Five years ago, Edmonton indie folk-rockers The Provincial Archive did a cross-Canada tour playing provincial archives. It felt like one of those “sure, why not” moments. When life gives you a band name that doubles as a potential performance space, you gotta run with it. Five years ago, the band had five members and played nice music. The type of music where it’s fine to take a seat on the floor while surrounded by historical documents and not worry about the artifacts staying intact.
Five years later, the Provincial Archive are back with a self-titled 12-inch record and have trimmed down to a three-piece band. It’s the group’s third release but it feels like a fresh start. When it comes to analyzing a band’s sound, it’s natural to compare past releases to the present. Usually there’s a sense a band is moving forward at all times, sometimes much to the chagrin of fans with nostalgic desires for past releases.
With The Provincial Archive, it’s like the band has taken a step back in time after doing the indie folk-rock thing, electing to morph into a ‘90s-influenced guitar-heavy band. While the band is progressing forward through time (unless they’re secretly time travellers), their sound is going backwards in time.
The dramatic shift is slightly confusing. On one hand, it’s always interesting to see a band explore different genres, especially moving away from the saturated singer-songwriter/folk sound. It takes guts to turn away from the genre that’s influenced and defined your career for five-plus years. Down-sizing in band members is the perfect opportunity to switch things up, but it’s still a challenge. With the lyric “I’ve got a bad feeling, all my friends are leaving” on opening track “Bad Connection”, you get a sense this change of direction is honest and from the heart, not some cheap marketing gimmick. Having band members move to New Zealand and New York are huge changes and the Provincial Archive can never be the same with a different mix of musicians. The band opted to not replace the old members and follow the old path with different players.
Still, it’s jarring to hear The Provincial Archive suddenly turn up the volume on the guitars. Closing track “Absorbed” kicks you in the face immediately with a wall of guitar tone before taking a brief breather before ripping through more guitar. A new sound can attract new fans, but it can also alienate old fans who like bands for what they were.
In sports, there’s a phrase “safe is death.” It refers to the philosophy of playing a style of game where you take calculated risks because failure to do so can lead to losses. At moments the record sounds flat as it teeters between the past and present sounds, “Stay Dumb” in particular. But The Provincial Archive took a risk, one that could extend the life of the band because safe is death. Making records that sound the same over and over is a sure way to disappear into oblivion in a music universe where it’s all about the next big thing.
Even if the new direction isn’t for everyone, fans of older records and The Provincial Archive will at least be curious to hear what happens next.