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Hip-hop production, mimicking an evangelist or just letting shit get dark, Arkells show some fresh moves
Arkells Take Some Big, Ambitious Swings on 'Rally Cry'
Photo: Matt Barnes
Last Friday, Hamilton rock heroes Arkells released their highly anticipated fifth album, Rally Cry, an emphatic set of reach-for-the-sky anthems that serves as an exclamation point on an otherwise career year for the band.
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"The year has been exciting, because we've done things we've never done before," frontman Max Kerman tells Exclaim! "We went to the Olympics, our show in Hamilton was a big deal, and we performed at the Junos, which we've done before, but that was still exciting. Everything just adds up to make it feel bigger than what it was before."
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Referencing the "Rally" concert they held for more than 24,000 fans at Tim Hortons Field this past June, Rally Cry is a next-level achievement for the multiple Juno-winning band. Capitalizing on last year's hit, the one-off single, "Knocking at the Door," Arkells looked to expand their horizons and become more ambitious than ever in the studio. No longer the working class rockers that found acceptance in the Canadian independent scene, Arkells are now arguably the biggest rock band in Canada. With a cross-country arena tour set for February, they needed big songs that would fit these big stages, which meant pushing their music into new directions.
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"As time goes on, you just listen to new things. So either on the production or songwriting side, you're going to engage with different kinds of music," bassist Nick Dika says. "I know when we made our first record, there weren't many references to hip-hop in the production, but I think as time has gone on we've tried referencing artists like Kanye or Chance the Rapper in terms of production. For example, 'Eyes on the Prize' owes a lot to Chance. Even Max tries to sneak some Chance-isms into his vocals."
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"Eyes on the Prize" is easily the album's crapshoot. Featuring their backing singers, Arkettes, and the Northern Soul Horns, the soulful rave-up hits the brakes at the midpoint for a costume change, in which Kerman assumes the role of an evangelist. Having proven himself as a larger-than-life presence at Arkells shows, he can pull it off, but that's not to say the song wasn't a gamble.
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"I was thinking, 'Wouldn't it be cool if there was this theatrical section in the song where I just broke down and get spiritual, like I'm talking under a street light or something?'" Kerman says.
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"The cool thing was Max being so spontaneous and positive," adds guitarist Mike DeAngelis. "And Tony [Carone, keyboardist] is an amazing piano player, so he can follow in real time what Max is doing in that moment. It's actually a real nice, organic section of the song, because the rest of the song is regimented in a pop production style. That part of the song is a nice showcase of musicianship."
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If Arkells are known for anything, it's making people feel good. Their ability to write uplifting songs is pretty much uncontested these days, yet one mention of their unwavering optimism has them pointing out that the songs go deeper than the surface suggests.
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"There is some darker shit on Rally Cry," says Kerman, "like in 'Don't Be a Stranger' and 'Passenger Seat.' Granted, I do like to find the silver lining in our material. That is just me a and my natural disposition. But a song like 'Only for a Moment' is about a friend who had a family member going through suicidal urges, and it was consuming the whole family. It was a real tough time for her, and I wanted to write about that moment in the night where she was out with her friends and not thinking about that part of her life. I don't think that's a particularly happy song."
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Adds DeAngelis, "But I think our songs definitely try to feel that happy place."
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That happy place seems to extend outside of the music. In promoting Rally Cry, Arkells have gone the extra mile for their fans by throwing a karaoke party for fans, setting up a hotline to listen to a new single, and on release day, hosting a pop-up shop where they met with fans and screen-printed shirts. Why the need to go to so much trouble when your fan base already adores you the way Arkellians do? It's simple.
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"People seem to like it, and I'm surprised more bands don't do it because it's really fucking easy," says Kerman. "[With the karaoke party] we had this unique opportunity to do something fun and we had time in our schedule. I find that our fans are generally sweet, well-adjusted people that are pretty hang with. When I think of my favourite songs, I have a memory attached to the song, like first hearing it on a road trip or seeing it performed live for the first time. So I thought this might be an interesting chance to give a moment — no pun intended — to 'Only for a Moment' for people that are interested in the band."

Rally Cry?is out now on Universal Canada.