The Halifax-based pop/folk group Hillsburn has been slowly and deliberately building up a powerful head of steam on the East Coast’s always fertile music scene. First spotted by many in the CBC’s Searchlight Talent contest last year, the band has recently released its first full-length CD, In the Battle Years.
Their music is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. Using the Nu-Folk scene populated by the likes of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers as a departure point, Hillsburn distills the stark acoustic sound of that trend and punches up the pop aspects, bringing short, sharp musical phrases, hooky chorus lines and curious constructions all together to make for a startlingly original sound.
The songs come from guitarist and singer Paul Aarntzen. His whole approach speaks to current youth culture concerns, full of yearning for the fleeting notions of escape into meaningful activity. Less obsessed with old tropes like rebellion, alienation and opting out, Aarntzen’s ideas speak to issues like hanging on and fitting in during an era where the only constant is change.
Songs like ‘Run Down’ and ‘When We Were Young’, for example, compress emotions and insights into brisk three-minute gems that deliver some of the sharpest pop songwriting ever seen and heard on the East Coast.
The arrangements, on the other hand, are equally adept. For me, Hillsburn’s closest musical comparisons reach back to the 1960s in the Mamas and the Papas, another mixed gender group that took folk-rock as a departure point, not a destination, as they went on to forge an unforgettable sound that helped define a generation along with a time and a sound of optimism just before the so-called ‘ Summer of Love’ in 1967.
It’s too early to presume that Hillsburn could be such a landmark group, but all of the ingredients are certainly there. The precise, forceful vocal settings on In the Battle Years alone are simply the most exciting group vocal arrangements I’ve heard since The Mamas and the Papas; Aarntzen’s songwriting ability marks him at least as important as the Papa’s John Philips. The Nova Scotia connection is even more pronounced when you draw the line between Hillsburn and Denny Doherty, the Mamas and the Papas lead singer who grew up in North End Halifax and returned to work in the province’s now-threatened film industry.
Hillsburn also have developed a knack for being in the right place in the right time, a crucial if underestimated “talent” for the music industry. Luck might have something to do with it, but so does talent, foresight, and dogged determination. Hillsburn has all three in spades.
With the band just bursting out of the gate, I have no hesitation in saying that Hillsburn has the potential to become the East Coast’s ‘Next Big Thing’, rivaling the success of the Rankins and Sloan.