Which local artists are set to make waves this year? Denise Benson breaks down Toronto’s sound of 2014.
THE CRUELTY PARTY
Last November, Toronto musician/producer Alphonse Alixander Lanza III shocked many with a personal, late-night Facebook that announced the end of Azari & III, the fantastic and internationally successful house music quartet Lanza had co-founded with Christian Newhook a.k.a. Dinamo Azari in 2008. Whether Azari will continue to work under a related project name remains to be seen, but what is clear is that Lanza is fully focussed on The Cruelty Party, the melodic rock ‘n’ roll band he leads as singer and guitarist. Formed in 2012, The Cruelty Party also includes bassist/singer Andrew Rodriguez (formerly of Bodega), guitarist Milan Julius Schramek, and drummer Sean Dunal. While Lanza has a long history of playing in a wide variety of rock bands, The Cruelty Party may be the most fully realized. The band’s 12-track debut album, largely recorded in 2012 and completed in 2013, comes loaded with tight riffs, massive hooks, and clean production. It’s equal parts Britpop, surf rock, and film noir, all fuzzed up and ready to go. While a release date is yet to be set (Lanza tells me that The Cruelty Party is in the midst of negotiating a label deal), debut single “Ball & Chain” will come out via the Culvert label in February, complete with a remix by Tim Goldsworthy (DFA) and accompanying video. The band is now at work with Creative Artists Agency and will soon announce a series of live dates.
The catalogue of work by relative newcomer Will Diebel a.k.a. Deebs is impressive on a number of levels. From his 2011 bootleg edits of songs like Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop” and Birdman’s “Money to Blow” to official remixes for the likes of Kid Smpl and Pelican Fly, Deebs retains the emotion of originals while turning them inside out. His beautiful, stuttering 2012 rethink of AlunaGeorge’s “Your Drums, Your Love” brought praise from the likes of SPIN and FACT, with the former noting the producer “splits difference between trip-hop and trap.” Deebs’ biggest strength, in fact, is his ability to straddle worlds as he crafts largely abstract music fused with the appeal of pop and soul. This skill was on full display throughout the seven songs of Awry, Deebs’ debut EP, released last July. An incredibly cohesive work given its many left turns, the EP moved from the sensual and inviting (“Lady Killer,” featuring vocalist Mars) to uniquely arresting (“Years”). Resident Advisor gave it a 4/5 review, adding to the producer’s raised profile in 2013. Deebs rounded out the year with two stunning remixes, of Sampha’s “Can’t Get Close” and Erik Hassle’s “Talk About It,” which caught the attention of The Guardian. Diebel tells me he hopes to collaborate with more vocalists on originals, and that he’s at work on a new EP. His first release of 2014 will be a remix of Hasta for the Apothecary Compositions label.
I was late to the music of Toronto/Guelph band Del Bel, but their roots-infused cinematic songs now have me hooked. Anchored by bassist and composer Tyler Belluz and vocalist/violinist Lisa Conway, Del Bel released their sparse, haunting, and highly acclaimed debut album Oneiric late in 2011. Fifteen musicians—including members of Do Make Say Think and Ohbijou—contributed to the project, with reviewers raising comparisons as diverse as Cowboy Junkies, Portishead, and Timber Timbre. Though Conway points to filmmaker David Lynch as an influence, Del Bel’s blend of country, blues, and post-rock-noir also brings the Coen brothers to mind, so it’s fitting that Belluz also keeps busy by scoring music for moving images. In 2012, he and Conway surprised us with the release of Diane, a swirling, synths-and-horns-heavy five-song EP credited to side project Chrome and the Ice Queen. These releases, along with a high profile tour with former Constantine Bry Webb, and their collaborative single “No Cure For Loneliness,” have created a great deal of anticipation for Del Bel’s sophomore album, which has been completed and will be released in 2014. In the meantime, Del Bel recently covered John Prine’s “Christmas In Prison,” and is prepping to tour in coming months. They’ll perform new songs on Jan. 11, as part of Wavelength and Dan Burke’s “Class of 2014: A New Indie-Rock Honour Roll (Pt. I)” event at the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina Ave.).
Close your eyes when listening to the sounds of indie dream-pop quartet Elsa, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a time machine. Though Elsa’s roots only date back to 2011 (when guitarist/songwriter Jonathan Rogers released a handful of promising demo tracks), and solidified in 2012 (when he added guitarist Matthew Goldman, bassist Jesse Mirsky, and drummer Angie Wong), the band’s bright, jangly sounds recall the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Elsa’s bio cites influences like The Smiths, Pavement, Nirvana, and Guided by Voices (whose “Game of Pricks” they’ve been known to cover), while I Do, their debut EP released in October, also bears hints of Buffalo Tom, R.E.M., and early Smashing Pumpkins. Lead single “In Two” won early support from both Noisey and Exclaim!, and made it easy to hear why Mike Haliechuk of Fucked Up signed Elsa to his One Big Silence imprint. Given that the label has also put out music by Austra, Diamond Rings, Moon King, Myths among others, eyes and ears are tuned to Elsa as they head into 2014. Though Rogers tells me that he “can’t really discuss the specifics of what is planned for next year,” he does confirm that a full Elsa album has already been recorded, and will be released. They’ll also perform in the U.S. soon, with a “proper tour” in planning stages. Elsa plays this Friday (Jan. 3) at the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina Ave.) alongside artists including Montreal’s Alex Calder, and will open for hotly tipped British indie rockers Yuck at The Garrison on Jan. 17.
To my ears, local instrumental psych-rock quartet Fresh Snow was one of the most exciting bands of 2013. I wrote about the band, and their explosive debut album, appropriately titled I, in the June 2013 edition of Ones to Watch, and have listened to it steadily ever since. The band’s dense, dynamic songs won them not only “2013 Artist Incubator band” status and related tour dates with Wavelength, but also heaps of praise, and inclusion on a bunch of year-end lists. They impress with an ability to build calm into chaos, and then gently return, all while layering melody with distortion and pounding out startling rhythms. Fresh Snow is set to follow I with more releases for local indie Reel Cod Records, including a split 7-inch single with labelmates Mimico, and a 12-inch expected in spring. “We are working on an EP loosely based around the theme of horses,” reveals guitarist/keyboardist Bradley Davis. He shares that the four songs will include “French Horse Hall of Fame” (a 15-minute bonus track that didn’t appear on the vinyl version of I), and “Don’t Fuck A Gift Horse in the Mouth,” a new song in the 10-minute range that is “perhaps my favourite thing that we’ve done so far.” Fresh Snow performs Jan. 11 with Del Bel, MASS, Anamai and others at The Class of 2014 event at The Silver Dollar (486 Spadina Ave.).
At this point, Brian “Gingy” Wong is best known for his collaborative productions with Anthony “Bordello” Galati. As Gingy & Bordello, the two developed a mature-yet-banging take on techno that nods to the genre’s past while forging its future. Their early releases for Tiga’s Turbo label won the pair inclusion on Resident Advisor’s 2012 list of “Toronto’s new guard,” while 2013’s Saturday Night Fervor EP caught the attention of XLR8R, who enlisted the duo to create this storming summer podcast mix. Last April, the two brought their floor-filling sounds to London’s Boiler Room (the set is archived here), and in November, when Boiler Room came to Toronto for the RBMA X 3024 Dovercourt Takeover, Gingy starred in a back-to-back set with Dutch producer Martyn, main man behind the 3024 label. Gingy & Bordello are currently on hiatus as a duo (Galati has moved to Montreal), but both continue to produce. Wong will release “RAPT,” a single featuring the vocals of Starving Yet Full (Azari & III), on Holland’s Clone label early this year. I’ve heard the unmastered version, and can say it’s an ear-grabbing merger of techno and house, destined to soundtrack late-night dancefloors. Wong is currently at work on “a few new collaborative projects, jams with old friends, as well as more solo stuff.” He’s also part of a crew that produces special late-night events where our local electronic producers—many of them better known abroad than here—can showcase their own work, and spin for open-eared music lovers. “I think it’s important to create a platform where our friends can present their art in the way that it should be presented.”
It’s not unusual for Toronto artists, of any genre, to receive more recognition internationally than at home, but that gap is especially wide where Gremlinz is concerned. A rock-solid drum ‘n’ bass producer who’s released music on some of the globe’s biggest d ‘n’ b labels over the past decade (Metalheadz, Renegade Hardware, Paradox and 31 Records among them), Gremlinz tours internationally on the regular. Locally, he’s a co-host of CIUT program The Prophecy, this city’s longest running d ‘n’ b radio show. So what makes Gremlinz one to watch at this point in his career? Increased output. Although he tends to drop a few releases or remixes annually, Gremlinz ended 2013 with an impressive run. Long noted for his ability to move between more moody, techno-tinged d ‘n’ b and dub-heavy breakbeats, he’s become increasingly experimental. Gremlinz and Reza teamed up for October’s Thaw release on Doc Scott’s ThirtyOne Recordings, as well as on “Bloom,” a track featured on Berlin imprint Samurai Horo’s Scope compilation. The Drum & Bass Arena blog noted these, and other recent Gremlinz releases, in a lengthy November interview. That same month, Gremlinz and Seattle producer Homemade Weapons released the After Dark EP on Samurai, while December brought with it the Nibiru EP for Paradox. Best news of all, Gremlinz will follow a March EP on Doc Scott’s 31 Records with his debut full-length, set to drop of Loxy’s Cylon Recordings.
U.K. born, Toronto-raised singer and songwriter Rochelle Jordan is an R&B talent on the rise. This has become all the more clear in the two years since I last profiled the buttery-smooth vocalist. While her ROJO album of 2011 was an introduction that turned heads and gained support from the likes of MTV UK, VIBE, Okayplayer and BBC radio, it was 2012’s Pressure that truly went global. The album, produced by Los Angeles’ Kelvin “KLSH” Montgomery, confirmed Jordan as a key link in the lineage between contemporary R&B’s last great period—that is, the 1990s—and its future. It landed her the support act slot on U.K. singer Jessie Ware’s U.S. tour early last year, as well as inclusion alongside Miguel, The Weeknd, and others in an episode of Red Bull Music Academy’s HASHTAG series focussed on the future of R&B. Jordan relocated to L.A. in 2013, and has been busy both on the networking and songwriting fronts. RoJo co-wrote and sang on Childish Gambino’s “Telegraph Ave.,” a standout from his albumBecause the Internet, and ended her year with new single, “Follow Me,” produced by KLSH. Props from the likes of Okayplayer and Singersroomcame immediately, with Jordan set to release a follow-up EP in coming months. Producers to be featured include KLSH and Slikk (Ariana Grande), with mixing and mastering by Grammy Award-winning engineer Steve Baughman, who’s worked with the likes of Timbaland, Coldplay and Dr. Dre.
Scarborough MC, vocalist, and producer King Reign has spent the past decade honing his skills and making moves. Once a member of hip-hop group Brassmunk, Reign went solo, recorded some singles, and put out the solid Reign Music EP in 2010. Along the way, he worked with the likes of Rich Kidd, Drake, and Pharoahe Monch, and chose to exit a deal with Sony Music in favour of shaping his own destiny. When I featured him in last November’s Ones to Watch, King was about to release Reign Music Vol. 2. We’d been treated to the soulful, introspective “Grey,” complete with a vocal hook by Shi Wisdom, and the equally meditative “Dear God,” but the EP’s four additional songs are also more than worth a listen, as noted by the likes of Exclaim! and producer Boi-1da. Next, King Reign will deliver an album’s worth of social observations in his rich baritone. Reign’s debut full length is set for release this spring on CLK Creative Works/Reign Music, an indie label partnership between the artist and music industry veteran David “Click” Cox. Titled Sincere, the album of all-new material features production from the likes of Rich Kidd, Agile, Pro-Logic, Nick Holder, Darp Malone and Gameboy.
Within Toronto R&B and hip-hop circles, Shi Wisdom is a name that’s been on everyone’s lips. The woman born Renee Wisdom and raised in the Eglinton West area (a 2012 article in Share revealed that her grandfather is Jimmy Wisdom, half of 1960s soul and reggae duo Bob and Wisdom and owner of Wisdom’s Barber Shop) is a bona-fide rising star. She’s developed steadily as an artist over the past six years, having recorded a debut mixtape circa 2007 (it circulated more widely in recent years thanks to Bandcamp), been featured on songs including Kardinal Offishall’s “Mr. Parker,” and racked up songwriting credits, including for British singer Rita Ora’s debut single, “R.I.P.,” co-written with Drake. But it’s with her own recordings that Wisdom especially shines. The LVSPK EP from 2012 was an incredible breakthrough; with its seven songs, including break-up track “Take the L” (produced by EnJ) and the joyous “LoveSpeak” (featuring KJ), Wisdom emerged as a fully formed talent. She’s a strong songwriter with a rich voice that seems to know no boundaries. Comparisons to the likes of Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Lauryn Hill have been frequent, but Wisdom is bold in her own unique ways, whether vocally or with her colourful fashion sense. (She was even featured in Flare magazine last year.) Wisdom rounded out last year by sharing three strong songs: October’s “Show & Prove,” soon followed by the heavy-hitting “Monster,” which tackles the subject of physical and emotional abuse, and December’s “Georgia,” an a cappella tribute to Georgia Anne Muldrow that showcases Wisdom’s vocal range. Her highly anticipated debut album, Intervention, is expected this year.