If artists thrive on the eternal struggle, what happens when they find themselves fulfilled in life? That may well have been the conundrum Vancouver-bred punk force White Lung came to when approaching their fourth full-length release, Paradise. Over the last ten years, spread across a handful of singles and three full-length albums, vocalist Mish Barber-Way has screamed her way through various feminist issues, tackled body dysmorphia, vented on addiction, and more. This has generally been backed by the wallop of wrecking ball drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou and the frantic, firecracker spray of six-stringer Kenny William. If you follow the singer’s other high-profile gig as a journalist, personal essayist and sex columnist, you’ll know that a life-change that brought her to L.A. to marry Obliterations/Saviours bassist Austin Barber has brought her to a mellower state of mind.
“I am content in life, which is really bad for writing songs. I’m not newly heart-broken, or falling in love and struggling, so my dopamine is down along with my creativity.” Barber-Way said in a pre-release interview about Paradise with Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent). “I’m all serotonin.”
It’s a self-awareness that may be bracing fans for a whole new White Lung, a softer one than before. On that front, it’s true, as the vicious snarl that Barber-Way piped through 2007 debut single Local Garbage all the way up to 2014’s Deep Fantasy has generally been kicked to the curb in favour of confident, melodic cries. On the other hand, we need to think in relatives, here. Happily, a more docile White Lung is still more ear-obliteratingly furious than most rock bands could ever dream of. For the record, Vassiliou’s streamlined drum work remains hectically-paced, rarely dipping below 120 bPm.
Opener “Dead Weight” begins with a micro-second of processed, alien noise before William’s familiar, slash-and-burn fretwork explodes through the speakers. On the whole, Paradise continues to see him embracing the all-in, excited buzzing he’s brought to the band after all these years. The record does have him exploring tone, though, with his passages running from more standardized, frizz-fried guitar distortion towards gleaming, interstellar noise on “Narcoleptic.”
The new textures to Barber-Way’s vocals have likewise opened the sonic possibilities for White Lung. She’s steered herself away from brash, throat-shredding shouting towards a more sung, multi-layered approach, but it hasn’t dulled her impact. While she’s dialed back on the personal trauma, some of the characters presented on Paradise are still plenty grim. “Sister,” for instance, has her inhabiting the mind frame of Canadian serial killer Karla Homolka, who assisted in the rape and death of three women, including her sister Tammy. “Demented” likewise fixates on English murderers Rosemary and Fred West’s , Barber-Way here singing of a “sad, sad life.”
Tapping into the sweetness, however, is “Below.” The largest departure from the band’s back catalogue, it slows things down to a mid-tempo rock pace, with William leaving plenty of space between his diamond-cut, post-punk plinking. Barber-Way’s vocals soar on the cut, a musing on the nature of beauty, with her harmonious “you know this means nothing if you go die alone.” It’s gentleness is jarring, in respect to White Lung’s past, but it’s a becoming sound for the evolving punk group.
Fittingly, Paradise goes out in a blaze of all-love glory, via its title track. A serious blitz, it may well be rank as one of the fastest songs they’ve recorded. Barber-Way gushes on the tune, pledging to break off from society with her lover to a southbound Shangri-La. “They’ll never hear our copulating,” she sings ecstatically, determinedly. Despite the privacy-seeking salvation of the song, fans should be more than happy with the hearty slam of White Lung’s high-profile Paradise.
– review by Gregory Adams