Track Review: Strange Tides: Criminal

Shifting from folk-centred intimacy to emotionally-driven power, it’s a truly stunning debut.’ 

Intro to Strange Tides
While many of you will be un
familiar with Vancouver based ‘Strange Tides’, the Canadians among you may well have seen them play live. Comprised of Kirsten Bale and Victoria Carbol, the folk-rock duo were, until the temporary pausing of live music, performing regular. However, while that may be a loss, the benefit of it is that we get to experience ‘Criminal.’ Made possible in part thanks to them receiving a grant from FACTOR Canada, the track sees them take inspiration from a unique and emotional situation, and create what can only be termed as a phenomenal debut. Produced by Dan Ponich at Park Sound Studios, ‘Criminal’ harnesses a new sound, projects a powerful message and delivers an endless supply of boundary pushing musicality. [Read more at: Behind the Music: Interview with Strange Tides]

Track Review
Starting out with arpeggiated acoustic guitar, it would be fair to say that the opening moments of ‘Criminal’ don’t initially make you think ‘Strange Tides’ have musically side stepped. Bringing intimacy, touching slides can be heard and transporting us to the place of recording, we feel as though we are right there with them. It’s instantly irresistible. And then, only a few seconds later, the most haunting blues guitar line emerges to take the atmosphere to a place that can only be described as instrumentally centred gorgeousness. Sure we haven’t heard one lyric yet, but the track already promises the world.

Having created such evocative musicality in these opening moments, we soon experience a vocal that complements it beautifully. Leaving us in no doubt about the level of storytelling we are to journey through, the initial line provides a moving level of connection. Projected by Kirsten with softness equal to the surroundings, the phrase ‘They said good morning, please take a seat, we’re so glad you agreed to meet.’ immediately invites us into the situation. A situation that sees, in the words of the duo themselves faith, identity, and a queer woman’s experience of ostracization within a church community” explored. And explored in a way that is about to about to become phenomenal.

Shifting dramatically from the softness, and therefore what fans of ‘Strange Tides’ may well be used to experiencing at their live performances, we are hit with a wall of sound. Emphasising the changes in atmosphere, viewpoint, and feeling, we suddenly find ourselves among directive musical power and emotionally charged lyricism. The guitar lines fade. Rhythmically pounding drums echo like thunder, and an impassioned, near a cappella vocal delivery from Victoria erupts above. To say it is a dramatic change doesn’t really do it justice. But with change occurring, the most perfect of transitions occurs.    

“Oh no, say it ain’t so, They said
my love is a ticket down down below”

Carrying so much thumping power ahead of it, the chorus that we experience is one very different to where we may have felt those early moments were heading. Here, with the change having happened, what we hear is of a truly anthemic nature. Combining multi-set overlapping strummed chords, distortion, and title centred lyrics, you immediately want to powerfully join in with the duo. However, if you do you will find yourself hard-pressed to match the sound they generate. Shifting through positions within the chords, the vocal harmonic movement is sublime. And with every change bringing new emphasis, it is the perfect blend of their folk roots and newly found power.

Heading back to reflective musicality for a few moments, the second verse sees the focus of the story return to the situation, rather than the feelings it generated. That said, with how lines such as “Let us know what we can do” and “Such a trial for us all to go through” are told, you can’t help but have a genuine reaction. Equally, with the removal of the pre-chorus this time round, before we know it we’ve hit the chorus at full force and are once again trying to compete with the powerhouse, harmony infused vocals both Kirsten and Victoria possess. Given we are barely past the halfway point, you really do wonder what more they can deliver. But brace yourself as compared to what we are about to experience, they haven’t really given us anything.

Not heard since the earliest moments of the track, a sense of sparseness suddenly descends. The power dissipates. The passion vanishes. And the drama does too. Has the track imploded on itself due to the sheer quality of the musicality? Perhaps. But no. Like everything to this point, and I truly do mean everything, there is real purpose and intention behind what has just occured. As contrasting as can be, the return of instrumental delicacy ensures both us and the duo have a few seconds to breathe, reflect and prepare for what is on the way. Then after a few moments longer, the most spellbinding soft harmonies emerge.

“Lyrically, ‘Criminal’ is more raw than anything we’ve done before.
It was composed in the anger of a moment and we think you can really hear that in the sound.”

Setting up what is to be the most dramatic of sonic transformations, the initial occurrence of “Oh no, say it ain’t so, never gonna let live, never gonna let go” feels haunting and almost understated. However, as we progress these vocals gradually, and I mean very gradually, become infused with hints of returning passion. It’s literally a little extra projection here, a little extra projection there. Underneath though, the instrumental elements are re-emerging too with equally haunting guitar whines and wave-like motifs blending with heartbeat style floor tom. To say it’s anticipation inducing doesn’t do it justice.  

Continuing to push home the sense of impending drama – while somehow managing to keep a lid on it as long as they dare – these simplistic motifs start to change from metronomic to cross-rhythmical. Harking back to more dominating folk influences, the power delivered by these pounding drums is genre-centric enough. Within these though, a mass of instrumental elements begin to surge to the fore. Snare strikes collide with cymbal crashes and power-filled toms. More syncopated chordal accents than you can count attempt to break through. And above all this is a succession of impassioned, heavily message-driven interweaving vocals flying off everywhere. Sounding as it does, and building how it does too, it’s not over-exaggerating to say many artists, folk, rock or otherwise could learn a thing or two from it.

Pushing the sound to near bursting point in this most phenomenal of bridges, the sensations that we feel from what we have heard carries right through into the closing sections. Here though, with that aforementioned drama solidified the chorus is truly about one thing only: Dominance. Driving the main phrases into our heads, while surprise melismas and harmonies erupt above, it’s a climax of spine-tinglingly overwhelming proportions. And therefore it’s little surprise that in a crashing and thrashing finale, the anger and frustration felt at the time of writing the track can be contained no longer. If this is what ‘Strange Tides’ are giving us as a debut release, we better start preparing for the follow up now.

Find out more about Strange Tides at:
Behind the Music: Interview with Strange Tides

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