Home Read Albums Of The Week: Eamon McGrath | Bells Of Hope

Albums Of The Week: Eamon McGrath | Bells Of Hope

With his most diverse and expansive album, the prolific Toronto singer-songwriter cements his status as the greatest Canadian artist most people have never heard.

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THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “In these trying times, we could all use a little hope. Continuing on a path first forged by 2018’s critically acclaimed Tantramar album and even more lauded followup Guts in 2019, Eamon McGrath unveils Bells Of Hope, the third in a trilogy of releases defined by an ever-evolving and maturing sound by the road-hardened, working class Canadian musician.

Tantramar and Guts saw McGrath move away from the trademark bombastic and savage rock ’n’ roll of his early years into a new era of growth, celebrating and embracing new sounds, atmospheres and textures. Moving past the tarnished and primal Neil Young-meets-Black Flag approach of his early twenties, the complementary albums found McGrath channelling inner darknesses, turning somber and harsh experiences into moments of beautiful noise.

“The title of this record references not only a conscious effort to realize a more optimistic and positive sounding album than its predecessors, but also a long-standing tradition where after a cancer patient has finished their treatment they ring a bell in the hospital,” McGrath explains. “This last year not only saw the world come to a halt because of the tragedies of COVID-19, but it also came in tandem with what was an already difficult period for myself and many others. On my last tour of Europe before the lockdown, I was in Madrid when I heard the news that a good friend, who is as of now recovered and healthy, was sick with breast cancer.
Photo by Robert Georgeoff.
“I had also lost a number of people to the opioid crisis over the course of the previous years. Two more friends over the course of the creation of this record also fell very ill, and I lost my drummer, Adam Balsam, closer to its release in October of 2021. Released during a time when it seemed like more bad news would be impossible, this album is a chance for me to ring one of those figurative bells, looking forward with promise optimistically as we all emerge from what has been a difficult time. Things can always and will get better and it’s important to never lose sight of that.”

On Bells Of Hope, McGrath moves in an even prettier, ambient direction, incorporating sonic influences as diverse as Talk Talk, Brian Eno and Alice Coltrane into his familiar palette of rock and country-laden Canadiana. While not only shedding the guitar-forward technique which characterized the McGrath of the late 2000s and 2010s, but also the doom and gloom of his last two albums, this new decade brings to light an artist who leaves no sound unexplored and no idea off-limits.

Wrapping up the interrupted Guts tour, and “frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog” — as McGrath describes — to return to the stage, summer and fall of 2021 saw McGrath play over 70 shows across Canada showcasing some of Bells Of Hope’s new material, ahead of the curve of most artists who waited until well later in the year. “The second I was vaccinated and it was safe to do so,” McGrath recalls, “I started playing shows again immediately. I was alone out there on the road. The feeling of relief from being back at work and doing what I was put on this earth to do was indescribable.” Now back on tour for good, and with Bells Of Hope being the first of over eight records recorded by McGrath over the course of 2020, it’s no wonder why he is frequently described as the hardest-working musician in independent Canadian music.

McGrath also shines a light on some of his most treasured relationships built from a decade spent on the road. Some of Canada’s most glowing talents collaborated with McGrath on Bells Of Hope, including Julie Doiron, Miesha Louie, and Joyful Joyful’s Cormac Culkeen. In this digital world, McGrath represents the most analog form of artistry. Within his ‘never-ending’ tour, McGrath has also created a record meant to be heard front to back in one setting: a classic album in a world of disposable singles.”

McGrath’s Track-by-Track Notes For Bells Of Hope

1 | Sarajevo

Sarajevo was written out of a sense of frustration that the Western sentiment towards lockdowns and public health measures were somehow on the same level as catastrophic war. This song was a response to the response, and also an attempt to be bitingly critical of the same Western societies that so horrifically failed the Bosnian people during the war in the early 1990s. The off-kilter arrangement and delivery is a reflection of the absurdity that, especially in Toronto, there was a sort of unspoken sentiment that the creation of minor inconveniences was akin to the pinnacle of brutality, and Sarajevo is me laughing in the face of that.”

2 | April

April conjures the melancholic and longing nature of the thaw of spring. As we came out of another difficult winter in 2020, instead of the familiar blooming and vibrancy so normally inherent to that time of year, the cherry blossoms in Toronto were fenced off and parks were closed. Despite the melting of the snow and the brightening of days, the winter that year seemed to never end, and “April” documented that dichotomy in real-time.”

3 | Hiroshima

“In 2019 I went on a 16-date tour of Japan, and one of the cities the band played was Hiroshima. Our agent insisted we go to the Peace Museum, located right at Ground Zero, and he left us there to wander through the relics of a truly awful piece of human history. The experience was unlike anything I’d ever felt before and it’s hard to walk out of that building without feeling forever changed. Within a few hours, we were back at the venue, like nothing had happened at all, the hustle and bustle of modern Hiroshima completely eclipsing the sadness of its past.”

4 | Cannonball

“This song was written about coming home from tour, after being at the whim of the kind of momentum and energy that only touring exposes you to, and actually taking a minute to be static and reflect on everything. For over 10 years I’ve been touring more or less constantly, and the pandemic was the first break I’d taken from the road since 2016, so this involuntary pause was a chance to communicate with both figurative and literal ghosts in song, memories of people and places that haunt the chambers of your life.”

5 | Age of Unease 

“In 2016, I lost four friends to the opioid epidemic. Before COVID, it seemed like every time you were picking up the phone it was someone telling you about another overdose, and the pandemic only continued that feeling of being always prepared for bad news. Age of Unease was written as an attempt to chronicle the transition from one public health crisis to the next, how Naloxone kits and overdose response training was replaced by mask mandates and PCR testing. Throughout all of this, the last decade into this one, there’s been times when it feels like there’s just no letting up, and the weight of the world has seemed to be pressing down harder and harder on us, but in the midst of it all has to be a sense of hope and longing for something better, otherwise what’s the point in continuing on? The world can often be a pretty terrible place, but within it are these tiny shards of incalculable beauty, and you get better at finding them the older you get.”

6 | Sparkle + Bleed

“This song was written at the onset of the pandemic, as the trademark energy and beauty of Toronto that I’ve come to know and love so deeply was replaced overnight with a feeling of desolation and desperation I’d never seen before on such a scale in Canada’s biggest city. Sheets of plywood covered windows as more and more shops went out of business. Sidewalks were empty as vacant streetcars and buses drove aimlessly up and down Toronto’s avenues like untold stories in the night. Playgrounds were wrapped in caution tape which would snap and writhe in the springtime wind. There was an apocalyptic overtone to everything and I tried to channel that in the lyrics of Sparkle and Bleed.”

7 | Cross to Bear

Cross to Bear is about continually rising rental prices in Toronto and other major Canadian cities, about feeling like you have no options and no future, and about genuinely questioning where it is you have left to go once you’re permanently priced out of your home.”

8 | Golden Age

“This song references the constantly shifting yardstick by which nostalgia and memory is measured. As we all progress through our short time here we are always looking back on our lives with fondness yet the clock keeps ticking. One day perhaps even the most troubling times will be remembered with a sarcastic joy.”

9 | Do This With My Body

“This song was inspired by jazz funerals, the tradition of second line parades in New Orleans. At these parades sadness is transformed into a celebratory, exclamatory revelation as musicians prowl the streets screeching through brass and banging on drums in honour of someone’s life and the memory of it. This transformation of something dark into something beautiful is not only the fundamental basis of the blues but also encapsulates exactly what I was trying to achieve with the creation of this entire record.”

10 | Water Towers and Transistor Radios

Water Towers and Transistor Radios is told from the perspective of two fictitious lovers, desperately trying to escape their lives for something better, only to be constantly restrained from doing so by forces outside of their control.  I left Western Canada for Toronto 12 years ago, only to watch the prairie communities I called home slowly crumble from a distance. It pains my heart to watch a city like Edmonton, which is preserved in childhood memories of mine, crushed under the weight of a dying industry, the opioid epidemic, a housing crisis, COVID, and a government who has abandoned its working class. You could replace Edmonton with the name of any number of Alberta communities who have suffered the identical fate of very hard social and economic realities, exacerbated by long and storied histories of substance abuse and a lack of mental health facilities, in what is among the country’s most brutal winter climates. This song is an ode to those who don’t have the luxury of escape.”