The Florals – I Swear I Saw Hell

There seems to be a bit of a trend of a certain flavour of “rock” music in Regina these days. For lack of a better term, let’s call it garage rock. Maybe it has always been that way, but as someone who grew up two and half hours away in a small city of 16,000 people, I wasn’t around to witness the roots of the scene I see unfolding today. That being said, over the last year I have observed a pattern of bands doing similar, garage-rock-like things. Hopefully you’ve heard some of these bands: The Steves, Doubt It, Surf Dads, Oiseaux, Delta Throats… the list goes on. Many share members and lineage, and they all exhibit similar things: simplicity, to-the-point compositions, gritty guitars, eighth-note bass lines, drums that thwap and punch, and vocals that focus around simple, often humorous lyrics and short melodic hooks repeated over and over. There are elements of grunge, thrash, and surf styles across the board, and at a passing glance it can seem like a soup of similarity and repetition — the last vestiges of Regina’s punk or hardcore scene, lazily reminiscing through grungy dream punk and disenfranchisement rock. That being said, you’d be a fool not to look any closer. One of my favourite things about getting to know Regina’s music scene more and more is getting to see bands develop their own voices within this and other prevailing styles.

 

To me, the Florals are one of those bands. They have a thrashy quality about them that harkens back to a punk dynasty that might have existed before my time in the Queen City, with enough irony and humour for them to fit safely within Regina’s quirky indie-rock history. If you had asked me a year ago what I thought of the Florals, my answer would have almost certainly been accompanied by a half-shrug and extended “ehhhhhh….” It’s not to say I didn’t like them… I just didn’t get it yet. But getting to see them a few times over the last year or so has opened my ears to what they’re doing, and when I got a chance to preview their upcoming cassette release, I obliged with pleasure.

 

The music of what I once saw as a simple grungy garage band now washes over me in layers and colours I would never have expected. I Swear I Saw Hell, which was recorded with Barret Ross in Saskatoon and mastered by Orion Paradis in Regina, still has all those markers I mentioned. The whole record exemplifies the garage rock scene of Regina (look to “n00b” for your feedback-ridden, riff-laden, sludgy goodness), but still waters run deep, and I hate myself for shoehorning that cliche into this blog. Beneath the surface you’ll hear a wild array of subtle decorations to the bombastic core sound of the record. From the ping-pong vocal tremolo and bottle breaking backgrounds of “Swirl” to the 70s-soul inspired keyboards and tambourine of “Body Snatchers,” this record is one that keeps on giving. Each time I listen to it I hear a little more. This is no small feat and high praise for any record in my opinion, but it’s even more noteworthy when it occurs within a style that is classified by its simplicity.

 

For guitarist and singer Carl Johnson, this collage of input comes from a couple of places. As we sipped Coors Banquet to the sound of The Alley Dawgs on Tuesday night at the Fat Badger, I got a look inside Carl’s own personal music history, as well as the story of the Florals and this long-awaited cassette, a record that is nearly one and a half years in the making. With this new offering the Florals have come forth with torrents of thundering pseudo-pop gems stitched together with the threads of musical experimentation and intentional discomfort.  As we took turns rambling on about the Saskatchewan music scene, Carl told me he aims to worry less about what he thinks the music should be, and instead get in there and “fuck it up a little bit.” Without a recorded transcript it’s hard to get direct quotes, but I am 100% certain, without a doubt, that he said that. Probably many times. To my ears, Carl and the rest of the Florals did exactly that with I Swear I Saw Hell. The tunes on the record sprawl forth in spite of their simplicity and create a complete package I never would have expected from the Florals a year ago. Clever production (credited, according to Carl, to the capable hands of “The Universe”) meets with genuine songwriting to create something vast and deep. And loud. In fact, Mastering engineer Orion Paradis is rumoured to have said it’s one of the loudest things he’s ever worked on. The Florals are a loud, classic garage rock band — but with this record they prove that they are at once something more. Without throwing out the formula, the Florals have changed the equation.

 

For me, the stand out on the cassette is the B side. Perhaps even in its entirety. Featuring a sped-up, organ-injected version of Side A’s “n00b,” a slowed down, dredgy reimagining of “Body Snatchers” dubbed “Body Snatchers (Doom),” and a haunting vibraphone solo with toilet flush accompaniment, the B side shows us the humour that is at the heart of the Florals. If I learned anything hanging out with Carl, it’s that music is a constant balancing act. You work and work and work at songs to make them the best you can, but at some point you have to throw that all away and have fun. This is the paraphrased advice I took from our conversation. As a kid I often wondered, as I poured over old Beatles and Pink Floyd records and other ensuing “avant-garde” listening material, if the artists I loved so much on those records thought what they were doing was high art or if it was all just a gas. Carl cited “Lodger” by David Bowie,  mentioned Brian Eno’s Oblique Stategies, and drew parallels to the French New Wave film movement in an effort to help me understand his and the Florals’ approach to this record (among other things). That night I added all those to my list of things to check out for further information, but for now I think I gathered this: the real answer probably lies somewhere in between humour and art, as musicians constantly balance the spiritually fulfilling and the utterly ridiculous in an attempt to maintain a shred of sanity. But let’s back up a bit. This all seems pretty serious. It’s important to remember that this is an album that features not one… but TWO songs with the word “n00b” in the titles.

To crucify the Florals’ legitimacy over their sense of humour would be the listener’s biggest mistake. In fact, the ridiculousness throughout the record works in tandem with the deep stories being told and the truly masterful musical statements being made. Perhaps even more significantly, this record is a symbol of what is great about the Regina music scene. It stands for constant change, growth, humour, and challenge, all hallmarks of our best-kept-secret local culture. It is a combination of contrasts that yields a sum greater than the whole of its parts, so whatever “fucking up”  was done on this record, it is for the best. It ploughs.

 

The Florals play this Friday, April 15th at the Artful Dodger with Oieseux and The Garrys.

By Dana Rempel

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