Over the last few years, Toronto’s WHIMM have attracted attention with their experimental sound. This is a trio dwelling on the sharp, atonal edge of post-punk, calling to mind newer bands like the Danish darlings Iceage, while also evoking the stark, proto-Goth sounds of early Siouxsie and the Banshees. Music like this requires a confident singer to pull it all together. With his politically charged lyrics and strong vocal presence, Mounir Chami proves he is the perfect front man for this trio.
“A Town Hall,” the third song on WHIMM’s debut full-length A Stare Ajar, has a chorus that’s surprisingly catchy for a track with such abrupt shifts in tone and tempo. Even more startling are the lyrics, which seem to reference the inner conflict of a person who is dealing with revolutions both external and internal: “Match placed in my hand / to start a community cleanse / but I will not / vessel of conflict.”
A different kind of battle takes place in “Undermine,” which references the inability to break free from the trauma of abuse: “Constant debate to break the cycle / they were silent for too many years.” It’s an incredibly powerful song, combining solid hooks with Chami’s s fierce vocals. It’s the best track on the album and an accurate distillation of WHIMM’s sound.
The personal collides further with the political in “Fifth Column,” a song whose title derives from the term for a group who actively seeks to undermine from within, one that usually sympathizes with an enemy. The song’s lyrics are adapted from left-wing Hungarian poetAttila József’s “The Seventh (A hetedik”), an extraordinary piece of work which states, “When you must fight to survive, let your enemy see seven.” In “Fifth Column,” Chami sings “Better to be born seven times / you yourself must be the seventh.”
The struggle of an immigrant trying to adapt to a new culture while still retaining the identity of the homeland is at the fore of “Ushers,” the final and longest track on A Stare Ajar. This topic is something close to the heart of Chami, a Canadian of Palestinian heritage. “Between the home where I’ve been raised and what that demands, and what society and my friendships demand, where do I fit in? How do I stop feeling strange in these environments? I exist in both of them but I don’t really understand how.”
This conflict is present in the band’s music; while the first half of A Stare Ajar probes pop styles, the second half is far more avant garde, relinquishing hooks for something more challenging and entropic.
One thing that does remain consistent throughout A Stare Ajar is the phenomenal drumming of Jonathan Pappo. Many post-punk releases have a tendency to flatten the drums — but here, they are confrontational, sometimes rumbling like a threat, while at other times they march like a defiant army. And while Andrew Matthews sometimes flaunts the rubbery thrum of his bass guitar (“Undermine”), at other times he transforms it into a subtle melody that Chami follows with his powerful voice (“A Stare Ajar”). Credit for the album’s visceral quality should also be given to producer Dean Tzenos (of Odonis Odonis) and engineer Ian Gomes, who recorded the tracks with the band in just two days.
A Stare Ajar opens with the instrumental track “Ember in the Wheat,” a title which hints at the potential for something to spark and catch fire. With a sound like this, WHIMM seems destined to be the kind of band who will do just that.
A Stare Ajar was released by Pleasence Records on October 27.
Less Lee Moore (@popshifter) is the Editor in Chief of Popshifter, which she founded in 2007. She also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop and Modern Horrors.