Ever since their rise from the shell of the Unicorns, Nick Thorburn and co. have been hard to pin down—both musically and emotionally. Starting from a teasing playfulness, the band can jump straight into a dour funk, sometimes within the same song. Keeping this in mind, it was nice to see Vancouver synth-pop warriors, Bear Mountain, open Saturday’s show, rooted firmly in the electro-dance Islands occasionally flirts with.
Bear Mountain played a gargantuan set filled with throbby synths, samplers, and maybe one of the only keytars in town. Frontman Ian Bevis led his space-pop cadets through some soaring textures that got everyone moving by the drop of the first song. It was easy to see Ian’s triumph as he frequently tried to swagger into the fervourous audience, limited only by his patch cord and station at the mic.
With the audience more than warmed up, Islands gathered onstage to set up their own myriad of vintage-looking synths and guitar pedals. Despite his more candid back-and-forth with the press, Thorburn plays a sort of goofy, coy indie-rocker on stage. With a toothpick dangling from his mouth and a tossed-off “Yeah” to start the main set, Thorburn led Islands into opener, and Ski Mask highlight, “Wave Forms.” This aptly foreshadowed the way Thorburn brought fun and seriousness to the rest of Islands’ set. All things considered, Thorburn’s version of seriousness always comes with a grain of salt. Sad-sack rockers like “Death Drive” and “Winged Beat Drums” saw him dancing to himself as if finding solace in the grooves despite the lyrics. Across their discography, Islands have often approached dourness from a sunny perspective and, worked into their set, it gave the audience room for merriment in the more serious moments.
When the band played some of their (somewhat) more cheery songs, the room lit up immediately. Old favourites like “Creeper,” “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby,” and “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Whalebone” got the room singing along and dancing impulsively. After Thorburn’s utterance of “Let’s do this shit!” midway through the set, Islands launched into “Nil” which also saw Thorburn lighten it up himself by making free-reign of the stage space. Surprise highlights came from Evan Gordon’s noodly, rhythmic guitar lines in “Can’t Feel My Face” and his beast of a honky-tonk keyboard solo in “Disarming the Car Bomb,” the latter even slapping a smile across drummer Luc Laurent’s face.
After a passionate encore cheer by zealous fans, the band returned to play the epic “Swans (Life After Death)” which capped the set with dueling guitar solos and Thorburn’s classic rock’n’roll kick drum stand. With exceptional, tight and tasteful musicianship, Islands’ show was thoroughly entertaining and emotionally dynamic. Thorburn also has an incredible ability to navigate the ever-changing emotional landscape of the band’s discography, uniting the tensions between dour lyricism and sunny pop. He is so fully able to embody the world of his songs that he can bring the audience along for his ride.