Freedom or Death | Ego

Electronic folk duo play the music biz game but make their own rules

With an album title like Ego – for those non-Freudians out there, that’s the metaphorical chunk of the human psyche that rectifies primal urges and moral consciousnesses – Toronto duo Freedom or Death appear committed to finding a balance between writing songs that have a widespread appeal and writing songs that satisfy personal creative urges.

Following the release of their self-titled debut EP last year, Freedom or Death’s most recent album is sufficiently more developed. For one, it’s much more layered and full-bodied, integrating electronic beats alongside baroque pop guitar flourishes. That kind of combination only works if it’s subtle; Freedom or Death have crafted a polished sound that’s interesting enough to stand out, but organic enough to make sense.

Everything about the disc is darker, from the confused, colourless ballerina cover art to the music itself – together, it’s a danceable melodrama. With Steve Fernandez orchestrating the instrumentation – as much playing as programming – and vocalist Sway Clarke experimenting with doo wop chants, falsetto spikes, lush harmonies, and straight-up pop choruses, Ego has the fundamentals of a great record.

What immediately becomes evident, however, is that some of the songs have the potential to be bigger, but this is sacrificed in order for them to be sufficiently nuanced. The trade-off is evident on tracks like “Inside” or “Human,” songs that fundamentally have everything they need, but the delivery teases and flirts while still holding something back. “Elefant” is an exception; it meanders from a contemporary pop formula, but it still has the soul of an amped-up rock classic that leaves you dizzy…in a good way. That kind of complexity may be inviting to some, yet a nuisance to others.

One of the most paradoxical cuts on Ego – which also has the distinction of being one of the best – is “Virginia Woolf.” It’s esoteric, opening with a haunting sound bite from 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, yet it’s also accessible, built around a familiar song structure that’s straight out of a sweaty downtown live music joint, complete with clapping hands. It’s got a synthesized core, but it could just as easily be mistaken as a folk song. If that doesn’t immediately make sense (and it shouldn’t), then it’s worth taking a listen to.

Clocking in at just over 30 minutes (not including the seven minute pause before an additional version of “This Crowded Room” comes in at the end), the duo still manages to show a great depth of themselves, and their ability to let individual songs define their genre, rather than the album as a whole (or, God forbid, the band itself). There’s a good chance these guys have more musical quirks in their subconscious thoughts – and, if Ego gets the attention it deserves, we can look forward to hearing them unfold on a full-length LP.

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