The press release for Bison B.C.’s fourth studio album, Lovelessness, describes the homegrown metal heavyweights as a “downer foursome” and likens the disc to a “lunatic writing their opus on the bedroom wall with their own shit”. Such language falls far enough from the ecstatic PR–speak one expects that it seems a safe bet someone in Bison wrote it.
Indeed, in a call to the Straight, James Farwell, the Manitoba-born cofounder of the band, cops to doing exactly that—which is appropriate, because he also wrote every song on the album: “The thing was kinda my baby,” he reports.
Normally, Bison albums have a few songs by cofounder Dan And. While less prolific than Farwell, he’s penned two of the band’s best-loved tunes, “Wendigo Part 1” and “Fear Cave”, on which he sings and takes lead guitar parts. Although he reassures fans he has “every intention on the next record of stepping it back up again”, he has an explanation for his lack of presence on Lovelessness.
Interviewed earlier, in a “houseful of women” in Kelowna while planning for his wedding, And reveals: “I had a lot of health issues and stuff I had to deal with. I had to take a step back from the writing and let James take over.”
The imposing, part-Algonquin guitarist helped arrange songs in the studio, alongside Bison bassist Masa Anzai and new drummer Matt Wood, but songwriting and lead vocal duties fell to Farwell.
The resulting album is one Farwell describes as “dirtier and more desperate-sounding” than past Bison releases.
“I wanted it to be raw, I wanted it to be violent, I wanted it to be like vomiting,” he says. “There’s ebbs and flows, and there’s quiet bits, but it still is wretched-sounding, even though a lot of the content—to me, anyway—is emotional and melancholic and personal. It’s about as sappy as I’m going to get—or possibly as I’m allowed to get, given the genre we’re working in.”
Sappy? There’s definitely a powerfully cathartic element to Lovelessness, with the band’s bloody, dripping hearts hanging off their sleeves, but sappy isn’t one of the adjectives that springs to mind when describing the group’s third release on California’s Metal Blade Records.
“To me, it’s just melancholic and sappy,” Farwell insists. “No doubt, it’s still violent and heavy and stuff, but it’s coming from a different place. It’s been a tough year. I had a bunch of people die on me. My dog passed away. It’s been rough.”
Milo, Farwell’s Husky–Great Dane cross, inspired the opening track, “An Old Friend”, and features prominently in the album art; the visceral, red-hued cover is a photograph of the tumour that killed him.
“It’s violence and death and love all together in one,” Farwell explains. “Milo was the one sort of link I had to all that could possibly be good in this world, because he was the most loving and loyal and gentle being I’d ever been around. He taught me patience and love and all that good stuff. He was a good fuckin’ dude, man, and he was stoic until the end: didn’t show me pain, didn’t show me any suffering. Just a beautiful creature that got taken way too soon for no fuckin’ good reason that I can see.”
Even Farwell’s day job factors into the songwriting; “Clozapine Dream” is inspired by a powerful anti-psychotic some of his clients are prescribed, as part of his gig as a “budget social worker” on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Besides the Farwell-centric nature of Lovelessness, there are other changes from past Bison releases. Original drummer Brad Mackinnon and long-time cover artist Mike Payette are absent; so is Jesse Gander, who recorded the last three Bison albums at the Hive. Instead, the band set out for Chicago, to record with producer Sanford Parker, noted for his work with Yob, Nachtmystium, and Unearthly Trance. The resulting release—out now on CD, with a red vinyl gatefold in the works for War on Music—combines grandiose, heavy-as-fuck sludge metal with rough-hewn, wrathful thrash, often in the same song, as on “Last and First Things”.
Farwell says it was difficult for the band to come to the decision to work with someone other than Gander.
“We all agreed that we wanted to go with someone else other than Jesse,” he reveals. “It was difficult to come to that decision, but we were in a rut. Our albums were all sounding the same. They’re great-sounding albums, but they weren’t really translating the urgency that we have with our live set, and we weren’t getting a super-organic sound.”
Furthermore, the band decided it “needed to leave the comforts of home”, he continues. “We needed to be uncomfortable, we needed to be in a place where that’s why we were there, and that’s all we did. We would wake up and go into the studio for 10 hours, and then go to the floor that we were sleeping on and not have our girlfriends rub our backs or have to pick up a shift at work or any kind of bullshit. It’s different, it’s uncomfortable, and it gives you a different kind of energy.”
As wretched and melancholy as Lovelessness may be, there’s a fundamental contradiction between the emotional tone of the album and the ultimate effect the music has: because few bands play with the same exuberance and joy in music-making as Bison, the pit at a Bison show is a strangely positive, if not ecstatic, place. Given this, Farwell calling Bison a “downer foursome” seems somewhat unfair.
“It feels really good fucking bellowing this shit out—and seeing people’s reactions, too, is really good,” Farwell assents. “And when I see people enjoying themselves, that joy is lovely, and I recognize it to a point. But there’s still the matter of where it comes from. If it translates into joy—is that some kind of therapeutic thing, that I take the garbage and I put it out, and it sort of gets turned into this…
“I don’t know,” he continues. “It’s powerful, but it’s also sort of, like, the last-ditch effort that I have; it’s the only thing I have. And therein lies a bit of a sadness, too.”
Bison B.C. plays a Lovelessness album-release party at the Rickshaw Theatre on Saturday (December 1).