It's evolution, baby. And not a moment too soon.
With rock on the verge of extinction and great bands on the endangered species list, it's high time for a new breed of artist to rise from the sludge pits and usher in the next musical age.
Pterodactyl Problems are undeniably the band to lead that charge. But don't let their Jurassic handle fool you. These fiercely original, high-flying Torontonians aren't some dinosaur-rock throwback. They're a bold new hybrid — a gender-bending, genre-defiling, firebreathing entity gene-spliced from four distinct musical personalities. And their debut album Esoteric Hobbies — a dynamic and diverse disc whose musical DNA is woven together from strands of heavy alt-metal, folk, glam, prog, jazz, blues, classical and more — heralds the next stage in the evolution of rock.
The focal point of the four-headed beast is Davey White. An unforgettable, outrageous frontman who takes the stage in full drag to challenge perceptions of beauty and "to look fucking awesome," White's poetic, emotionally heavy lyrics shed light on the darkest corners of existence with the insight of the most sensitive singer-songwriter. "Life is hard," White confesses succinctly. "I've been surrounded by people my whole life who have struggled with mental illness. I myself have struggled with self-harm and self-loathing and wanting to kill myself on occasion. I need to write about those things because that's how I deal with life, how I deal with emotions, how I connect to something bigger than me. My songs are basically stream-of-consciousness prayers and a form of catharsis — two very necessary things I need in my life to survive."
Equally indispensable to the proceedings: The varied skill sets his bandmates bring to the table. Unrepentant metalhead guitarist Jack Neila and drummer Oliver Salathiel underpin White's devastating messages with matching levels of crushing intensity and brutal complexity. "We start with really nice, well thought-out, mom-friendly music — and then I shit all over it with my guitar and Oliver beats the shit out of his drums," cracks Neila. "We are both in death metal bands and we bring some of that — I play on a seven-string and we have blast beats."
Then there's bassist Ciarán Neely, a meticulous craftsman who raises the sonic and stylistic bar by thoughtfully incorporating classic elements of jazz, opera, musical theatre and more. "I've always liked complex music," he says. "But you listen to a lot of modern music and you hear people being complicated for the sake of being complicated. I found with older musical specifically and a lot of jazz in general, it can be complicated and interesting, but still sound natural."
They are, by their own admission, a band whose existence "makes no sense at all." Until you listen to Esoteric Hobbies. Then it makes perfect sense. They call it “the best musical project we’ve been a part of, and definitely the most collaborative” — though the 21-year-old former schoolmates readily admit their collaboration entails plenty of intense creative conflict. Clearly it pays off: Esoteric Hobbies is one the most distinctive, eccentric, ambitious and accomplished discs to hit the Canadian music scene in years. As with their debut 2017 EP, the Christmas single All Alone in the Cold and a punishing cover of Adele's Hello, the album invites comparison to a list of icons and influencers: Weezer. Van Halen. Primus. The Killers. The Smiths. Foo Fighters. Queen. All of them make sense. But none sums up the breadth and depth of the album.
Masterfully produced by unofficial fifth band member Geoff Hodsman, each of the 13 tracks brings a new flavour: Alone in the Cold and Lush Lives channel bass-heavy punk ancestry. Crazy lives up to its title in its noisy, crashing denouement. Rock bravado infuses Heroes Killers, a swaggering groove that skitters all over the track. It’s not all bashing and thrashing, mind you. The misleadingly titled Heavy winds its way through a chilled singer-songwriter vibe. Ditto the almost-acoustic trio of cuts that round out the record, evoking campfire singalongs and highlighting White’s gentler side as he croons over swirling melodies — until the latter half of album-ender Pictures reminds us in no uncertain terms that Pterodactyl Problems are a fearsome rock band first and foremost.
Those who have been lucky enough to see one of their high-energy performances already know. "We're definitely there to put on a show," understates Neila. Salathiel takes it a step further: "I have a major hatred for bands who stand still and play. I want to have fun and beat my drum kit and break stuff. You don't do that if you're just sitting there." Adds Neely: "If you write music that's ripping, you're going to want to move when you sing it, when you play it and when you hear it."
Ultimately, that collective experience is key, White says. "It's about finding togetherness and joy amongst pain and sorrow. It's about going to see a band that sings about a lot of sad shit and you sing along. The people in this band have taken these songs that I've written that are depressing as shit and now they feel empowering and they feel joyful and they feel hopeful."
What could be more evolved than that?