Much like the Beatles going to India or Ernest Hemingway living in Paris, The Burning Hell frontman Mathias Kom has ventured to the Yukon winter to write his next masterpiece.
The album Canada, by the Burning Hell, will be composed of 77 songs, yet will only last the length of one CD — giving each song a maximum length of only a minute.
“The whole idea is to take the traditional song structure, throw it away, and just treat the song as a snapshot,” he said, adding that Canada will be the band’s “silliest” project to date.
“Canadian songwriters are often interested in documenting the country through song,” said Kom, no doubt referencing the 10 minute-plus epics by the likes of Gordon Lightfoot and Rush.
The Burning Hell played Whitehorse’s Guild Hall on a last-minute whim last March, and when the band split off for a few months starting in late November, Kom decided to return to the North to wait for spring.
The Peterborough, Ontario-based band has indeed seen much of Canada throughout its almost-non-stop touring schedule of the past year. But the travel has been quick and flighty, with no chance to glean a comprehensive concept of their home country.
“We’ve just seen little bits: small experiences, small impressions,” said Kom. Their view of Canada, he explained, is a collection of sound bytes.
But rather than amalgamate these sound bytes into a singular concept or narrative, it made more sense simply to keep the story as it was, a rag-tag collection of random, unstructured observances. A symphony for those afflicted by attention deficit disorder.
There’s also something fun about taking poignant, groundbreaking events in Canadian history and condensing them into near-negligible song fragments.
As a former history professor at Trent University, Kom could lecture for hours on the Red River Rebellion, but now he only gives it a few lines.
The album, with its vast song catalogue, is also able to give airtime to some of Canada’s lesser-known cultural, geographical and historical eccentricities.
One song features the plethora of little-known commuter towns that ring Toronto. Another looks at Ogopogo, the mysterious lake monster of the Okanagan.
The Burning Hell’s most recent album, Happy Birthday, has a jaunty parlouresque, almost Dixieland style.
The lively sound disguises some of the album’s more gruesome subject matter.
Grave Situation Part 2 features a corpse singing about the various decompositions of his body.
“See my little shrivelled hands like the claws of a bird … but they’re the same hands that touched you and drove you insane so long, so long, ago,” he sings.
Other Kom recordings sound like pure, childish whimsy.
The Things that People Make is an enthusiastic ode to the hand of man.
“I love the buildings and the pavement and the malls, I love the factories, I love the rubber balls!”
Beneath the carnivalism of the Burning Hell’s music, Kom insists his lyrical core is the decidedly unplayful subjects of death, aging and consumption
But nobody likes a song purely about death, aging and consumption, says Kom.
“I don’t like listening to songs that are earnestly depressing; ‘here’s my soul, I’m showing it to you and I’m so dark and depressed and feel sorry for me’ — I hate that kind of stuff,” said Kom.
When structuring a song, Kom first writes the part about death, and then he hides it behind a bunch of fun elements — sort of like a bitter Advil covered in a candy coating.
The Burning Hell is loosely composed of a cast of 12 musicians, but changes in membership are more frequent. The effects of a dozen multi-instrumentalists becomes immediately clear on Burning Hell recordings. To hear a Burning Hell song is to hear a layered menagerie of harmonicas, vibraphones, horns, fiddles, guitar and seemingly anything else that can make a sound.
The result sounds like a ragtag angelic chorus — but few would guess that every Burning Hell song finds its way into the world on the humble strings of Kom’s $30 ukulele — his instrument of choice.
“Simpler arrangements and simpler progressions mean that the band can be a lot more flexible,” said Kom.
He presents a simple, lyric based ukulele song to the Burning Hell’s others members, and one by one, they add onto it until the song has taken a completely new form.
Happy Birthday was not written specifically to have a macabre, Dixieland, klezmer sound — it just happened, said Kom. And their upcoming album will sound completely different yet again, he assures. It just depends on the musical makeup of the band at the time of recording, he says.
An inherently wacky sound prevents the Burning Hell from ever falling into the dangerous music industry entrapment of “taking themselves seriously.”
Even the name is a joke … obviously, given the band’s non-threatening, non-religious folkesque stylings.
“The whole point of the name is that people should hear it and think ‘death metal band,’ but then they see ‘folk ensemble,’” said Kom.
“If people get the joke of the name, then they’ll get the music,” he said.
Arguably, Kom’s strange musical overtures are not quite as unorthodox as his charitable endeavours.
In 2007, Kom travelled to Israel to assist in recording an album for Ukuleles for Peace — an organization that looks to foster Arab-Jewish cooperation through a biethnic ukulele orchestra.
A seemingly bizarre solution to a centuries-old bloody conflict, but in fact, Ukuleles for Peace joins a host of similar fringe co-operation societies based in Israel — many of them with a dogma of teaching coexistence through the medium of a specific artistic endeavour.
“Those are the only organizations that seem to be making any kind of difference,” said Kom.
Being small and apolitical, these organizations can avoid becoming mired in bureaucracy or politics — a pervasive fact of Israeli life, he said.
“The whole intention is to get kids together in a fun way; get them involved in each other’s lives and build co-existence that way, rather than through larger, grander political motivations,” he said.
See Mathias Kom in his first Whitehorse performance at Longest Night, held December 20th and 21st at the Yukon Arts Centre. He’ll be sequestered in the North until the final day of February.
Contact Tristin Hopper at