SONS OF FREEDOM – Sons of Freedom (1988 Slash records)
“Never retract, never retreat, never apologise…get the thing done and let them howl.” – Nellie McClung 1873-1951
Once considered the saviours of Canadian rock, Vancouver’s Sons of Freedom powered their way onto the national scene in 1988 with “The Criminal”, one of the straight-up rockingest tracks to ever emerge from the tundra. They maintained momentum long enough to beat Nirvana in the college radio charts in 1991 (#1 debut vs a #2 for Nirvana), but Sons of Freedom didn’t fit into a nice “grunge” pigeonhole. They were too different, too weird, too Canadian. By 1995 and a mere three albums, they called it a day, but were not forgotten.
What a track “The Criminal” was, certainly sounding very little like 1988. The bleak music video didn’t look much like the competition. Crammed into a tiny rehearsal space, the three clean-shaven, short-haired musicians (all named Don for real!) and one long-hair with a British accent (named Jim Newton at first, but he changed his name on every single album!) didn’t look like other bands on the rock scene. They hooked up with Slash Records, and Faith No More’s producer Matt Wallace, and made a starkly heavy record. They may have appealed to the same audience as The Cult, a superficial comparison, but Ian Astbury was considered an “honorary Canadian” by many rock fans (he lived in the Great White North for six years in the 1970’s and Cult bassist Jamie Stewart later made his home on the Toronto scene). But in 1988, the Cult had never recorded anything as relentless as “The Criminal”.
We got love, we got love, we got justice from above.
If any band in Canadian rock history defined the phrase “ahead of their time”, it had to be Sons of Freedom. “The Criminal”, with its emphasis on that singular groove and strangely hypnotic vocals, could have lead the charge in the 1990’s. There are solos, but they are clang-and-bang, not shred. They even had a quote by a Canadian female rights activist on the cover! Why didn’t they catch? Maybe it was the fact that they didn’t stand still and repeat themselves. Maybe it was the singer changing his name to James Jerome Kingston. Whatever it was, Sons of Freedom didn’t make the impact they rightfully could have. They even had a song called “Fuck the System”!
The three Dons (Binns, Short and Harrison) lay down massive and strange bass-heavy grooves all over this debut album. They sound more like industrial machinery than musicians on some tracks. “Super Cool Wagon” has the concrete foundation needed to flatten all comers, but also boasted a weird “Ah-ooh-ah-ooh-ah-ay” vocal with no words! That’s the album opener — nearly four solid minutes of heavy rock with nothing but ah’s and ooh’s for lyrics! Amazing tracks like “Mona Lisa”, “This is Tao” and “Shoot Shoot” are based on the same template. Smashing monolithic grooves, expertly recorded by Wallace, are topped by the unusual and melodic vocals of James Newton. The vocals allow you to grasp onto the song, while the undercurrent of the groove carries you away. I blame Don Binns for the sheer inertia of the grooves, since his bass work sounds to be the driving force of them.
Other tracks explore different directions. “Dead Dog on the Highway” slows it down but adds a strangely funky Don Harrison guitar lick on top. “The Holy Rollers” drones on slower than slow, the Smiths on Quaaludes, but again you are dragged along with it. Pay attention to what is going on beneath the groove, as dischord rules with a balanced fist. “Judy Come Home” is almost radio-friendly, but “Is It Love” has a stuttery groove that could have been hit material in the right climate. “Fuck the System” is hard-hitting good-time punk and one of the only songs to have a rocky riff. The final track “Alice Henderson” is the Sons’ version of an epic as it chugs without rest, leaving nothing but wreckage and waste behind.
Ultimately, I suppose nothing bonds bandmates like a good first name. The three Dons emerged a few years after Sons of Freedom split, backing Lee Aaron (then simply “Karen”) in a new band called 2preciious and a later industrial project called Jakalope!