This story is over 5 years old.


Retrospective Reviews: Cancer Bats' With "Dead Set on Living"

They went deep on particle physics, too.

Cancer Bats’ 2009 record Bears, Mayors, Scraps & Bones aspired to serve as a catalogue of all the demons and existential sufferings encountered in modern life, as well as an outlet to cast them through. It succeeded too well on the first count, and the second suffered as a result. Lyrically this album was exhausting and disenchanting. It gets to the point where frontman Liam Cormier insists on “Trust No One,” that he’s “not as negative as all this sounds.” But even if you absorbed this without knowing the song’s title, it was still hard to believe him.


Delivered two years ago and promised as a more upbeat follow-up to BMS&B’s seething bleakness, Dead Set on Living proved Cancer Bats could still be a receptacle for forward-thinking heavy music.

“RATS” brings closure to and serves as a fitting epilogue for BMS&B’s unresolved baggage. Its critique of generally awful people sweeping (“Turncoats and dead end friends/ Self-centers and traitors,” “Low-lifers and haters,” etc.), the song lines up its cast of villains on a ledge and shoots them down, satisfied they’ll reach their comeuppance on their own: “There’s a special place in hell for motherfuckers like you,” Cormier screams. “RATS” is more than vicarious sadism, though. Already enjoyable as a fire-breathing shitlist, in a strategic aside, its speaker turns its weapon on itself to declare that no one is safe, “Because it’s us too.” This indiscriminate critique is instantly more intriguing and engaging than the dead-end cynicism that plagues the majority of the preceding album, and it sets the stage for another that can be constructive in its disapproval.

Death by collective hell fire is a loaded device, and Cormier spends the remainder of the album fleshing out its connotations while piecing together a new morality.

DSOL obsesses over the topic of physical deletion, but the only other place it uses expressly biblical vocabulary to do so is on “Breathe Armageddon.” Biblical allusions are otherwise rich throughout DSOL, but that the lyrics for a song aligning ultimate biblical judgment with the world’s final barbecue take a curious left turn toward discussing something religion has a complicated relationship with – particle physics – is a telling move.


“I am the son of the atom,” Cormier sings in a mock-southern drawl. Referencing one of the most widely abundant basic building blocks of being, the use of the definite article here seems out of place, but the line could be a pun for another, particularly convinced declaration of origin: I am the son of the Adam. Rather than championing one single perspective on creation, Cormier uses the next line of the song to invoke potent symbols of transformation, life, and conflict (“The war, the sun, the hate”) that disparate cultures approach with competing meanings, but acknowledgment that serves as a common thread. Particle physics is discussed more thoroughly elsewhere on the pit-ready “Drunken Physics.” As awkward as it is to process the gang vocals yelling “Let the hadrons collide!” at the start of this song, recorded at the end of 2011 – a year that saw physicists in Switzerland grabbing international headlines for buzz around major headway in the quest to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson (a theoretical, elementary particle also dubbed “the God particle”) with the Large Hadron Collider – it was here that we were given one of the most gnarly low culture articulations of just what the hell the world’s most complicated scientific instrument does. If that wasn’t enough, it also served as an allegory for inclusive collaboration. “Divided we fall apart,” Cormier screams, to which his addressees respond in melodic unison: “there’s safety in numbers.” It’s epic.


The album wasn’t all high concept.

“Road Sick,” could function as a tale of the path toward enlightenment, but it’s mostly a smart road song: there’s an inward-spiraling meta quality to this one that addresses the fact that it is a purge of all the complicated hypocrisy involved with complaining about being on the road as a touring band. With words fit for a loved one (but ultimately traded in as commercial labour) Cormier waxes apprehensive: “Don’t lose hope, I’ll be back home before you even know it/ Heard it said 1000 times before/ Sure you’re gonna hear it 1000 times more.” We have heard it before, but not like this. Here Scott Middleton’s guitar play is an impressionistic retelling of the redundancy of it all. As bands are expected to get mileage out of songs, he goes for mileage with his chords, letting them ring out over the verses as if illustrating a lack of inspiration.

It makes sense immediately following “Bricks and Mortar,” a song about the physical and spiritual shelter offered by stations of permanent residence. Months after the album released, the band extended the collaborative, do-it-together ethics of DSOL to some of its favorite hometown haunts and dropped a video for “Bricks and Mortar,” functioning as a four-minute tourism video navigating the city they call home: Toronto, ON. Postured as guides, the band is pictured visiting Sonic Boom to flip through vinyl, piling into a booth at Sneaky Dee’s for a plate of Destroyer Nachos (a Cancer Bats/Hail Destroyer honoring nacho/poutine hybrid the Mexican restaurant/bar committed to its permanent menu), and making visits to places like Crow’s Nest Barber Shop, The Okey-Doke Tattoo Shop, and motorcycle shop Town Moto. Other infamous Toronto culture hubs get drive-by cameos, too. Premiering two months after Toronto lost punk record shop Hits and Misses because its owner could no longer balance income against his rent, the lacking shop presence on the video is sorely felt, but the city’s picked up some record stores in its wake.

With Dead Set on Living, the Cancer Bats proved capable of writing conceptually intelligent hardcore lyrics serving as more than mirrors of their sound. As the band completed two years of touring behind the record in March, let’s hope for more of the same as it sets down to record new material in the coming months.

Tom Beedham is on Twitter.