Fjord Rowboat – Under Cover of Brightness

Fjord Rowboat - Under Cover of Darkness

Last time I checked, all art – be it music or otherwise – was supposed to arouse at least a modicum of emotion from the receiving party. Yet whether you end up yanking out your earbuds in disgust (I’m talking to you, Bloodhound Gang) or spinning the album on infinite repeat, most listeners would likely concur that both vehement loathing and unbridled joy pale in comparison to casual indifference. Honestly, is there anything more maddening in music than to happen upon a song or an artist that qualifies as nothing more or less than OK? What I describe here is potentially so unaffecting, that it makes words like “mediocre” and “commonplace” seem too rich in meaning for application.

And so it is with Fjord Rowboat, a relatively colorless five-piece from Toronto that is the umpteenth shoegaze/space rock/psychedelic outfit to come along since Catherine Wheel and My Bloody Valentine pushed the style to its commercial peak nearly twenty years ago. Had singer Craig Gloster and his compatriots appeared on the radar at that time, I’d be less inclined to anxiously fidget in anticipation of something that transcends those ubiquitous staples of the genre: shimmering atmospherics, wall-of-guitar production, and enough reverb and delay to make any 10×10 room sound like it has the acoustical properties of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But they’re all there with Fjord Rowboat, and over the course of 10 tracks and nearly 45 minutes, there’s little variance in the beautifully crestfallen tone that the band obviously relishes.

With a couple notable exceptions, you can glean most everything you need to understand from the band’s sophomore disc – Under Cover of Brightness – during the first two tracks. “Even You Out” is less grinding shoegaze than it is slick dream pop, with Gloster’s heavily treated vocals floating haphazardly on top of echoing chimes from the guitar and some seriously overplayed drums by Kevin McKay. The song’s comforting predictability – extra distortion and keyboards where you’d anticipate them at the chorus – gives it the quintessence of an ear-friendly indie rock track, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to intrigue. Same goes for “Underwater Hero”, a more briskly paced but no less numbing tune that boasts absolutely impenetrable guitar textures, steadily thumping eighth notes from the bass of Ian McKay, and a vocal melody that lifts the listener up (albeit temporarily) with its soaring trajectory. Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with either of these songs, but the emotional arc is too shallow and the ghosts of Interpol and Joy Division loom to large to distinguish the music from its influences.

Two legitimately bright spots do occur on Under Cover of Brightness.  “Cottonwood Glacier” feels like the aural companion to a massive topography of ice, with its frosty guitar melodies and chilly atmosphere. Thanks to Kevin McKay’s less-frenetic drumming, the song also moves the band close to ballad territory, as melancholy statements of discontent (“I turned my back on love / and it turned its back on me”) are matched by an enduringly bittersweet chord progression that tugs at the heartstrings, no matter how far removed you may be from adolescence. On “When I Speak of Violence”, the group takes a foreboding theme and molds a fairly chipper pop song out of it. There’s far more interplay between ax-men Justin Grant and Matt Collum and enough changes in the rhythm section’s groove to keep things from getting monotonous.

The Canadian Music Wiki states that Fjord Rowboat “formed in the autumn of 2004 and began healing the world with reverb.” The utopian, astral brand of rock that results from such a heavy reliance on effects pedals is undeniably appealing, and at times, it’s even pacifying. But I was feeling pretty good beforehand, and certainly not on the lookout of a healing experience. Now I just feel OK, and a little lethargic too.