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Review: The Spark That Moves, by Cancer Bats

By: 
Kevin Taghabon

June 24, 2018

Toronto's own hardcore punk heroes, Cancer Bats, have delivered a ferocious sixth record dense with themes of fearlessness, unshackled youth, and even environmental justice. The band recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of their seminal record "Hail Destroyer", an LP which shot the band from the beloved sticker and sweat-encrusted walls of the Ontario's local rock venues into international stardom.

The 10th anniversary show at Lee's Palace demonstrated one of the core tenets of hardcore punk culture: don't forget where you came from. The band had been recording an album in Winnipeg over the winter (hence the song 'Winterpeg') and secretly decided to suddenly release the entire album at their “Hail Destroyer” show. The show's opener was TotalxWar, a smaller band from Ontario. After speaking very warmly about their longtime personal friendship with Cancer Bats, TotalxWar's lead singer announced, "this next song is about beating up neo-Nazis."

Cancer Bats is not a political music group—at least not constantly. Still, many of their previous songs have spoken to the alienation felt in our society, especially among young people struggling to carve out rewarding lives in a decaying system. It's difficult to listen to 'RATS' (2012) without thinking of Tory vermin scurrying around the cesspools of the UK Parliament. 'Deathsmarch' (2008) explicitly cries out “Your time stolen for a minimum wage/ Night after night with no end in sight”. The band also has strong collaborative relationships with political punk groups like Alexisonfire, Rise Against, and Gallows, who's lead singer Wade MacNeil grew up in the Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale. Cancer Bats' lead singer Liam Cormier has played in MacNeil's bands, and MacNeil lent his vocals to 'Deathsmarch'.

There are barely-cyptic references to political tensions and events throughout "The Spark That Moves." Trump's nuclear deathwish gets shots fired across the bow in the opening song, 'Gatekeeper': "Scorched earth/ annihilation/ without a second thought/...You're past the insane/ You've got this rust inside your veins." The threatening sound of the track is perfect for Cormier's words.

This message isn't alone in one song. 'Heads Will Roll' includes much of the same disgust coupled with a call to stand up and fight. "Detonation, all guns blazin'/ Burning down what you fabricated/ Hypocrite and lie distorter/ But you're judged for your chaos now...Heads will roll!/ Is nothing sacred anymore!?...I know I must be stronger/ I know I must resist/ I must be patient/ I must rise above."

Cormier spares no expense on 'Space and Time'. The track may as well be a cutesy poem for Elon Musk and Rex Tillerson's petri-dish starchild. "We must go to the cosmos/ Our destructive ways belong in outer space/ We must go to the cosmos/ We treat our home with such disgrace/...Set your sights to the stars/ We've ignored the facts/ There's no turning back/ We're all corrupt/ Leave it behind/ The Earth deserves so much better than the human kind/ Space and time is my state of mind/ Leave behind the human kind/". Cormier virtually endorses Musk shooting his class into the sun. 'Space and Time' reminds us that humanity has abused the natural world to the brink of collapse. But it is our collapse, our eviction. The planet belongs here without our pillaging, colonization, and climate denial, and pipeline buyouts from oil lackeys in our federal government.

Sonically, the album is arguably their best yet. Without reading the album politically at all, it's an impeccable collection. The opening track's fuzz and growls in the sound like a monster waking from slumber. Not a single song lets up – a testament to the tirelessness of the band members. (Their shows are even more energetic.) These are filthy tattooed professionals at the top of their game. Muscular instrumentals and impeccable production throughout, one would be forgiven for thinking this is the debut album of some mega-talented teenagers. As former rock stars pal around with war criminals when they're not decrying that there is no place for aggressive rock anymore, our Bats fly into the attic and drag Bono back to Beverly Hills. And Liam Cormier is nearly 40 years old.

He may as well be half that. The majority of "The Spark That Moves" is about being free. Truly free, not in some crass commercial sense, but in the pursuit of a fulfilling life that meets persons their energy and potential. "Expectations are so mean/ We run wild and we run free/...Pushin' on against the storm/ Better know I've been warned/ Should have learned from past mistakes/ Who am I to pump those brakes?/...Kill two birds so it makes three/ My agenda's always on me/ We are what you have made us/ Don't ask us how we fit in/ We are what you have made us/ So keep the lights on!" Cormier screams on 'We Run Free'. This is a rejection of mainstream culture. More specifically, it is as a retort to the "lazy millennial" criticism that right-wingers love to bandy about as an excuse for the virus of capitalism and its side effects. 'Bed of Nails' doubles down on this: "We take this life/ We make this life/ What it is, and what we want/ Our own rules/ Our own tools...Forget anyone who's gonna tell you how to love and live."

'Rattlesnake' is likely about their ascendance into musical stardom, but the lines sound like liberation chants. "We're the masters of our own control/ Hey! Hey!/ You'll never get it!/ So cut us out and we'll just let it roll!/ You'll never get it!". The song serves both their personal story and the political environment we live in, closing with, "Are we even human?/ How can we not?/ Are we even living?/ While those just rot?" Cormier is reflecting on their relative comfort and success in comparison to those who struggle to live day to day.

We live in a time of simmering chaos, which also presents once-in-a-generation opportunities for radical change. This can go either way, but young people are decidedly on the left in this equation. Leaked research from the conservative Manning Centre in 2017 found that only 16% of millennial Albertans consider themselves politically conservative – in the most conservative province in the country. In 2016 (long before the election) a Harvard study found that a majority millennial Americans reject capitalism. These numbers have likely increased.

The generation that these musicians belong to is ascendant, and their politics have largely shed the 20th century hangups about anti-capitalism and reaction. With that in mind, take the advice of our angsty Bats here on "Brightest Days": "We might be wrong but feels too right to know/ It don't make sense just go with the flow/ The brightest days are yet to come/ Heads!/ Held!/ High!/"

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