Montreal-based band, The Box, brought their sensational six-member collective to Ottawa’s Brass Monkey this past Friday night. The room was filled wall-to-wall with friends and fans, who were there to celebrate the on-going power of this band…and those who heard them for the first time, were no doubt blown away with the rest of us. We were treated to a perfectly mixed set of some of their more recent material, along with favourites and chart toppers from several of their earlier albums. It was a musical odyssey that gave us a glimpse into their past and current experimentation in flavours of new wave, rock, art rock, and neo-progressive styles.
The Box was formed in 1981 by singer/songwriter, Jean-Marc Pisapia, who had been a former member of Men Without Hats. They would eventually achieve their greatest commercial success between the mid 1980’s to the early 1990’s. Their refreshing new wave/pop/art rock sound produced chart topping hits like “Must I Always Remember”, “Walk Away“, and “L’Affaire Dumoutier (Say To Me)” from their first two albums. In 1985, they were awarded Quebec’s coveted Felix award for group of the year, and nominated for a Juno award for most promising group. But it was their third album, Closer Together (1987) where they reached their peak with tracks, “Ordinary People”, “Closer Together”, and “Crying Out Loud For Love”, which saturated the Canadian music airwaves on both radio and video networks. Their fourth album, The Pleasure And The Pain (1990), would not receive the commercial status of their previous albums, although it is still regarded by fans as one of their best. The group suffered a breakup of its members in 1992, and Pisapia spun off into writing music for jingles and films, while dabbling into his other artistic love…that of painting, which has evolved into a very lucrative business today.
Although the band had parted ways, there still remained a number of songs which would have gone onto a fifth album. With a strong belief in them, Pisapia worked with various musicians to develop these into a solo project which became, John Of Mark (1995) with Alert Records. Eventually, a new formation of The Box would fall into place by 2003, by which time the music had taken a turn into a more progressive sound. Under a new label, Passport Music, two more albums would be produced from this new team of players, Black Dog There (2005), and the very neo-progressive concept album, D’Apres Le Horla De Maupassant (2009), which is based on the 1887 horror/sci-fi short story by French writer, Guy De Maupassant. It is also their very first album sung entirely in French.
Pisapia described to me his formative years studying piano, which later developed into the desire to write songs by his late teens and into his early twenties. He was heavily influenced by various progressive rock bands that made up his musical diet, such as Gentle Giant, Genesis, and Yes. He had also been drawn to certain literary works he had been exposed to in school, such as Edgar Allan Poe, and Guy De Maupassant, whose short story, Le Horla, he read when he was 13. Pisapia’s natural experimentation with these mood-stimulating art forms would lead to some very unique results such as The Box’s, “L’Affaire Dumoutier” (1985), which was a blend of art rock meets news reporting narrative…“the kind of song you can only write once“, Pisapia adds. Currently, he enjoys touring with his band that has been together now for just over 10 years, although guitarist Francois Bruneau, has been on board with him since 1993. “There’s no pressure…it’s just about having fun and pleasing the audience…and to be honest“, he says, “I’m quite surprised at how much interest The Box still receives. There comes a time where if you stop making set plans and just let things flow naturally, eventually things work themselves out.”
The show began with one of their very early hits, “Must I Always Remember”, followed by “Carry On”, a big chart topping single released from their fourth album. I had always been a Box fan, and even recently acquired an avid taste for their latest progressive material, but this was my first time seeing them perform live. The sound was explosive, pristine, and larger than life to the nth degree.
What came next were some exciting tidbits from their Black Dog There album, their first official Box album after 15 years, with the new band line-up, and a new journey into the prog/neo-prog experimentation. Three songs back-to-back, with my favourite being, “So Beautiful”…an enormously textured song, starting softly with gorgeous piano chords played by Guillaume Jodoin, and Pisapia’s signature smoky vocals. Layers of guitar would come next, building into a huge and luscious crescendo by the chorus, with Isabelle Lemay lending her strong voice in some ethereal harmonies. I also loved Bruneau’s melancholy yet majestic guitar solo and very solid drum work by Martin Lapierre. Holding down the bottom end was bassist, Dan Volj, who put the finishing touches on this dramatic piece of music. By the end of the third song, I felt like I was on a trip somewhere between the lands of Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, and Marillion.
More favourites from their fourth album included “Inside My Heart”, and “Temptation”…laced with lingering ringing guitar strums, heavy at times, complimented with a steady, almost tribal drumbeat…very trance-like. Other gems from the past included, “Crying Out Loud For Love”, “My Dreams Of You”, “All The Time, All The Time, All The Time”, the dreamy “Dancing On The Grave”, and their huge hit, “Ordinary People”, which induced a powerful call-and-answer release by the audience on the chorus. Tying up the show nicely came another of my personal favourites, “L’Affaire Dumoutier (Say To Me)”, followed by a surprise visit into the music of Pisapia’s former band, Men Without Hats, with the ever popular “Safety Dance”. Then finally, came the anticipated, “Closer Together”, leaving the audience on their feet and relentlessly demanding an encore, which the band was only too happy to provide.
The first of the two songs played in the encore was from Pisapia’s John Of Mark album, the very rocking “Stardust Hotel”, followed by the Celtic vibrance of “Checkmate”, from The Box’s first album, which sent many into a jig dance fever.
I enjoyed this show immensely on multiple levels. Incredible sound, great stage lighting, wonderful and playful interaction between the band members, intensity of the music, the very textured vocal harmonies, hooks in songs that would range from haunting dreaminess to full-on rock heaviness…and at times, it took me on a nostalgic trip back to the pre-internet days of music videos and filled concert venues. I’m happy to see this resurgence of such great bands like The Box, the existing and growing interest that is here to welcome them back, with more and more venues opening their doors to provide this type of live entertainment that has been dormant for too long.