Once the black sheep of the Toronto indie-rock scene, Fucked Up are now its keenest social conveners. As if double albums, 17-minute-long singles, 12-hour concerts and grandiose rock operas weren’t evidence enough of their boundless ambitions, the band are also the chief curators of the always eclectic, always excellent Long Winter concert series.
Held once a month from November to March at the historic Great Hall, this cross-genre, multidisciplinary, polar-vortex-proof indie-music festival – now in its second year – has become the lone reason to look forward to the snowy season in Toronto (provided you don’t give a shit about hockey). Think of the anarchic, circus-like atmosphere of first-wave Lollapalooza, but stuffed inside a notoriously haunted four-level Victorian banquet hall. Friday night’s edition introduced a sleepover component to go along with attractions that included psychedelic video art projected onto the venue’s 35-foot-high ceiling; white ribbons connecting the east and west balconies in a massive game of overhead Cat’s Cradle; a full-on variety talk show hosted in the cavernous Black Box basement room; karaoke; puppet theater and trapeze artists performing between-sets aerial acrobatics to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”
With a no-guest-list and pay-what-you-can door policy in effect, Long Winter has become the sort of event that requires an early arrival lest you get stuck shivering in the ever-expanding line snaking around the corner of Queen and Dovercourt. In fact, Long Winter has become so popular and elaborate in scope this season, it seemed as though Fucked Up had been too busy to book themselves to play it. But with the 2013-14 program drawing to a close last night, the band snuck in an unadvertised midnight set to perform a front-to-back test drive of their upcoming album, Glass Boys, due this summer on Matador Records in the U.S. (and, for the first time, on Arts & Crafts in their native Canada).
Of course, once the surprise wore off, the audience was left with a big question: How was Fucked Up going to follow up 2011’s David Comes to Life, an 18-track narrative song cycle and the band’s most acclaimed, accomplished album to date? While many groups react to their masterwork with a stripped-down, back-to-basics reboot, the 10 songs previewed last night suggest Fucked Up want to retain David’s sense of anthemic grandeur and major-chord expanse, but dispense it in more compact, concentrated bursts – and with a little more rhythmic dexterity than the band’s adrenalized attack normally allows.
Always ones to populate their albums with abstract intros and interludes, Fucked Up took the stage to the sound of warm piano tones reminiscent of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but they were quickly overcome by the monstrous psych-rock groove of “Echo Boomer,” which, despite being half the speed of the typical Fucked Up song, ignited the slam pit for the next 40 minutes. By the torqued-up second track, “Touchstone,” Damian Abraham was shirtless, showing off a lean physique that reflected the new songs’ trimmer fighting shape. However, due to both a nagging cold and the nervous excitement that comes when performing new songs live for the first time, the normally gregarious frontman was less chatty than usual. Partway through the set, he admitted, “I’ve never been so fucking proud and insecure,” before eliciting applause for the many Long Winter volunteers who manage the festival’s unseen grunt work.
Long past the point where the term “hardcore” can be reasonably applied to their continually refining sound, with Glass Boys, Fucked Up have seemingly turned themselves into the world’s nastiest, most muscular power-pop band. No matter how much melody and how many bright, chiming riffs they inject into the songs – with bassist Sandy Miranda’s chorus turn on “Art of Patrons” being a hooky highlight – the cumulative effect of the band’s triple-guitar roar and Abraham’s distorted-telephone bark ensures this band will maintain an asymptotic relationship with classic-rock convention. Following an accelerated, ecstatic surge through Glass Boys’ title-track closer, Fucked Up were coaxed back for an encore, and tellingly, they opted for the two back-catalogue standards that feel most in tune with the new material: the shout-and-response rave-up “David Comes to Life” (from 2006’s Hidden World, not the album of the same name) and 2011’s almost-radio-friendly stomper “The Other Shoe” (which builds a cheery chant out of the phrase “we’re dying on the inside!”). As the gesticulating throng on the floor swarmed Abraham at the lip of the stage, it became clear what a difference the 10 years since Fucked Up’s first overground-breaching CD release has made: where the singer once hurtled himself into the audience to scare the shit of it, he now gets pulled in before he even has a chance to jump.