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Retrospective Reviews: Alexisonfire's 'Crisis'

The album that set the Southern Ontario hardcore punk band on fire.

by Tom Beedham
Oct 1 2014, 3:14pm

Despite being named after a lactating contortionist stripper, it only took Alexisonfire—a St. Catharines, Ontario five-piece that mixed metal, punk, (post-)hardcore and screamo—five years to become one of the most popular bands in Canada. In the interim between 2004’s Watch Out! and their third full-length, the band’s 2002 eponymous debut was certified gold in Canada, and when Crisis released in 2006, it debuted at number one on the national album charts.

The success of Crisis was further reflected in an ambitious 10-month world tour that subsequently took AOF to Asia, Australia, Europe, and all across Canada and the U.S. on the Warped Tour. It also put them in front of exceptionally larger audiences than they were used to entertaining: AOF played to crowds of 80,000 people at Le Festival d’été de Quebec and from the main stage at Reading and Leeds festival, and they headlined the Brixton Academy in London. When they got home, they played nine shows in Toronto.

And for the third album in the band’s repertoire, it signaled its share of firsts for AOF: they had a new drummer, a guest vocalist sang the entirety of a song, it had a title track, and it was also the first full-length to follow the massively popular, maudlin acoustic debut from City and Colour, the side project from the band’s softer voice, Dallas Green—a polarizing success that amplified the singer/guitarist’s profile but also provoked some pretty defensive rants online.

Instead of resting on Dallas’s laurels—something critics seemed surprised they didn’t do, especially after Watch Out! found the band dialing screamer George Pettit’s vocal duties back from a lead capacity so the band sounded more like a democracy—AOF further resisted repeating itself. On an album that is essentially a macro exploration of the term it gets its name from, it instead used Dallas, George, and guitarist Wade MacNeil’s three voices to illustrate the universal experience of substantial, dispiriting crisis—whether social, economic, elemental, emotional, or occupational. They even borrowed Planes Mistaken for Stars singer Gared O’Donnell to helm the huffing and puffing warble of a chilling blues song—“You Burn First” (the band later released two alternative studio recordings of the track—one on their iTunes Originals release as well as the Death Letter EP interpretation that turns the song into a noise hymn—but neither would have worked with Crisis quite as well as the album version).

Opening with a siren of a guitar hook, the album’s title track is about the Great Lakes Blizzard of 1977, a debilitating five-day storm that dumped a 100-inch tall blanket of snow on the Niagara Region and Western New York. It rendered roads and vehicles useless, forced a state of emergency prohibiting non-essential travel, and amassed a reported death toll of at least 23. The physical album itself is decorated with stock images documenting the aftermath of the storm. The cover art is a photograph of a victim displaying frostbite-swollen hands, and the lyrics are juxtaposed with snapshots of snow-filled living rooms and children standing atop school busses and emergency vehicles buried by snowdrifts. “Count the snow flakes little children,” George caws. “Count them as they bury you alive.”

Most of the song is spent painting the world-erasing white portrait of the blizzard with broad strokes about how hopelessly crippling winter storms like these are for everyone in their wake, but as is true elsewhere on the album, a line about how this would affect a more specific demographic (those struggling with addiction) resonates so much stronger: “The junkie is trapped indoors/ Pretty soon he’s going to need a fix./ But the weather’s not going to let him/ And he’s starting to get the itch.”

On the album’s first single, “This Could Be Anywhere in the World,” George sings from the perspective of an individual being broken down by their environment. He screams, “Every step I take/ I leave a small piece of myself behind/ Soon there will be nothing left.” Dallas describes that environment as a kind of post-apocalyptic metropolis (“The streets are in distress/ the sun suffocates behind darkened skies”) and in the chorus he declares, “[…] this city, this city is haunted,” but the next line reveals this song is in fact rooted in reality and simply a story about homelessness. This city is haunted: “By ghosts from broken homes.” He cries, “[…] I can’t believe/ this is where I live,” but the song’s title says it all—this could be anywhere in the world.

“Boiled Frogs,” the second single, is an analogy that likens the way some businesses will reduce pay and make workplaces less hospitable for long-term employees in hopes that they will quit and forfeit their pensions to the folk wisdom that suggests boiling a frog effectively requires gradually heating the water it’s swimming in; a frog placed in already boiling water will jump out immediately, minimizing its exploitation.

For an album that spends a lot of time calling attention to winter storms and important social issues like homelessness and drug addiction, it can also be confusing that elsewhere, Crisis devotes so much time to a fleshed out kiss off to former drummer Jesse Ingelevics on “Keep It On Wax,” wherein Wade sings “I guess the only thing cheap to you was your friends.” But the reasoning for that might be provided amidst a series of guitar swells on “To A Friend,” the track immediately following it: in a world where as much you try your best, your well-being is ultimately not entirely in your hands, and “Paranoia [can be] woven deep beneath [your] skin.” So, “You shouldn’t have to fight alone.”

Tom Beedham is a freelance arts and culture journalist living in Toronto. He’s on Twitter - @Tom_Beedham