Shortness of breath. Fluid filling up lungs. Skin turning blue from lack of oxygenation. These are all symptoms of acute respiratory distress syndrome, or “white lung.” It’s hardly coincidence that these also describe what it’s like to listen to Vancouver’s White Lung. Since the band emerged on the scene in 2006, they’ve earned their place as one of the fiercest punk acts operating today thanks in part to vocalist Mish Barber-Way’s fiendish sneer and the band’s sonic wave of mutilation.
The band’s 2014 record, Deep Fantasy, was about as bold as a punk record could be. Rapid guitar licks, menacing vocals, and pummeling rhythm section all work in unison toward a common goal of seeking and destroying. The tenacity of that record would set the stakes high for any band going forward. But on their latest, Paradise, White Lung started pulling themselves back.
Make no mistake, the venomous onslaught of their previous records still snarls on this album. But ballads like “Below” are somehow even bigger punk rock moves than they’ve displayed before. To call that track a “power ballad” is a disservice to the remarkable tact the band demonstrates through the emotional highs and lows. It’s the most down-tempo track in their catalog, yet the dynamics aren’t compromised. Guitarist Kenneth William throws out reverb-drenched lines to fill up the space while drummer Anne-Marie Vassiliou uses her kick drum and toms to create the illusion of simplicity as she laces the track with a smoldering rumble.
It’s a song about the fleeting nature of beauty and glamour: “You know this means nothing if you go die alone,” Barber-Way belts on the chorus. Like every White Lung song, the lines are spat with conviction and damnation. It’s a wake-up call to put less affection toward looks, but it’s treated to like a spiteful eulogy as she bellows, “They’ll bury your beauty, transient living stone. A broken crystal carcass reflects in all the light.”
“Hungry” doesn’t quite venture into the slow-moving theatrics of “Below”, but it’s another tempo change that gives White Lung room to flex their previously unseen strengths. On first listen, it’s more indie rock than anything they’ve done before. On closer inspection, however, it’s clear that the core is still intact. White Lung can’t help but be brutal at any speed. Barber-Way’s words threaten at every turn, talking about pulling out spines and calling out her target for being fake. William’s watery guitar lines have hints of post-punk, swooning in the background only to erupt in the choruses.
Even with these new takes on their sound, the “old White Lung” is still alive and thriving on Paradise. Every song feels built on a mantra. “Sister” boats a resounding “Your death is sprung,” while “Demented” cries out, “This is a sad, sad life.” The self-deprecation comes in torrents from Barber-Way’s ragged vocal cords, but there’s also a sense of empowerment that comes with it, like saying “I’m a piece of shit” while flipping off everyone else. The gruesome “Narcoleptic” sees her demanding some unknown force to “stuff me full of septic.” It’s gross, imbalanced, and totally relatable. Thrown overtop a mangled riff and growling bass line, it becomes all the more visceral. This is the confessional complexities of a singer-songwriter exposed to uncomfortable levels. Barber-Way goes where others are afraid to go and builds anthems out of her pain.
Nowhere else is this idea more realized than “Kiss Me When I Bleed”. All of her inner torment is lashed out against the world. It’s clear that everyone else better accept her vitriol or they’ll perish in her wake. The chorus gives perhaps the most definitive description of her songwriting, sneering, “I will give birth in a trailer, huffing the gas in the air/ Baby is born in molasses, like I would even care.” She stares into the abyss and is unfazed. Others may sing about not caring about what others think, but hardly anyone could match her level of not giving a fuck. Then, to top it off, she makes her demands: “I’ve got a basic need, kiss me when I bleed.” It’d be foolish to deny someone who’s willing to go this far out.
Clocking in at 28 minutes, Paradise is the band’s longest release to date. Still short by most band’s standards, the added length reflects the ambitiousness of the project. It’s a to-scale version of most bands’ double-album blowouts. The fact that they can pack all that wallop into less than half an hour sends a message that everyone else needs to step up. If previous releases hinted at them being one-note, this album torches that notion. Paradise is White Lung pushing their limits and coming out bloodied, hungry for more. It’s a record full of disease, doubt, dumpsters, and death, with the band rising above it all and reveling in their filth. Damn anyone who tries to get in their way.
Essential Tracks: “Kiss Me When I Bleed”, “Below”, and “Narcoleptic”