It’s astonishing to think that it’s been over a quarter-century since Alex Lifeson released Victor, his first big project outside of Rush. That record had some brilliant cuts but was somewhat polarizing; praised by some for its variety and deviation from his day job, disappointing to others for not containing a dozen Tom Sawyers or The Spirit Of Radios. Fast-forwarding to 2022 finds Lifeson once again branching out in a new direction with the formation of Envy Of None, a band whose self-titled debut is another release boasting a strong identity, sure to delight some and confuse others… though hopefully mostly the former.
Lifeson is joined by longtime friend Andy Curran (who those of us of a certain vintage will recall from Canadian rockers Coney Hatch) on bass, guitar, and backing vocals, and established producer/engineer Alfio Annibalini on guitar and keys. For those unfamiliar with Annibalini, the roster of artists he has worked with reads like a who’s who of the Canadian scene, from The Tea Party to Blue Rodeo to I Mother Earth to Nelly Furtado to Voivod to Our Lady Peace. So far, so good.
The band’s secret weapon, though, is American singer-songwriter Maiah Wynne, whose impressive and broad-ranging vocals prove to be the unexpected highlight of this cross-generational ensemble (she’s younger than Victor). Curran had been writing with Wynne – a multi-instrumentalist herself – and revealed the collaboration to Lifeson, who immediately wanted to come on board based on the strength of what he was hearing. Magic was quickly made, and the project ballooned to an album unlike anything these four musicians have crafted before.
There’s a mix of styles throughout the 11 tracks that make up Envy Of None, from angry to wistful to sly to eerie; from pulsing electronic to gritty alt-rock to intoxicating soundscapes. Leadoff single Liar was met with surprise by some listeners who may have been hoping the project would be a showcase for Lifeson’s ‘We’re not worthy!’ guitar solos. But while he could have taken that easy route, his focus here is on exploring styles dissimilar to those of his old band. It would be naive to think he’d form a different project just to play the same kind of music.
And it sure isn’t the same kind of music. Energetic opener Never Said I Love You springs to life with thumping beats and a steady, sensible arrangement, with Curran’s climbing bass accenting the impossibly catchy chorus and Wynne’s tuneful vocals floating above the dreamy bridge section. It’s a killer track and could easily have been a single, but to release the best songs in advance is akin to a movie trailer that gives too much of the plot away.
The layers of texture designed by the quartet provide depth to songs like Shadow, with its dramatic aura and programmed electronics, the leisurely Look Inside, with Wynne’s ethereal vocals swirling around a sludgy stoner groove, and the quirky Dumb, built upon a sturdy and driving Depeche Mode-style foundation. It’s easy to be transfixed by some of these tracks, which grow even more so with the volume cranked to neighbour-annoying levels.
Dog’s Life is infused with an early Nine Inch Nails vibe but Wynne enters and shifts its course to something more original. She leads many of these pieces with a wise-beyond-her-years tightrope walk between confidence and fragility. ‘Maiah became my muse,’ notes Lifeson. ‘After hearing her vocals on Never Said I Love You, I felt so excited… I’ve never had that kind of inspiration working with another musician. When we say she’s special, it’s because she’s really fucking special!’
Consider how high that praise really is. Indeed, it’s hard not to be charmed by Wynne on this record. She has a striking ability to weave her voice seamlessly into sometimes dense compositions, and I hold my hand up and admit that I thought I was going to be focusing mainly on Lifeson and Curran (two guys I could talk about in my sleep, and probably have done). This isn’t to suggest that the boys in the band aren’t the consummate pros we know and love – they are – but all playing here is in service of the song, a refreshing change of pace in a rock world bloated with indulgent showboating and numbing technique.
Though seven of the tracks are credited to all four members, Old Strings is Wynne’s own composition, an elegant piece that glides along with alluring beauty even as it unveils bare and blunt lyrics:
I don't want to die by the sword I'm carrying tonight I don't want to live by the doubts I'm harboring tonight I don't want to drown in the fears I'm swimming in tonight
Truth be told, the album is largely bereft of whimsy or humour, flavours it might benefit from. Most of the lyrics on Envy Of None exhibit a decidedly darker shade, reflective in nature and examining topics like paranoia, scorn, deception, and even condescension (as in the aforementioned Dumb, where Wynne addresses feeling patronized and dehumanized). But there are wisps of hope on occasion, and the words tend to land more on the thought-provoking side than the depressing. Still, a fun little ditty might have provided some levity.
Old Strings could prove a grower for some, as it reveals its strengths slowly over multiple listens (it eventually blossomed into one of my own favourites). Whereas the punchy, ominous Enemy is more immediate, conveying an altogether different atmosphere with its Sabbath-esque riff and deep rumbling bass threatening to knock pictures off walls (Again, I stress: volume up!), giving the album a heavy climax.
Two instrumentals Lifeson had previously released online have been fleshed out with lyrics. Spy House, with its jagged guitar part and tasty leads, is embellished with layers of eerily-whispered vocals, while the mysterious Kabul Blues, with its bluesy licks dotting an exotic backdrop, finds a more sultry Wynne delivering curious metaphors like ‘Teardrops hang by the mirror in a washcloth, cleansing your soul like a burnt crop‘. Have I mentioned I’m impressed by this woman’s creativity?
A lovely instrumental provides a touching closing to the album in the form of Western Sunset, Lifeson’s tribute to the dearly departed Neil Peart, his friend and bandmate for over 45 years. ‘I visited Neil when he was ill,’ says Lifeson. ‘I was on his balcony watching the sunset and found inspiration. There’s a finality about a sunset that kinda stayed with me throughout the whole process. It had meaning. It was the perfect mood to decompress after all these different textures… a nice way to close the book.’
At 42 minutes, Envy Of None does not overstay its welcome. In fact, it goes by in a flash like the best albums do. It’s a compelling listen; modern, vibrant, and loaded with memorable melodies, groovin’ rhythms, and stirring vocals. And it’s a joy to hear Lifeson so energized at this stage of his life (and ours). I hear something new in it every time, and I presume I will for years to come. This album is not at all what I was expecting… yet somehow it’s everything I hoped for.
Envy Of None is released 8 April on Kscope Records.