either. You need to have the message in there but you also need a little ray of sunshine, a ray of hope, or else people won’t deal with it.”
By their very nature concept albums are grandiose, defined by lavish production and driven by studio technology and multi-track recordings. For an up and coming indie band, producing a full-blown concept album presents two distinct challenges: expecting Millennials with limited attention spans to listen to it in its entirety, and then being able to competently present what they produced in a studio during a live performance. Smith is entirely confident in Lakes of Canada’s ability to perform Transgressions live – something the band will be doing November 26th at Taps on Queen in Niagara Falls.
“That was actually something we thought of during the entire pre-production phase of the album before we went into the studio. We went to a chalet with all of our gear and were like putting finishing touches on the album for a four day weekend and really putting a lot of time into it, thinking that we wanted to make it this huge grandiose thing but we also wanted to be able to reproduce it live. We succeeded. We’re fortunate enough to have four people in the band that sing, so all the harmonies you hear on the album we do live. And we’re also fortunate enough that everyone in the band plays a multitude of instruments. Our stage set up is a bit insane, but we can reproduce everything on the album except in places where we have extra people singing.”
With the release of their second full-length CD, the members of Lakes of Canada are hopeful the critical acclaim and growing fan-base can help them overcome the typical challenges faced by every indie band trying to make a career of music in Canada.
“Our challenges are similar to most bands,” said Jake. “Trying to keep yourself motivated in the face of a transitioning industry where it’s really difficult to make money unless you’re in the top one percent of musicians. You have to believe in what you’re doing. This is our third big tour and we’re actually making money for the first time. Usually it’s like, hey, we broke even. It can be tough to keep your head above water. Making money makes putting in the long hours so much easier.”
The great reviews that Transgressions is receiving, along with the band’s subsequent tour, may finally bring Lakes of Canada the international success they’re targeting. For Jake Smith, it’s a bittersweet conclusion to an emotional period in his life, but as a songwriter he feels it’s been a great exercise in driving awareness of some important social issues.
“As artists we have a real power to spread a certain message and a certain word. If you’re doing anything involving lyrics or words, I think it’s really important to use that power and to use it responsibly. I think it’s actually starting to become a bit of a trend in the music scene. It’s really easy to just turn on Netflix and escape from the world and we all need to do that from time to time. But we also need to face the really ridiculous crap that is still piled up at our door.”