Thursday, June 24, 2010

Gothic electronic band, Johnny Hollow, takes stage at T.O's Neutral Lounge

Johnny Hollow at Neutral Lounge, June 6, Toronto // Provided by Vincent Marcone

Johnny Hollow lured out a sizable crowd to hear their brand of Gothic electronic chamber music despite performing a late Sunday night concert, which took place June 6 at Neutral Lounge in Toronto.

The band is from Guelph, ON, and plays a few shows every year in the Toronto area, drawing a fairly regular crowd each time.

Backing vocalist and digital artist Vincent Marcone creates the distinctive artwork that accompanies the band in the live performances and their album, working under his pseudonym, My Pet Skeleton.

The visuals play an important role in this band, with Marcone’s dark paintings and animations projected behind the stage, such as the sinister bear-like creature stomping along to Worse Things.

Marcone uses keyboards and MIDI controllers to create the creepy sounds that punctuate their songs, and acts as a “human drum machine” to play the percussion parts. Kitty Thompson shines on the cello — the instrument that really makes Johnny Hollow stand out among the many dark ambient bands. Janine White is the lead vocalist, and also plays classical-sounding piano parts throughout many of the songs.

On stage, they’re accompanied by guitarist Steve Hiehn who joined the band last year, and bassist Samantha McClellan.

The band has an amazing ability to jump from performing really grim songs to joking with the audience. They never seem to take themselves too seriously, but a strong passion shows when they play.

On this particular night, the band was trying to get rid of old merchandise and therefore sold T-shirts for a huge discount. People complained that the sizes were odd, with most of the leftovers either large or extra-large.

“Remember, a baggy T-shirt is just a few button holes away from being a corset,” Thompson told the dressed-up crowd, joking around from the moment her microphone turned on.

The show began with a couple of acoustic songs. The women described how pleased they were to kick the men out for a short ladies-only set. They started with Worse Things, and continued with This Hollow World, two of their more popular songs. The added double bass provided an added layer of depth, with Marcone eventually joining in with ambience and electronics.

Apart from the acoustic treat, their set was similar to their other shows, playing a few songs off their latest release, Dirty Hands, as well as a couple from their self-titled debut release.

At each show, Johnny Hollow performs with another band known primarily in the underground Goth scene. This time, they featured UK electronic group Attrition, though it seemed like much of the audience were drawn to the show to see Johnny Hollow. Despite Attrition’s 30 years in the Goth scene, they performed a rather generic set, although I admit I left part of the way through it.

The primarily electronic music was rather boring after experiencing Johnny Hollow’s live material.

Although Johnny Hollow’s shows tend to feature the same songs, they never seem stale. And for any fan of dark, beautiful music, their show is one that shouldn’t be missed. They put on a fantastic show, performing lovely renditions of their own strange music.

Originally published in The Charlatan, Carleton University's independent student newspaper.

The Wilderness of Manitoba coming to Ottawa June 26

The Wilderness of Manitoba // Provided
The Wilderness of Manitoba may be a little deceiving with their name. This folky band has never actually been to Manitoba as a group — though they’ll be heading out there in July as part of their first cross-Canada tour.

The name was inspired by an art installation created by Noam Gonick and Luis Jacob called "Wildflowers of Manitoba." The piece depicts an actor lying inside a dome that displays films representing the actor’s fantasies from the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

When the project headed to Toronto’s Nuit Blanche festival in 2008, band members Scott Bouwmeester and Will Whitwham were asked to portray the “hippie” inside the dome, according to Bouwmeester.

“We kind of chuckled and laughed and said no,” Bouwmeester said, adding that he had misheard the title as the Wilderness of Manitoba, and thought that would make for a good band name. “It wasn't until a couple months later I realized I made a mistake,” he said, but by then the name had stuck with the band.

The group released their second album on June 22, titled When You Left the Fire. It was recorded in the basement of the house on Delaware Avenue in Toronto where Bouwmeester, Whitwham and Banjevic all live.

Bouwmeester described the music as very honest with the feeling of yearning. “There's an emotional weight to the songs and I think it's not contrived in any way,” he said. “It's all coming from an honest place.”

The album’s cover art is the work of Melissa Barton, who provides the female vocals in the band.

“Our last record had a very striking simple drawing. It was very eye-catching but it was also black and white,” Bouwmeester said. “[This time,] we wanted something with a lot more colour.”

And colour is something the album's artwork definitely possesses, made with a variety of media, including fabric, quilt, and paint so as to depict a serene landscape.

When You Left the Fire brought some changes in the composing process, creating a more collaborative effort than their previous release, Hymns of Love and Spirits, according to Bouwmeester.

“With the EP that we did, Will sang the songs he wrote, I sang the songs I wrote,” Bouwmeester said. “That was just the way it was.”

But this album has band members bringing their songs to the table before completion, and giving input on each other’s pieces. Bouwmeester said the songwriting often involved writing for a specific person’s vocal talents.

“It just sort of falls into place,” he said. “There are certain voices that just work in different situations [because] we all have different characters in our voices.”

The band often brings these characters together, singing in unison in four-part harmonies. They also each play several instruments, allowing for more variety during live shows. “We definitely toss the guitars back and forth,” Bouwmeester said of the band’s performances, adding that Stefan Banjevic tends to switch the most of them all, jumping back and forth between guitar, banjo and cello.

Bouwmeester said every show is unique, and their performance really ranges, sometimes playing with a drummer and sometimes without. When they want the drumbeats, they call on Sean Lancaric for percussion.

They’ve performed in Ottawa previously at the Raw Sugar CafĂ© on Somerset Street, which Bouwmeester described as “one of the best places in the entire world.”

“It's an amazing vibe, with great tea, great coffee, organic squares and organic beers on tap,” he said.

The Wilderness of Manitoba brings their live show to the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre in Ottawa June 26.

Originally published in The Charlatan, Carleton University's independent student newspaper.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Twins' haunting music based in folklore

Dark, haunting myths and folklore inspire the songwriting of Ghost Bees, identical twin sisters whose performances are distinguished by their beautiful harmonies.

They’ve been going through some changes lately, though, and the sisters, Romy and Sari Lightman, 25, are planning to rename their band Tasseomancy.

The new name is a perfect fit for them, as tasseomancy is the art of reading tea leaves—a form of divination that has been passed down through their family, beginning with their great-great-grandmother, Clara Chernos.

Sari (left) and Romy Lightman // Sojourner Truth
The band has become something of a tribute to her, with her face appearing on a cake on the cover of their previous album, also named Tasseomancy.

Chernos was an orphan who immigrated to Canada in the 19th century to escape the Russian pogroms, Romy says, explaining she learned about Chernos from her grandmother, Merle Snider.

Their initial interest in investigating this ancestor came from a Celtic shaman, who advised them to look for a matrilineal relative, Romy says, adding that their grandmother immediately identified this link as Chernos.

And coincidently, one day when she was singing in synagogue, Romy says her grandfather heard her voice and told her she sounded exactly like Chernos.

These familial myths inspire these musicians, particularly the ones that “contribute to our own existence,” Romy says.

“There’s something about being in the old world,” Sari says. “It’s so different from how we exist today.”

They agree that ancestry is not something of the past, but rather is necessary to understand oneself.

And it’s this fascination that contributed to a connection with Israel when they visited the country two years ago.

Sari describes Israel as a place that links so many civilizations.

“I envision the land there as these sediments of rock,” she says, “and if you keep going deeper and deeper, [you’ll see] so many people have lived there and existed there before us. It’s pretty humbling.”

“But the things we’re pulling on has less to do with Israel and more to do with the old world,” Romy says.

Some of the new material is inspired by Yiddish folklore and ghost stories, for example, the myth of a dybbuk, or a spirit inhabiting someone’s body after death.

There’s the idea of romanticizing the old world, since it’s so different from the modern way of life, Sari adds.

“There’s so much mysticism and myth that’s so involved in our ancestry that we can’t really comprehend because we don’t live like that anymore,” she says. “Practicing any kind of marginalized religion wasn’t really easy so there’s a lot of passion and suffering.”

Although they spent their childhoods in Thornhill, Ont. and their teenage years in Toronto, Sari describes them as having been “musically conceived in Halifax,” where they moved for school at 17 years old.

“There’s this period in one’s life [where] it’s almost like a second coming, when you kind of come into yourself in whatever way that may be,” Romy says, adding that if they hadn’t moved to the East Coast, they may not have become the people they are today.

They just finished their new album, In a Glass, Darkly, which Sari describes as having a heavier and fuller sound than their last, and involves experimenting with different sounds and pedals. Instrumentation on the album, by Romy and Sari, includes guitar, banjo, and mandolin.

Romy (left) and Sari Lightman
The album will likely be released later this year.

“It’s a winter record,” Romy says. “It was recorded in the winter, and as much as we thought we’d be able to put it out sooner, I think we’re both content with waiting for the right allies to put it out.”

They’re currently signed with Youth Club Records, the Halifax-based one-man-show record label, but they are on the hunt for a new label.

“[Youth Club Records] definitely facilitated a time and a place,” Romy says, “but similarly to us changing the band name, we’re looking for more help and we want to give this album its proper…”

“Leverage,” Sari says, finishing the sentence.

Although they say they’ve always been singing together, it wasn’t until their early twenties that they began to accompany each other on their independently written songs.

That’s essentially the model of their writing process. They write them separately, then join forces to complete the song.

“Whoever’s song it is, the other person will back it,” Romy says.

The lyrics tend to tell stories, as the duo come from a more literary background than a musical one. But the music creates the feeling and the essence of the songs.

“It’s more about the language of music than the language of words,” Romy says.

There is a recurring theme of isolation in the songs, she says, which may have stemmed from her experiences living in an artist residency on the Toronto Islands.

“It was a pretty lonely time in the month of November, which is why I think the winter resonates in the record,” she says.

For now, they’re back in Toronto, and will perform on June 18 at part of the annual North-by-Northeast music festival and one show at the Toronto City Roots Festival.

Being back in their hometown, they can reconnect with old friends and people in the Jewish community who are also interested in the arts and music scene, Sari says. “It’s exciting because before we left, no one was really their own person at 17, so it’s interesting to see how they’ve all grown and developed.”

Both women have grown significantly since they were teenagers, they say.

From teenagers living in the big city to women in the East Coast of the country, the Ghost Bees have also grown into their unique style of eerie, mysterious music.

The Ghost Bees play at C’est What and the Gladstone Hotel on June 18, as part of the North By Northeast festival (, and on June 26 at the Toronto City Roots Festival ( Visit for more information.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Wintersleep mine their memories for 'New Inheritors' (Spinner Canada)

Wintersleep, New Inheritors
With memories and legacies at the heart of Wintersleep's fourth album, 'New Inheritors,' the Halifax group decided to put some of their most treasured possessions on the cover.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Magic is not just kids' stuff

After 15 years of performing magic shows, Ben Train says he rarely sees a trick that fools him. But when he does, he wants to keep it that way.

It’s really special to see something you just don’t understand, he says. That’s why he loves performing his illusions for adults.

“Everybody thinks of magic as something for children but I really think it's more intelligent and intellectual,” he says. “It’s certainly family friendly, but this isn’t kids’ magic.”

The 25-year-old philosophy major first discovered a love of magic when he was eight years old, an interest that he says is not unusual for kids.

“I think all young boys have an interest in magic,” he says. “The only difference with me is I didn't outgrow it.”

When he was 16, he tutored a child at a house across the street from a magic store, he says. He purchased a trick deck and learned to perform it that night.

The next day, he went back to the store and watched someone demonstrate the same trick—but this time, it was with a normal deck, performed using sleight of hand.

From that moment, he was hooked.

Becoming a magician wasn’t easy, he says. It involved fine-tuning his motor skills, learning to speak in front of a crowd, and becoming comfortable chatting with a group of strangers.

His mother, Shayne Train, says his personality really contributes to his ability to put on a great performance.

“Part of being a magician is being able to distract people while you're doing the tricks,” she says. “He could be a stand-up comedian as well.”

Ben Train says, when he performs, he doesn’t lie to his audience. He knows he doesn’t have magical powers, and he doesn’t let them think otherwise. Instead, he assures them he performs illusions.

He also accommodates his show to fit his audience, even going so far as to performing a magic show for blind people by using tactile tricks as opposed to visual ones.

For example, one trick involved having a blind audience member taste a sweet treat and a sour drink. Without going near the taster, he says he would reverse the tastes of the foods, transforming it into a sour treat and a sweet drink.

He says he loves the feeling of making people happy with his show, and loves performing for sick children.

“It's pretty special to be able to show it to someone who's unhappy or ill and it brightens their day,” he says.

He joined in on illusionist David Copperfield’s Project Magic, which brings magicians into hospitals to teach physically challenged people how to perform sleight of hand.

He loves sharing his abilities, insisting that magic should be inclusive. He teaches a free monthly class at the Browser’s Den, located at Bathurst Street and Eglinton Avenue.

One of the biggest challenges in learning to perform magic was finding people and resources to help him improve his skills. Magicians tend to insist on secrecy, which makes it a very exclusive community, one that’s very difficult to break into.

But Train says whether it’s an art, craft, or philosophy, experts should be willing to take new performers under their wing and teach them a foundation of skills.

“Everybody knows the first rule of being a magician is that you don't tell people how your tricks are done,” he says. “But if you're really serious, I'd teach you anything you'd want to know.”

His favourite magician is Dai Vernon, a Canadian magician who lived until he was 98. Train describes him as a pioneer of one-on-one magic such as David Blaine’s street magic.
As a young Jew, he sees similarities between the magic and Jewish communities. Both, he says, are very welcoming. No matter where he goes, he says there’s always a family willing to share their home or a Shabbat dinner.

“With magic, it’s the same thing,” he explains. “When I go to a [foreign] city, I don’t go to a hotel. There’s always someone who will let me stay at their home.”

He points out the many magic stores in predominantly Jewish areas of Toronto, such as the Browser’s Den.

Train will perform a show with Asi Wind, an accomplished Israeli magician, at a club in Toronto in mid-June.

The goal, Train says, is to bring more Israeli magicians to Canada. Many of them have moved to North America to chase wider success, so it isn’t too expensive to bring them in, he says.

He says his favourite tricks are the ones involving tricks for gambling. For example, an audience member might shuffle and deck and, without looking, Train would pick out poker hands such as four-of-a-kind aces or a royal flush.

He learned many of his card tricks from The Expert at the Card Table, by S. W. Erdnase.
“It's a hard book to study and it's a really important book,” he says. “There's a lot of people who really like that book, but there's not a lot of people who can actually do the material.”

The fact that he does understand the book has opened many doors, he says, giving him the opportunity to meet many celebrities.

“There are a lot of people who have had an interest in magic,” he says, citing examples such as comedian Colin Mochrie, members of punk rock band Billy Talent, and television host Ben Mulroney.

He says the magic world is different from other forms of entertainment. Someone who’s interested in movies can’t just call up Steven Spielberg for advice. But in the magic community, once a magician knows the person is serious, they’re usually happy to talk, he says.

The best thing about magic is it surprises people, he says.

“[With technology,] we're never surprised anymore,” he says, explaining that we can use search engines to know exactly what will happen in a movie before we see it. “We know everything that's happening in front of us.”

But not with magic. That’s what makes it so special, he says. “Magic sort of throws that for a loop.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

When there's nothing left to burn...

Stars - Do You Trust Your Friends?

I know this is long overdue (the album was released in 2007) but I had to write about it.

I only recently discovered this album. It's a remix album of Stars' 2004 album Set Yourself on Fire. They had some of their musical friends remix or cover all of the tracks. And what inspired me to write this?

Final Fantasy's remix of Your Ex-Lover is Dead

This is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful tracks I have ever heard. The original song is incredible with it's melancholic chord progression and horns. The lyrics and the vocals make sure the listener gets the full impact of the emotions. Every time I hear it, I get the same reaction.

Final Fantasy's enchanting remix has given new life to this song and made me fall in love with it once again. The intro ("When there's nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire") is repeated by girls and women with such different voices that I can almost visualize each one.

Then, the mournful sounds of the piano comes in and sweeps the listener away, feeling like it's leading us on a morose journey through the memories of two people who once were in love.

Years pass and the former lovers are introduced to each other by a friend of a friend. I'm lucky enough to have never gone through something like this, as I cannot fathom how difficult it would be, and how strange it would feel.

Torquil Campbell begins the songs with his verses. The lyrics say it better than I could describe.

"God, that was strange to see you again/Introduced by a friend of a friend/Smiled and said yes, I think we've met before/In that instant it started to pour.

"Captured a taxi despite all the rain/We drove in silence across Pont Champlain/And all of that time when you thought I was sad/I was trying to remember your name..."

Amy Millan takes over from here, giving insight into their past fallout.

"This scar is a fleck on my porcelain skin/Tried to reach deep but you couldn't get in/Now you're outside me you see all the beauty/Repent all your sins.

The two create a beautiful harmony each time they unite their voices.

"It's nothing but time and a face that you lose/I chose to feel it and you couldn't choose/I'll write you a postcard, I'll send you the news from the house down the road from real love."

Then the repeated reminder... "Live through this and you won't look back."

It finishes with Millan's beautiful vocals that end the heartbreaking encounter.

"There's one thing I want to say so I'll be brave/You were what I wanted, I gave what I gave/I'm not sorry I met you/I'm not sorry it's over/I'm not sorry there's nothing to save/I'm not sorry there's nothing to save."

Cue the hopeful sounding violins, finally falling into the mournful piano outro.

An amazing piece of music that is, without a doubt, the gem of this album.

Monday, June 7, 2010

We Are The Fallen rocks Toronto with a familiar ring

Carly Smithson (left) and Ben Moody of We Are The Fallen
Watching We Are The Fallen play the El Mocambo in Toronto on May 18 was like reliving my first Evanescence concert experience—only this band has not yet exploded onto the airwaves, and the concert was one of the smallest and most intimate I’ve ever attended.
The comparisons have been endless—an inevitability considering some of these musicians helped create Evanescence’s sound. Three members, Ben Moody, John LeCompt and Rocky Gray, were original members when Evanescence released their first album, Fallen, from which it is said the new band derived their name.
Bassist Marty O’Brien is a professional bassist who has played with many renowned artists including Kelly Clarkson and Disturbed. The dark, powerful frontwoman is Carly Smithson, a finalist in the 2008 season of American Idol.
Despite their wealth of experience, the band insists they are just like any other new band, starting from the bottom and working their way up.
Despite the small audience at the headlining concert, the guitarist LeCompt, and the drummer, Gray, looked as energetic as they did when I watched them play for tens of thousands at the Molson Amphitheatre and the Air Canada Centre.
Smithson’s voice was strong, proving her abilities that took her far in Idol. Her live performance sounded on par with the album recordings, although many of the songs used a vocal backtrack.
Although it made it seem less real, the vocal backtracks are understandable for the harmonies and the choir parts, such as in the first single, "Bury Me Alive." However, in the song "St. John" (named for an Irish asylum, not the city) Smithson seemed to simply sing over a prerecorded chorus.
The band played every song off their debut album Tear the World Down, including their hard rock cover of Madonna’s "Like a Prayer." Additionally, they covered Iron Maiden’s "Flight of Icarus" and Journey’s "Separate Ways."
It was a little disappointing to see they decided against performing Evanescence songs. Towards the start of their formation, they announced they would initially play some Evanescence songs at their shows. It would have been interesting to see what Smithson would do to differentiate her vocals from Evanescence vocalist Amy Lee.
However, this decision was presumably an attempt to distinguish Fallen from Evanescence and end the comparisons.
Another disappointment was the number of pre-recorded instruments. Most notably missing was the piano. While it would have been unnecessarily expensive to bring along a keyboard player for the few obvious parts, it would have made for a more complete live show.
However, the band put on a strong performance. Their songs are definitely geared more towards the hard rock and metal crowd than pop fans, and they seemed to captivate the entire crowd.
It was ambitious to play a first show at a venue charging over $20 for tickets considering the album had only been released a week prior. The crowd was quite small, with only about 75 people in the audience.
My guess is more people would have checked out the semi-unknown band had they played a venue that would allow them to charge somewhere closer to $10 for tickets. However, the fans made up for their numbers in their energy and their devotion to the band. Throughout the set, they cheered and sang along to the new songs.
The musicians seem authentically rock even though there were more than a few times when Smithson demonstrated her ability to sing the long vibrato-filled notes that have become something of a trademark for the Idol competition.
It was a real thrill to be able to watch these excellent performers in such a small venue. They were also a very friendly bunch, visiting the merchandise table after the show where fans waited to greet them.
Many fans held out Evanescence’s debut album, asking the former members for autographs. However, a ton of the audience also left with autographed Fallen CDs and t-shirts, as well as smiles on their faces.
The band’s performance proved the talent is clearly there, and with a bit more promotion, fans will probably not get another chance to get this close to this fantastic group ever again.
Originally published with the Charlatan, Carleton University's independent student newspaper.