10 essential releases from Calgary

From skate-punk to folk to synth-pop, the Calgary Cassette Preservation Society digs deep.

March 11, 2016

Photo: Beyond Possession (courtesy Equalizing Distort)

So, I’ve been asked to pull together a list of 10 essential Calgary releases. Having just pulled together a list of 30 songs to celebrate 30 years of the High Performance Rodeo, I know this road is paved with tears and regret. I’m torn between picking 10 releases that best represent our city and choosing the 10 releases I’d want on a desert island… I think I’ve ended up with a hybrid of both. Maybe?

Anyways, I’m conscious that this list is heavy on stuff from the ’80s and ’90s. I find that it’s really hard to be objective about more recent releases (which is probably why there are only two from the 2000s). But… here it is. Go ahead and disagree with my choices. I challenge you, though – if you think I missed something, what would you take out to make room for your choice?

Beyond Possession – …is Beyond Possession (LP, 1986)

Beyond Possession fused punk with metal into a potent mix that was the soundtrack for Calgary’s skateboarding community. Metal has always been important to this city, and this LP showed that the musical bravado of the genre could sit alongside the anger and energy of punk. I can’t skateboard – but every time I listen to this LP, it makes me want to try.

Color Me Psycho – Pretend I’m Your Father (LP, 1988)

As Color Me Psycho, two members of ground-zero Calgary punk band the Sturgeons combined with the comic-book horror fantasies of Tom Bagley to create a garage rock masterpiece. Sure, the paper-thin mastering on this LP takes away from its impact, but the songs are top-notch and the band’s spirit – as well as two of its members – lives on today in Forbidden Dimension.

Fire Engine Red – 1530 (CD, 1995)

In the midst of Calgary’s indie-rock scene in the mid-90s, Fire Engine Red was an anomaly. The band’s three members focused on songwriting and playing straightforward – albeit ragged – power-pop. All three members – James Hayden, Lorrie Matheson, and Lee Shedden – have gone on to songwriting-focused endeavours post-FER. This CD has been my soundtrack for many, many roadtrips.

Hot Little Rocket – Laika (CD, 2000)

Hot Little Rocket were fixtures of the Calgary indie-rock scene from their formation in 1998 to their final show in 2009. They were proof that something is broken with the music industry – despite countless days of touring across Canada and four CDs, they never quite made it as big as they should have.

Huevos Rancheros – Endsville! (CD/LP/Cassette, 1993)

Coming together in 1990 with the aim of playing shows for free beer, Huevos Rancheros created an instrumental blend of all your favourite types of rock (garage, punk, surf, etc…). They were anchored by the guitar talents of Brent Cooper – a guy who alternatingly made me want to try harder and quit playing guitar every time I saw the band.

James Keelaghan – Small Rebellions (LP/CD/Cassette, 1989)

James Keelaghan’s firm rooting in the folk tradition is one which has served him well, through a dozen albums, international acclaim and a Juno Award. His songs tend to document the history and hardships of Canada’s peoples, lifted by his clear, soaring voice. I saw Keelaghan a few times in the early ’90s, and his earnestness and the craftsmanship of his songs was striking.

Ohama – Midnite News (EP, 1984)

Listening to the songs on this EP, you’d never think that Ohama grew up on a potato farm in rural Alberta. These songs are still some of the best electronic music produced in Alberta – and maybe Canada – of their era. His work tends to get classified as minimal wave, but there’s a political agenda to this that pulls it towards punk. The lead track, “Julie is a TV Set,” balances synth-pop sounds and a punk ethos and still sounds fresh and vital today.

The Primrods/Wagbeard – Encourage Citizen Advocacy/Three Songs (10″ record, 1993)

This is partly a way of sneaking in a two-fer, and also a way of celebrating the most ridiculous of all media, the 10″ record. The Primrods were divisive, with many Calgarians not understanding their angular punk sound or mysterious public image, but somehow the band got signed to Geffen Records in 1997 and recorded one never-to-be-released album before being dropped (and subsequently breaking up) in the wake of the label’s merger. Meanwhile, Wagbeard had a relatively short run but a large local following , drawn to the distinctive vocals of Chris Temple, and their anthemic, energetic guitar rock. Both bands were high points of the city’s scene in the ’90s.

Quitters – Fuzzball EP (Cassette, 1992)

The Quitters’ songwriters Joe McCaffery and Christopher Truch were both part of the ’80s underground scene in Calgary, and used the band to step out on their own, looking back to classic British Invasion sounds that were out of step with their contemporaries. Alternating between adrenaline melodies and ragged guitar workouts, fuzz organ and freakbeat rhythms, the band had only a brief run from 1990 to 1992 but left a big impression on those of us who saw them. I cherish this tape – and a couple of years ago the band remastered this for a CD re-release.

Chad VanGaalen – Skelliconnection (CD/LP, 2006)

Since unleashing his first full-length LP in 2004, musician and artist Chad VanGaalen’s unique blend of folk, pop, psychedelia and experimental music has given him a reputation as an imaginative, singular songwriter. His songs are as romantic as they are fantastic – and as weird as they are catchy.

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