Notorious Vancouver celtic/folk punk act The Dreadnoughts’ quick rise to fame was halted when the band announced a general hiatus, which kept the them out of the studio after the release of their third full length, Polka Never Dies. The band kept in touch with their fans, while some members pursued educational endeavors and settled into a more “normal” routines outside of life on the road. The band went on to play a handful of annual local shows, but maintained a low profile. After a few years, and as I suspect due to a likely case of cabin fever, the gigs started to become more frequent, and slowly but surely the band began hitting the road slightly ever more often.
Fans in various locales embraced the increased activity, but the band remained silent about new material. Then, suddenly and without warning, the troupe announced that they were hitting the studio. By this point a degree of nostalgia set in, and fans began to speculate as to the return of everyone’s favourite cider punks. Would they provide another sea shanty adventure like Legends Never Die? A fast and furious Polka Never Dies inspired punk rock polka? More songs about the various clubs and dingy dives scattered around Vancouver circa Victory Square? Given The Dreadnoughts’ history of fitting fairly well alongside bands like Dropkick Murphys, The Real McKenzies, Gogol Bordello, and other like-minded acts, these were reasonable assumptions.
But the surprises continued.
Much can happen in 7 years, and the boys had grown far grander aspirations. While they still lived for the sweet taste of a fine English cider, their pallet had become further refined. So instead of announcing yet another soundtrack to a foggy but memorable Saturday night at their old watering hole Pub 340, The Dreadnoughts took to the books and turned to the pages of history for inspiration. With their sights squarely set on penning a concept album against the war torn backdrop of 1914, the band sought to write a concept album unlike the genre had ever seen. Set at the dawn of World War I, the band’s impressive concept album, Foreign Skies, ambitiously tackles the bloodiest and most needless loss of human life in modern world history.
When it comes to “the war to end all wars,” The Dreadnoughts recognize the tact and respect that engaging with such subject matter entails. Clearly someone in the band took some history courses during their hiatus, because honour and sensitivity run through the track listing. Foreign Skies is a meticulously researched collection of tracks that chronicle the events and emotions underpinning the great war. This is not a popular history of famous battles, but a widely ranging scope of from pivotal public events within and leading to the war, to individual soldier and civilian accounts of tragedy and loss. Each song’s instrumental score has been carefully aligned to reflect the visceral nature of the conflict and human reaction therein.
While many of the initial singles released in promotion of Foreign Skies harness a classic Dreadnoughts feel, the band largely disembarks from the safety of familiarity. In fact, four-minute opener “Up High” is a simple, fiddle-fronted ode to fallen soldiers, and a promise to “remember.” While uncharacteristic of The Dreadnoughts’ typically playful front, the song’s somber and serious delivery set a respectful and mournful tone that ensures that the lives lost are not trivialized in the forthcoming account of battlefield encounters. “Up High” may not be what fans are expecting, but it’s absolutely necessary considering the subject matter.
From one extreme to the next, “Foreign Skies” follows up with what might be the band’s single most ambitious track to date. An expansive, three-part, five-minute masterpiece, the track opens with a fast paced, accordion fuelled account of travelling abroad. The tune transforms from channelling the initial enthusiasm that soldiers beamed with upon volunteering for service, to a far more unsettling and frantic paced polka that may represent the jolt of reality that hit these fresh faced countrymen upon reaching the battlefield. The song’s final third embeds a soft spoken piano and guitar laced ballad, expressing the cruel hard reality of modern war. Coming full circle, the band once again invokes a furious tempo, but this time the energy is one of courage and perseverance. The title track serves as a powerful statement as to the psychological toll that WWI left on everyone it touched.
The album’s broad mid section contains a wide assortment of styles and topics, mostly chronicling pivotal battles, and the uneven struggles and stalemates that persisted. Tracks like “Jericho” and “Anna Maria” are hard nosed, guitar heavy punk rock showpieces featuring far flung, gritty, gang bolstered choruses instilling the vicious momentum of the front lines. “Black and White” in particular sets its sights on the rat-infested, dank and dark conditions plaguing trench warfare. Placing a focus on the war’s most tragic stalemate, The Battle of the Somme, the band truly communicates the “hell on earth” atmosphere that we can only imagine came with combined casualties of over one million soldiers.
It should also be worth noting that despite a wealth of traditional World War I songs to draw upon, The Dreadnoughts discard the crutch of adapting traditional songs in favour of those of their own creation. Only the short spoken poem “A Broken World,” which retains its poetic delivery and striking imagery, is imported from an outside author. In this regard, the band continues their tradition of including an acapella and polka track, but this time both of their own design. “The Bay Of Sulva” serves the role of the former, drawing upon the band’s collective voices for a vocally exclusive track that would have served a believable moral booster to the soldiers on their amphibious landing of the Gallipoli peninsula. The latter, “The Amiens Polka,” is a fiesty, mostly instrumental accordion and fiddle polka representing an oddity after the German capture of the French town of Amiens, in which an exhausted German brigade opted to raid the wine cellars and party with the French women rather than push on to the next venue. The inclusion of deep german gang vocals at the tail of the track is pure genius, and really captures the bizarreness of this historical event as much as it stands out on the album.
Other significant points of interest include “Gavrilo” which serves as an interesting encounter between Gavrilio Princip, the man who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the Devil while rotting in his cell during the war. The inclusion of saxophone and trumpet (provided courtesy Talco) amidst the Dreadnoughts’ already impressive musicianship finds the band exploring a Balkan vibe with a zest and energy that will unquestionably transfer to the stage. On the opposite side of the spectrum, “Black Letters” may be the band’s most emotional offering ever. Written from the perspectives of those receiving and sending a loved one’s final letter from the front lines, the majestic fiddlework, soft piano keys, and finely strummed guitar are enough to bring a tear to one’s eye. “By the time you read these words there will be no more war, for me, there will be, only peace,” sings the band in closure. I challenge anyone to listen to this particular track on Remembrance Day without feeling deeply moved.
The album doesn’t conclude with the end of the war, but rather in the mind of an estranged soldier, reminiscing from the battlefield about drinking cider in a local pub. “Back Home In Bristol” ends the album on a high note, returning to Britain with a sense of sweaty reality, and serving as a vivid, party-inducing reminder of the celebration and normalcy to which every soldier yearned to return.
In the end, The Dreadnoughts have penned an essay of album, which might justify this exhaustive review. If Foreign Skies presents a thesis, it’s about the shared human experience, and the stark realization as to the horrors of war that bound the soldiers together. Foreign Skies is unlike anything in the band’s discography. In this regard Dreadnoughts fans will likely require a few listens to truly grasp Foreign Skies’ deep and intensive purpose. Even after countless listens, each song continues to reveal numerous historical nuances, and my appreciation grows with each passing listen. Foreign Skies is a labour of love for which The Dreadnoughts have clearly outdone themselves.
Foreign Skies is available directly through the band on Bandcamp.