The Dirty Nil - Higher Power (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Dirty Nil

Higher Power (2016)

Dine Alone Records

To even discuss Higher Power without mention of The Dirty Nil's glorious five-year run as a singles act does the LP a disservice. There's something stubbornly anachronistic about how the group's conducted themselves to date, having gigged for years in small Ontario clubs behind a string of beloved 7-inch singles, compilation appearances, and cassettes. This is a band that, independent of any label backing, facilitated their very own record-of-the-month club. Constraints can force a band to make better decisions, and the need to hit hard, fast and memorable in a limited time is something the Nil had to a science. Each show in this era felt like a greatest hits set and each addition to their slow-growing repertoire was something special.

One could easily conflate the fact that so many of these early releases came about independently as necessary to the band's aesthetic. Early Nil sounded triumphantly unencumbered by any expectations other than perhaps the standards set by their own record collections. It's an era that allowed for experiments that had no greater purpose than "wouldn't it be fun?" -- The commercial viability of yet another studio cover of classics like "Last Caress" and "Moonage Daydream" was never a consideration, and those efforts were deemed just as worthy as recording a faithful rendition of the Mats' boneheaded "Fuck School."

So it's with some trepidation that we're finally here. Higher Power's absolutely a fully realized record in that there's an established label, professionals behind the boards, and two whole sides of wax to fill. That is, as the saying goes, enough rope...

While certainly the band's longest outing (and the most laden with expectations) Higher Power is a paradoxically brisk listen. With 11 tracks in 26 minutes the band's wisely avoided the temptation to use the bigger canvas to over-indulge or take a wide swing at a radio single. This is true even with three songs of the 11 recycled from the band's past catalogue. (This is the type of artistic revisionism that in most cases leads to diminishing returns, but to the credit of the band and producers the re-dos of "Zombie Eyed," "Wrestle Yü..." and "Bruto…" fit).

Sonically The Dirty Nil take cues from some pretty unimpeachable '80s alternative rock acts, notably the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Fugazi. They do that while ditching most of those bands’ quiet tendencies and playing everything full tilt. There’s an underlying “rock-as-religion” enthusiasm here that must comes from hours steeped in the classics: pouring over Sabbath, Zeppelin, and the Who just as much as those post-punk touchpoints. Guitarist Luke Bentham fuels that notion through some unabashed guitar heroism (big riffs abound) and a downright infectious dose of charisma. There's a lot of childlike glee to his stage persona and that's been captured here as well.

Higher Power also finds the band delivering some the most straight-ahead punk rock of their career. As with his vocal contributions to the Smite EP, bassist Dave Nardi spits and growls a harder-edged counterpoint on songs like "Lowlives" and "Fugue State," the latter of which is for all intents and purposes authentic 80s hardcore. On "Helium Dreamer" he's fronting a track that would have fit right in on Repeater or Red Medicine.

Songs like "Friends in the Sky" are a study in working contrasts. Bentham leads with a huge guitar hook and drives towards a feel-good chorus that’s destined to become a crowd favourite. Yet the exuberant pop is kept rooted in the garage by Nardi's fuzzed out bass and drummer Kyle Fisher's charging backbone. In the wrong hands this song could be two or three ill-advised rewrites away from something far less special, but here it feels spontaneous. Similarly "Know Your Rodent" plays with dynamics like Nirvana, but unlike (seemingly) every other band that's taken grunge as a starting point it doesn't end up mired.

Higher Power's brevity and the smart sequencing between aggro and anthem makes it effortlessly knowable. One can drop in to a random song and have a feel for where you are in the journey and what's to come next. That savvy lack of bloat is exactly what The Dirty Nil needed to prove at this stage. One spin of Higher Power and that fear that good thing may have been lost will pretty much evaporate.

It'll drive Ontario punk scene guys like me crazy to see this forevermore referred to as The Dirty Nil's debut, but it's so deft and successful that the label's inevitable. This is the moment when the rest of the world gets in on the party, and we'll just have to learn to live with that.