Living With Lions – ‘Island’

By Gareth O'Malley

In 2011, Vancouver’s Living With Lions released their impressive sophomore record Holy Shit, and for a moment seemed ready to welcome in a much wider audience than they’d been used to since forming in 2006. Within a year, lead vocalist Stu Ross had departed; he himself had replaced Matt Postal in 2010. Rather than let themselves be defined by a revolving-door member policy, the band decided to plant their roots: guitarist Chase Brenneman made the switch to vocals, and Craig Spelliscy was welcomed into the fold in Brenneman’s old spot shortly after his Ten Second Epic project folded – and still, life had other plans, as it often does; their attempts to record what eventually became Island were blighted by health problems, with Brenneman and drummer Loren Lagare requiring surgery and lengthy periods of convalescence. Their first album in the new quintet formation; seven years since their last long-player and five since the Some of My Friends Appear Dead to Me EP.

That much time away from the fast-moving pop-punk scene means they return to a changed landscape where many of their contemporaries are on hiatus or flat-out no longer exist. They waste no time making amends for their extended absence, however; Island comes out swinging with the opening trio of ‘All the Same’, ‘Second Narrows’ and ‘Tidal Wave’, which when taken together hint at a band operating with a greater sense of urgency. ‘All the Same’s’ pleas for unity in a society that fosters division and suspicion is as close as we get to Brenneman and his cohorts addressing the political turmoil that has engulfed the world in recent years, but then their new record comes from an altogether more personal place in general, with the lyrics thinking locally but acting globally and refusing to pull any punches in doing so.

‘Tidal Wave’ is anchored around insistent, thudding drums and the band’s trademark lush harmonies as Brenneman documents the end of a toxic relationship, while ‘Dusty Records’ strikes a poignant note as it pays tribute to his grandfather, who passed away during those turbulent album recording sessions. ‘The Remedy’ and ‘On a Rope’ find Brenneman taking himself to task for past mistakes over passionate guitars and Lagare’s versatile drumming, with the sticksman seemingly everywhere at once on the latter track, with lightning-fast fills and irresistible energy driving the song forward toward its explosive chorus.

A tightly structured record, Island crucially knows when to let off some steam, with a spacey mid-album interlude and slower cuts like ‘Night Habits’ allowing the five-piece to create altogether different moods, saving the best for last with the bittersweet title track. They’re on form throughout, and among the highlights is ‘Plastic Flowers’, a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on Jimmy Eat World’s ‘Chase This Light’, leaning into its pop smarts far more brazenly than when it was originally written. It’s kicked around for close to a decade, penned by Postal and the original lineup, but for all this revision of past material and recounting of lived experiences there’s no denying that Living With Lions are looking to the future – a future it wasn’t especially clear they had even two years ago. They could do with catching a break; hopefully we’ll hear from them again sooner rather than later, as their latest offering is premium pop-punk fare that encroaches on alternative rock territory many of their peers shy away from. ‘Island’ feels like a fresh start – with enough momentum, it could be the breakthrough record ‘Holy Shit’ should have been.

GARETH O’MALLEY

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