Album Review: Crack Cloud – Pain Olympics

[Meat Machine; 2020]

Against the backdrop of Canada’s opioid crisis, Vancouver multimedia collective Crack Cloud are keeping hope and artistic singularity burning brightly. This faith radiates from their strangely beautiful, restorative, and unifying debut album Pain Olympics.

More of an art initiative than a band, Crack Cloud is many things, but at this very moment, they are an ascending enigma with a compelling background, underscored by pain and addiction, and on Pain Olympics they are wrestling back their narrative from those who’ve discomfortingly focused on the drug-dependent pasts of several of their members. Lingering demons of drug abuse are relived on these songs through a startling display of barbaric textures and claustrophobic noise-making, but beneath the cracked surface of Pain Olympics‘ art-punk wasteland there is unmistakable hope that belies the much-publicized cycle of trauma and relapse. It’s a hope that peers into society’s future, where the group’s story will be reclaimed.

What initially began as a coping vessel for past trauma and addiction, Crack Cloud has fledged its wings as a musical conduit for rehabilitation. Through their uncanny brand of post-punk, which incorporates barrages of chaotic noise and volleys of sonic shrapnel, they offer a turbulent world to behold. 

Diving into Pain Olympics, it only takes a few brief moments to grasp the reality that Crack Cloud is on a different plane, conceptually and musically. Commencing with the sound of running water, this record seems to begin with a purge of everything deemed dirty in the band’s past. This opening song, “Post Truth (Birth of a Nation)”, is a disjointed piece that holds a direct mirror up to the divided social climate from which this album was born, switching gears from punk to bright baroque pop to throbbing industrial and back again. Somehow sounding like Arcade Fire and Nine Inch Nails at once, Crack Cloud welcome us to an unnerving world that both makes complete sense and no sense at all. Further confounding expectations, the ravishing and amorphous “Post Truth” is by no means an indicator of the record’s overall style – no one song is. 

While listeners are once again treated to sweeping, artful theatrics on the closing track “Angel Dust (Eternal Peace)”, the rest of the Pain Olympics is a baptism by fire, driven by feverish drums, waves of serrated guitars, and haunting vocal manipulations that are, at the very least, disorienting. From the Krautrock-leaning ripper “Tunnel Vision” to their dystopian Devo impersonation “Ouster Stew”, Crack Cloud explore the cracks and crevices of punk and new wave to the deepest and most feral depths. 

Beyond those singles, the pyrotechnic weirdo train that is Pain Olympics makes plenty of thrilling departures. The shapeshifting “The Next Fix” features warbled vocals and a hypnotic relay of soaring horns and percussion that will have heads spinning. Those same heads are then blasted into oblivion by the tribal, indecipherable hardcore raps of next track “Favour Your Fortune” – a dementedly explosive song where Crack Cloud make their inimitability clear.

The main culprit behind the punchy and slightly deranged energy of these songs is the frontman of Crack Cloud—at the moment at least—Zach Choy. It’s “at the moment” because the collective maintains that there is not a single face of Crack Cloud, for they embrace uncompromised equality. For this specific release, however, Choy is both the outfit’s frenetic drumming maniac and animated lead vocalist (and rapper). Though no one will mistake him as a musical genius—yet—nor a technician, both his drumming and voice are unmistakable. From his expressive enunciations on “Somethings Gotta Give” and “Ouster Stew”, to his dizzying, slightly incoherent, rapped mantras on “The Next Fix” and “Favour Your Fortune”, Choy chisels out an image of a magnetic and versatile lead vocalist. As a drummer, listeners won’t have to look far to glean his prowess behind the kit – just check out the 30-second drum solo midway through “Ouster Stew” and the minute-long percussive outro of “Tunnel Vision”.

Although Choy’s talents are more accentuated than others on this record, there is still a sense of broader community that breathes life into the overall vision of Pain Olympics. From the harmonizing group vocals that lift “The Next Fix”, “Post Truth”, and “Favour Your Fortune”, to the deluge of their triple or quadruple guitars, the cohesion of Pain Olympics is quite the miracle. Even if there are moments that diverge into unpredictable passages, there’s always a sense that Crack Cloud know where the track is heading – it’s obvious that, despite their size, they are always operating from a single artistic vision.

With Pain Olympics, Crack Cloud are now moving past the narrative surrounding their addictions, and the future is sure to see a brighter spotlight placed upon them. What is possible for this boundary-pushing project is a compelling prospect, even if, as Choy sings on the closing track “Angel Dust”, “the future is littered with doubt.”