Seamlessly straddling folk, indie/alternative, rock and avant-garde distortion, the Barr Brothers’ Queens of the Breakers carves its niche by crossing and reinventing genres. The uninhibited creative energies of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Brad Barr, drummer Andrew Barr and harpist Sarah Pagé catalyze 50 minutes of deftly layered enigmatic sound and complimentary lyrics reflecting on life’s growing complexity.
Since the release of its 2014 sophomore album, Sleeping Operator, a lot has changed for the Barr Brothers. Brad and Andrew Barr both settled down and became fathers, old friends and places have faded with time, and nostalgia palpably drips from fond adolescent memories.
These admittedly cliché themes characterize many of songwriter Brad Barr’s lyrics. But, as the Barr Brothers’ lives have become increasingly multidimensional, its music has followed suit. The songwriter’s words are transformed into something beyond language by the haunting harmonies and echoing instrumentals that flow through Queens of the Breakers.
This latest release drops much of the acoustic, indie sound characteristic of the Montreal-based band’s earlier popular tracks – such as “Even the Darkness Has Arms” off of Sleeping Operator – and exchanges it for more carefully developed transcendental noise.
The band finds its footing in this mode right away with the album’s opener, “Defibrillation.” Solid pacing from Andrew Barr’s heartbeat drumline opens the song. A couple bars later, the Barr Brothers begin to layer in new melodies and rhythms.
Simply-paced shaker quickly becomes the tune’s metronome as a repetitive, resonant guitar riff steps in and Brad Barr’s voice joins the mix. “Defibrillation” eases listeners in and out of its lull, eventually rising to a climax with the help of featured artist Lucius’s harmonic voices.
Standout track “Look Before It Changes” follows, immediately filling ears with unbridled rolling harp. The rest of the Barr Brothers’ elaborately accessorized instrumental set-up – incorporating a wide range of percussive elements and a pedal steel guitar – is all in, exuding waves of vibrating, wafting, boundless melody. As listeners are transported between rhythmic breaks, trotting snare rolls and otherworldly ambient mist, Brad Barr croons, “Look before it changes. ‘Cause when it changes, it changes for good.”
The Barr Brothers falters only when it regresses. “Song That I Heard” is the album’s disappointing third track written about the city of Montreal. Reminiscent of earlier acoustic melodies, Brad Barr plucks folky guitar and serenades his favorite city in a moment of cliché weakness that is uncharacteristic of the advances made in Queens of the Breakers. But pure, symphonic horns redeem the track’s unoriginal melody, concept and lyrics, giving “Song That I Heard” a necessary extra dimension of sound.
“Kompromat” returns to the band’s earlier established style of incorporating complexity without sounding busy. The Barr Brothers demonstrate their versatility as they add rock guitar solos, an accelerated pace and increased intensity to their usual mystical lull on this track.
Immediately following “Kompromat,” “You Would Have to Lose Your Mind” lays a foundation of multifaceted background sound upon which sweet, steady melodies mesh with rough electric guitar. “Hideous Glorious Part 2” and “Ready for War” are two other highlights, the former shining in its harp refrains and the latter providing a cadenced, echoing finale to Queens of the Breakers.
Unafraid of delving deeper into music as time goes on, the Barr Brothers’ latest release bridges ends of the musical spectrum, making complexity sound simple and simplicity sound complex.
Each track has a depth that derives from the band’s transformation of intricate elements into unified sound. Brad Barr’s use of vibration transference, Pagé’s innovative harp, Lucius’s soaring guest vocals and the band’s experimentation with orchestral and brass sounds are just a few of these details.
Every re-listen contains the possibility of noticing something new from this musical milieu – a different rhythm, a harp riff you initially thought was a synth, a pedal steel guitar slide, a feathery snare roll, a lofty harmony or a yearning lyric you couldn’t quite decipher before. Queens of the Breakers’ constant flow of fresh auditory morsels and contemplative energy make the album an unmissable reflection of a band whose emotional and musical growth is boundless.