‘Progressive’ is one of the most loaded words in music. On one hand, it implies something new and exciting. One the other, it conjures up images of 14-minute keyboard solos and bands like Kansas, Coheed and Cambria, and other artists who didn’t know how to quit when they were ahead, namely before the keyboard solo.
Progressive music has found some respectability in heavier genres of music, with Tool being notable for their rehabilitation of progressive metal into something people actually want to listen to. Enter Atlas Shrug, a Calgary foursome who have relocated to the Danforth with one thing on their collective mind: to make progressive music that not only sounds great, but has a profound impact on the listener and how they think about the world around them.
The Danforth music scene into which Atlas Shrug has thrown themselves is primarily divided into two camps, the indie-pop crowd (Danforth-area indie-poppers Paint were recently voted a favourite by listeners on 102.1 the Edge), and the bluesy singer-songwriters. Coming into an environment that tends toward lighter tunes is a challenge, but it’s one that Atlas Shrug is prepared for, having spent three years honing their skills in the comparatively desolate Alberta heavy music scene. “In Toronto each music scene is more developed”, says lead guitarist Steve Frise, “In Alberta you can do a few shows in a few cities and if you want to leave you have to drive to Vancouver. If you’re not playing country or classic rock, it’s hard out west.”
It’s the challenge of playing difficult music under difficult circumstances that ensures Atlas Shrug’s efforts will be rewarded. In 2009 the band released their self-titled full-length debut. Shortly afterward, the band packed up for Toronto’s east side, where they have begun work on their second album. In the meantime, they’ve been performing a jazz version of the album around the city, and making contacts in the Toronto music industry. “You know a song has substance when you can play it in different ways,” says Steve, “The jazz thing could work negatively for us, but it’s just as likely to work out well, and we’ve all got jazz backgrounds, so it’s fun for us to try.” Where does the jazz influence come from? “We try to listen to everything, even stuff we don’t like,” replies vocalist Glenn Gosney, “There are good ideas in every style of music.”
This broad range of influences, from jazz to metal and even pop (the band’s jazz set includes a cover of Maroon 5’s ‘This Love’), shows that the band is willing to be inspired by anything that tickles their fancy. Atlas Shrug straddles genres to the point that the band wonders if they can be pigeonholed as a ‘metal’ band, “I don’t think we’re a metal band”, offers Khi Mattu, Atlas Shrug’s bassist, “we just like playing it heavy and hard”. Steve offers some more insight into what Atlas Shrug is by pointing at their fanbase, “Metalheads hate us. We’re not chugging away in 4/4 time and I think that alienates some of the die-hards”.
Atlas Shrug’s music is complex and, yes, progressive. What you get from Atlas Shrug is complex time-changes, philosophical and thoughtful lyrics, and hidden messages. ‘The Reminder’, the standout track from the album, features a bridge that incorporates Morse code, allusions to the 2012 doomsday prophecy and a meditative call for justice and social and mental awareness. This is a band that the Danforth has not seen before, and they’re the kind of band that will strike a chord with Toronto listeners.
With a second album on the way, and touring beginning in their new home, Atlas Shrug is a promising new addition to the Danforth and to Toronto. They offer Danforth listeners a great experience in an under-appreciated genre. Atlas Shrug may be progressive, but they’ve got their feet firmly planted in new and exciting territory, and they have no plans to recruit a keyboardist anytime soon.