Vancouver collective Novel delivered a dreary dystopian debut album Non-Fiction last month that illustrates the harsh realities of their lives in the shadow of the opioid crisis.
The sextet has become synonymous for sharing members with art punks and multimedia provocateurs, Crack Cloud. While they share a foundation, Novel is much more straightforward in their approach of delivering catchy, off-kilter post-punk jams that litter the internet these days.
On their 2019 self-titled debut EP, the band charmed listeners with the playful call-and-response vocals of Guitarist Jon Varley heard on lead single “To Whom It May Concern.” The tracks never strayed longer than the two-minute mark as jagged guitars gelled neatly with spastic drums and Bryce Cloghesy (aka Military Genius)’s swooning saxophone.
The same formula is heard on Non-Fiction but gone are the colorful tones that would’ve been seen on their previous release. Diving into this album today, listeners can feel the despair and vacuum of hope that is presented just by looking at the cover of paratroopers descending onto a jail.
Varley’s vocals are sung in a low register asides from a few moments, illustrating the downtrodden world that surrounds the band in Vancouver. Themes of isolation, addiction and society’s ugly devotion to consumerism are tackled along the album’s 11 tracks.
“Group Disease” encapsulates the group’s new mold as a solemn piano enters the fray orchestrating the band as each note hums above the claustrophobic guitars, grooved out bass and Varley’s hard to decipher vocals. “Obsessed with patterns, amidst the madness, a loss for meaning, a search for balance,” Varley ruminates, listing off several states of mind echoing the doom scroll of the pandemic, which everyone has experienced.
The band really comes into their own on this record when they give themselves time to experiment with new sounds like piano and saxophone. “Falling In Line” and “Status” both play above the 5-minute mark, allowing the band to transgress the run of the mill chizeled post-punk formula.
On “Status,” Varley holds a confident grip on the listener by shedding his dourness sing-speak style for a more traditional melody. A slick bass line leads the track’s initial opening before a harmonious piano line enters the fray. Cloghesy’s sardonic saxophone intermingles along the group’s spiritual transcendence that begins along the halfway point before enveloping listeners whole.
The record enters a bit of a dry spell in terms of unique instrumental takes on the songs “Apath” and “Interest Free.” Here the band’s spastic groove inflections aren’t enough to earn much memorability. They are essentially regurgitations of Gang of Four material with a higher quality mix. Amid the dark mood of the record this songwriting can come off as tedious because so many modern artists such as Black Country, New Road and Shame have been following this template for the past five years.
“Notice of Foreclosure” is the strongest track and provides a structured foundation point for the band’s next album. The record’s highlight sees Cloghesy once again orchestrate Novel’s succinct angular grooves alongside Varley’s misanthropic lyrics describing the broken social systems that surround our world. “Forced adaptation, notice of foreclosure / Dragging us forward, an indifferent future,” Varley drones as Cloghesy’s saxophone acts like wind moving a grey cloud away from the sun just so a brief moment of warmth is felt.
Non-Fiction is Novel’s Blade Runner, a sorrowful tale of abandonment and pain in a civilization too cold to recognize the suffering that lies within its walls.
Essential Tracks: “Notice of Foreclosure,” “Status” and “Group Disease”
Prerequisites: Crack Cloud’s Pain Olympics and Gang of Four’s Entertainment!