An extended review of a 2021 album, the seventh album by Ontario band Critical Mass.
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Critical Mass Productions, 2021. $10 download (CD $12, vinyl $25)
Critical Mass is a Canadian band from the Waterloo Region in Ontario. The group, formed in 1997, is a two-time recipient of the Canadian Gospel Music Association award for best rock album in 2000 and 2005. Critical Mass released Serenity, their seventh album, in 2021 and will tour to support it in early 2023.
The band’s website describes Serenity as “a concept album about the journey from divorce to hope. Along the way, the songs deal with mental health, parental alienation, coping strategies but ultimately faith, family, friends and love.”
Sung from the ex-husband’s viewpoint by founding member David Wang, the journey is described in 11 tracks, complete with spoken exchanges between the divorced couple, as the tone of the lyrics moves from hopeless towards hopeful. However, the mood of the music doesn’t always match that of the words. This makes the album rather uneven and, at times, awkward sounding. Case in point – the first two tracks.
Despite the simple acoustic guitar and wordless backing vocals, opening track “Last Goodbye” sounds far too cheerful, considering the break-up lyrics. While “Leaving Town” has a harder edge to it, the melody is also still far too happy. The trite chorus lyrics don’t help either: “I’m leaving town, I’m leaving town / I don’t know where I’m headed, I’m spinning round and round.”
After two tracks that were far too light, the intense “AlieNation” is more fitting of the dismal, questioning lyrics. The tune also has a frantic energy of early recordings from Irish rock superstars U2.
The problem of the first two songs is back in “Misery, My Friend” – the bright, snappy melodies and pulsing guitar shots aren’t miserable enough to match the bleakness of the words.
Switching gears again, “Letters” (to his ex) is another acoustic tune in which the music goes much better with the bittersweet, heartbreaking sentiment. Ditto for the standout title track. It’s a poignant prayer, easily the strongest cut on the album, in which the singer pours out his frustration while begging for divine guidance.
At first, the music and lyrics in “Pain in July” seems mismatched but the jaunty melody hooks are thankfully saved for the more positive aspects of the song – for example, “I’m looking for joy through all the pain / I’m grasping for hope in the pouring rain.”
The next two songs, “Sorry” and “April Rain,” are slower and somewhat bittersweet, with solo piano accompaniment swimming in loads of synth strings.
The reggae-tinged “I’ll Be Fine” is an unexpected yet pleasantly surprising change of musical direction. It’s also a very strong affirmation of new spiritual strength. Consider the chorus – “You’ve changed me from water into wine / In your sacred heart, I’ll be fine.” This song would have been a fitting end to both the journey and the album, but no….
Even more out of left field, the album ends with a cover of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” To me, this is a cop-out. The song feels tacked-on. (Of course, there’s also the inevitable comparison to the original, and it renders this cover version mediocre at best.) An original song would have been far more fitting.
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