Pre-order "Mercy Works" at smarturl.it/mercyworks (out 11/03)
Casper Skulls emerged from the Toronto exurbs in 2015, bursting onto the local scene with a studied sound and supercharged live performances. Following an early 7” on the band’s own label, Hip Priest, the quartet released the Lips & Skull EP on Buzz Records in late 2016. Described by MTV as a collection of “confrontational art rock that bleeds with sincerity,” and drawing comparisons to luminaries like Television, The Fall (The Toronto Star), Pavement, and Sonic Youth (Noisey), the EP attracted immediate attention from audiences first in Toronto and increasingly up and down the Eastern seaboard as the band toured outside of Canada for the first time and began sharing stages with acts like Cloud Nothings, Thurston Moore, Suuns, Weaves, The Julie Ruin, Solids, Greys, and Chastity Belt.
Over the course of their young career the band’s sound has remained difficult to pin down, shifting through a broad collection of influences and jamming a raft of new ideas into each song, giving the impression that the 7” and the EP were “just the tip of the iceberg” (Noisey). The band’s forthcoming debut full length, Mercy Works, which will be released on November 3rd via Buzz, only serves to deepen that impression, making good on their early promise with a release that constitutes a startlingly ambitious statement of intent.
The album, which was recorded in early 2017 with co-producer/engineer Josh Korody (Fucked Up, Dilly Dally), and mixed by Alex Newport (At The Drive-In, Death Cab For Cutie), is densely arranged, intricately written and performed with an uncommon earnestness. While the rough and ready post-punk and lo-fi early '90s indie influences present on the band’s first recordings still provide the foundation, there is a sense of scale on display in their swelling guitar figures and sweeping string arrangements (provided by Toronto musician Paul Erlichman) that is mirrored by the songwriting of dual lead vocalists Melanie St. Pierre and Neil Bednis. The real-life couple seek to represent lived experience in immense detail - engaging with a diverse palette of references, both musical and lyrical, to explore two intensely personal perspectives of emotional growth.
Thematically, the album traverses various paths of self-exploration, from relationships to politics to death and grief, in a language inflected by an immersion in several generations of experimental guitar music, and an ambivalent grappling with the reverberations of a Catholic upbringing. Whether drawing on the poetry of William Blake (“What’s That Good For”), the dystopian sci-fi of Philip K. Dick (“Colour of the Outside”), or ruminating on mortality and evolving personal/cultural legacies through Elvis Presley and Paul Simon's trips to Graceland (“You Can Call Me Allocator”), St. Pierre and Bednis collect pieces of the world around them and imbue them with new meaning as they attempt to understand their place in it.
Bednis explains his inspiration behind the swirling standout “I Stared at ‘Moses and the Burning Bush’”, a song about the role of religion in his own experience of grief constructed around a reference to a painting by the '80s pop artist Keith Haring:
“I like the idea of exploring biblical imagery without necessarily picking sides,” says Bednis. “It’s rationed throughout the songs what my stance is, if I even have a stance. I find that religion can be therapeutic when people in your life die. When my uncle passed away, I remember sitting in the pew having the idea for the song. That day I was really contemplating the role religion plays in grief and death. Keith Haring’s weird take on a biblical story also made me feel OK about diving into that realm. Religion doesn’t necessarily need to be a sacred thing.”
The driving force behind Mercy Works is the band’s irrepressible desire to pursue new ideas and explore the expressive possibilities of the music they make. Reflexively humble, and infectiously enthusiastic, Casper Skulls are a group that see themselves as being at the beginning of their journey, an enticing prospect given the self-assuredness that underpins their debut.
“It’s so exciting to make music when you can explore what you want to explore," says Bednis. "Where we can go in terms of sound is endless. We’re big ambient music nuts so it’d be great to make an ambient record after this one, or an acoustic album. The goal is to be as freely creative as we can be as four people.”
“We’re really only at the start of being a band,” St-Pierre agrees. “Our records don’t have to move mountains as long as we’re being true to our own ideas. We want to be a slow burning candle.”