THE HIGH DIALS CD launch at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, August 28). $8. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
The grand-scale concept album is making a comeback. Besides the Flaming Lips' man-versus-machine masterpiece Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (a hit on too many hipster best-of-2002 lists to count), there's Grandaddy's Sumday, the Mars Volta's Deloused In The Sanatorium and now, closer to home turf, A New Devotion (Rainbow Quartz), the latest opus by Montreal-based British Invasion channellers the High Dials.
The Dials' sweeping epic follows a poor sod named Silas through his struggles with existential angst. Set to a lovely jingle-jangle soundtrack that sounds like a mash-up of hooks from the Beatles, the Byrds, the Kinks and the Who, Silas spends the length of the album on a quest to escape the oppressively evil city.
With lyrics about machines that give life, TV and telephones, A New Devotion sounds suspiciously like a parable about the media-driven music industry. So I'm not surprised when singer/songwriter Trevor Anderson points to the biz as one inspiration.
"So much money gets pumped into marketing one song that doesn't have much depth, while the rest of the album is filler to cushion that one single the record company wants to promote," offers Anderson on the line from Montreal.
"It's been really, really bad like that for 10 years, and we're not seeing the same kind of quality in albums. So it's natural that people feel
they want to do something different from that." Since OK Computer, Anderson's noticed a lot more conceptual albums, but he doesn't know why a lot of bands shy away from the term.
"We don't hide it. It's got a storyline in it, so why deny the name? A concept album is something that probably goes back to the beginning of this band. I've always known I wanted to make one, but it's strange that the timing worked out this way."
Timing plays an interesting role in the High Dials' story. Once upon a time, Anderson and bassist Rishi Dhir were part of a snazzy-lookin' mod crew known as the Datsons. They built up buzz for their first disc, 2000's white-boot-friendly See!, and it looked like the band was about to blow up.
All of a sudden, the Montreal Datsons were blindsided by a hairy Antipodean garage rock juggernaut known as - you guessed it - the Datsuns. With the Aussie band splayed all over the British press, our poor heroes replaced their drummer with current skinsman Robb Surridge, added guitarist Robbie MacArthur and jazzed up their moniker to become the Datson Four. Of course, this caused even more problems when yet another rock squad from Down Under, the D4, raced into view.
"There was confusion in the press," Anderson sighs. "Little things like misspelling our name, misspelling their name, and occasionally even running our photo with an article on them, and vice versa. It's horrible when you're trying to launch a new album."
Long story short, the erstwhile Datson Four became the High Dials after much deliberation and a thumbs-up from no less than Springsteen guitarist Little Stevie Van Zandt (a fan from way back).
Along with the name change, the group revamped their sound. Instead of the straight-up mod club northern soul of the past, the High Dials decided to expand their musical palette to include keyboards, psyched-out elements and layers of more experimental instrumentation.
It works. A New Devotion seems less like a potentially cutesy revivalist project than the sound of a polished rock 'n' roll posse schooled in the greats and coming into their own.
Anderson admits he's relieved they've moved away from the mod scene.
"We were at the height of our mod-ness when we first put out See, but at the time we didn't realize how limiting the whole thing was. We never saw ourselves as revivalists, and I got tired of answering questions about retro, the 60s and what mod meant to me. I'm in the 21st century, and (that period) has no relevance to my life. I'm just as interested in the 20s and 30s, or for that matter, the 1800s, or any other period of artistic production.
"Why doesn't anyone ask so-called modern rock bands why they're just reproducing the early 90s over and over again? Music hasn't progressed on the radio at all since then, and it's ridiculous. I suppose we're slowly moving in some kind of direction, but this linear idea of music seems stupid to me."