Review Summary: Rock isn't dead. Canada says so.
Big Wreck has long been ignored outside of its native Canada or dismissed as a Canadian Soundgarden clone/ripoff due to frontman Ian Thornley’s Cornell-evoking wail and the band’s penchant for alternative rock that’s heavily steeped in Zeppelin-esque classic rock tradition. The band’s closest brush with international fame was on the back of its 1997 single ‘The Oaf’ and the soaring ‘That Song’ from its debut LP In Loving Memory of…
, but the band, and Thornley in particular, have cultivated a devoted cult following in North America over the intervening years, leading to a reunion album after a ten-year hiatus in the form of 2012’s Albatross
. In an uncharacteristic move, particularly by 21st Century standards, the band has followed up Albatross
barely two years later despite near constant touring. And, any way you cut it, Ghosts
is a fine addition to the band’s discography.
Thornley, in addition to being a damn fine singer, is a superb guitarist, as his Berklee pedigree will attest to. Big Wreck has often flirted with progressive rock, particularly on their earlier material, and even on Ghosts
, while the band might at first glance come off as a somewhat generic modern rock band, close listening reveals some impressively intricate layering and a diverse palette of sounds that is subtle and deceptively simple-sounding. Thornley is a terrific slide-guitar player and his considerable skills are seen in his solo on ‘A Place to Call Home’, but also pulls out some pretty droning chords in an alternate tuning and a fretless guitar solo on ‘Diamonds’ to give the song a very Indian/Oriental feel. Throughout the album, he manages to experiment with sounds enough to easily distinguish songs from each other, but not so much that the album does not flow smoothly or sound disjointed.
Throughout the record, the band as an ensemble finds time to stretch out and flex its musical muscle, such as on the title track for an extended jam over a Stevie Nicks-Edge of Seventeen guitar figure, and on the heavily proggy ‘Friends’ which cycles through some stomping riffs, jangly chords and then takes a left turn into Dream Theater territory with its combination of neck-breaking time signature changes and keyboard solo during its coda. Despite these frequent extended jams, the band plays so well together and manages to keep the jams so organic sounding that you wouldn’t realise a song was 6-7 minutes long if you didn’t look at the track length.
Despite all of the band's impressive yet somehow unobtrusive instrumental wizardry, Thornley manages to keep things catchy and immediate with his muscular voice and knack for vocal hooks. The Cornell comparison is hard to ignore, but Thornley is arguably a better vocalist than Cornell at this point in time because his voice manages to radiate the kind of warmth that Cornell has lost over the course of a career spent pushing his voice past its limits. In terms of style, Thornley is a bit of a chameleon; he evokes various influences - from Zeppelin to U2 to even Coldplay(!) - with his melodies while sometimes struggling to really highlight his own uniqueness. However, he truly shines on some of the more laidback songs like ‘Still Here’ and 'Off and Running' where his voice combines with the underlying music to generate an atmosphere that seems to be the closest thing to an identifiable trademark.
While Big Wreck has often been criticized for being generic and not having anything different to say in a saturated rock landscape, Ghosts
shows that close listening will reveal that the band has a strong sense of identity and is by no means just following the crowd. This is an impressive release by a band this deep into its career and provides hope that perhaps rock isn’t really dead. At least, not in Canada.