Perhaps it's overstated in the name of journalistic sensationalism, but the conflict between various members of Fucked Up has always seemed to manifest itself in their music. Thinking back to the band's earliest tracks like "Police" or "Litany," even when the band snapped together into a unit composed of a single riff created by merging the instruments with vocalist Damian Abraham's voice, near the ends of those songs, guitarist Mike Haliechuk and Abraham would fly apart, each off on their own agenda. This disconnect seemed to grow across their LPs, culminating with David Comes to Life where at times it felt like the pair were recording two completely separate albums. Of course, that effect was intentional, giving the album a unique and leveled contrast. But, where Year of the Dragon the band's sixth twelve inch in their Zodiac series, succeeds is that Abraham and Haliechuck work off each other's strengths, and in doing so, create one of the greatest works to date.
The tag "prog-punk" has been thrown at Fucked Up and, really, the label isn't incorrect. "Dragon" starts with quietly, bluesy riffing that wouldn't feel out of place on a King Crimson album. Soon, the song expands into huge, massive power riffs that are as much hardcore as they are stoner metal. After slowly building, the song reaches one of its several climaxes with a tumbling riff as Abraham spits out what sounds like marching orders. Haliechuck is often praised for his ability to craft intricate, clever meta-commentary, but to his detriment, his actual skill as a guitar player isn't brought up nearly as much.
"Dragon" finds Haliechuck in a full fledged rocker personae. At one minute, he's building up the song, savoring each note and letting sound itself do the heavy lifting, as is often practiced by bands like OM and the Melvins. But then, as the song rises in volume, Haliechuck becomes a master shredder, snapping out licks like a thrash master, only to revert back to a Robert Fripp type character, letting understated, blues-rock lines drift on the own, focusing on tension.
Likewise, Abraham brings his a-game. The idea that Abraham is a big guy, but is friendly too, often is included in his portraits. In some ways, on recent releases Abraham has "sounded" nicer- on David, he still had his growl, but it wasn't so much intimidating as it was unique. Not so, here. Abraham sounds vicious. As Haliechuck builds up menacing walls backed by Jonah Falco's stomping drums, Abraham is at the top, barking, spitting, hissing, and snarling, very much in the way the titular animal might sound if it could talk.
But, where the release truly succeeds is in the bands interplay. Despite his technical mastery, Haliechuck knows when to give Abraham space to attack. Abraham knows when to strike and when to let the music do the talking. While sometimes the pair sound as if they are competing for the spotlight (or for the reins of a song's direction) here they sound like they are on the same page, supporting each other and the results are stellar- a massive, dark opus that is as ambitious as it is rocking. Masterstroke.
It's hard to follow up a titanic track like that, so instead of going for the grandiose, on the flipside, the band coves two songs from The Last Pogo a documentary of early Canadian punk. In covering the Cardboard Brains and the Ugly, the band just goes for it and has fun. Songs are treated with reverence, but not immutability. In classic Fucked Up style, the band tears through the tunes with raw, uncoiling riffs and a charging, loose, drum beat that threatens to fly off the track. Abraham, in lieu of synthesizing the original vocal takes, sticks with his gruff bark and of course, it works. It's fast and fun and works as a nice contrast to the a-side, shows punk's other great attribute. "Dragon" can stand for the concept that punk is about tearing down barriers and sonic experimentation, but the b-sides counter back that punk can also just be about having a good time.
This release demonstrates that there are more to these artists that being "the big, friendly stoner" or the "difficult, distanced, director." Each movement adds a new nuance and creates another plane for interpretation. There's a lot to take in here. It's interesting, it's nuanced, and frankly, it's a blast.