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Review: Broken Social Scene, 'Hug Of Thunder'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Broken Social Scene, <em>Hug Of Thunder</em>.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Broken Social Scene, Hug Of Thunder.

Before taking a break of seven years from releasing albums, Broken Social Scene established itself as one of indie rock's most epic practitioners. The group's ambient, experimental 2001 debut, Feel Good Lost gave way to the wide-angle vision of its 2002 breakthrough, You Forgot It In People, an album of giddy highs and moody lows. The band has been mostly silent, studio-wise, since 2010's Forgiveness Rock Record — the various members of its loose-knit roster keep themselves busy in other high-profile acts such as Feist, Stars and Metric, not to mention the occasional solo album — but the Toronto collective is at last set to return with its fifth full-length, Hug Of Thunder (out July 7 on Arts & Crafts).

Featuring all 15 original members of the band (Broken Social Scene has never done minimal), Hug Of Thunder does not skimp. After an atmospheric instrumental opening harking all the way back to Feel Good Lost, the band kicks in with the anthems. "Halfway Home" is an upward spiral of a song, buoyed by washes of orchestral euphoria and weightless, male-female harmonies worthy of My Bloody Valentine. Later on, the album's celestial title track erupts into a typically majestic chorus, complete with lit-major attention to storytelling and symbolic detail, led by Broken Social Scene breakout star Leslie Feist who pulls off a Kate Bush-level of otherworldliness.

When it comes to a mix of ethereality and strength, new vocalist Ariel Engle is no slouch. A member of the offshoot AroarA with Broken Social Scene's Andrew Whiteman, she lends piercing elation to "Stay Happy," a burst of symphonic pop with a massive yet laid-back beat. She's more downbeat, yet no less evocative, on the elegantly brooding "Victim Lover." "Gonna Get Better" belies its title by sticking to a subdued groove and a swirling, contemplative tone — the feeling of flipping through folders of old photos, letting the rush of memories come.

Similarly, the title of "Protest Song," one of the album's standout tracks, is not indicative of its sound. Rather than angry, it's a bittersweet confection that dissolves into a breakneck bridge of soaring guitar heroics. That doesn't mean, however, the group isn't reacting to the less-than-ideal state of the world. In a recent interview, Broken Social Scene's de facto leader Kevin Drew cited the Paris terror attacks of 2015 as a wake-up call, one that spurred the group's return: "It just sort of made us want to get out there and play. Because I think we've always been a band that's been a celebration." True to his word, Drew and company have rendered Hug Of Thunder exactly that.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 3, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Feist provided vocals on "Gonna Get Better." The singer is Ariel Engle.
Jason Heller
[Copyright 2024 NPR]