Since the early 1990s, Hamilton’s Sonic Unyon Recording Companys has been a mainstay of the Canadian independent music scene. While they still pump out quality releases and act as a major independent distributor, the Unyon was perhaps most prominent and influential in the years when the mail-order catalogue was still king. It was a testament to the quality coming out of Sonic Unyon’s Hamilton offices: You could order anything from their catalogue and, without having heard a note of it, be more than satisfied with whatever Canada Post popped into your mailbox.
With some big releases from stalwart Canadian road-dogs, regional wunderkinds, and international acts, the mid-to-late ’90s saw Sonic Unyon become one of the heavyweights in the Canadian indie game. Artists with an album on the Unyon could almost guarantee great campus radio play and, if they had a video, a spot on MuchMusic’s The Wedge or Loud. From schizophrenic noise to shoegaze-y space rock to classic indie and folk pop, Sonic Unyon had all the bases covered. Here are 9 gems from Sonic Unyon’s glory years.
Tristan Psionic – TPA Flight 028
Sonic Unyon founders Mark Milne, Sandy McIntosh, and Tim Potocic initially started the label to release the music of their Hamilton-based band, Tristan Psionic. The band’s second full-length, TPA Flight 028, went on to dominate Canadian campus radio when it was released in 1996. This isn’t only a testament to the strength of the album, but it also foreshadowed the place Sonic Unyon was starting to carve out as the Canadian indie rock label of record. The influence Tristan Psionic had on Canadian indie rock is obvious, especially when you sift through early releases from labels like Endearing, Mint, and far beyond. Listen to “Divided,” add an unhealthy dose of caffeine, and voila, you’ve got a classic Bonaduces track!
Thrush Hermit – Clayton Park
Seminal Halifax pop-rockers Thrush Hermit released the bulk of their discography on Sloan’s Murderrecords imprint, but their final album came out on Sonic Unyon in 1999. CBC3’s Vish Khanna called Clayton Park the “quintessential Thrush Hermit record,” and it’s easy to understand why. “The Day We Hit The Coast” and “From the Back of the Film” are both fun, gritty rockers that received plenty of play on MuchMusic. As a whole, it crunches and jangles along from start to finish, pedal to the metal and barely keeping between the ditches, as all the best rock ‘n’ roll records do. While Joel Plaskett has made a name for himself post-Hermit, if all he’d done was writeClayton Park, well, that’d still be enough to get him into rock ‘n’ roll heaven.
Tricky Woo – Sometimes I Cry
Tricky Woo: Montreal’s purveyors of the type of down-and-dirty garage rock New Bomb Turks’Eric Davidson called the “gunk punk undergut.” While 1998’s The Enemy is Real threw the group into the spotlight, the following full length, Sometimes I Cry, was truly the band’s best offering, even garnering a Juno nod in 2000. Sometimes I Cry is chock full of solid rock songs, catchy hooks, and sing-along choruses. It’s the perfect soundtrack to shotgunning a dirty 30 of Busch with your best pals, while smoking all the cigarettes you can handle on that first sunny spring afternoon when you can finally cut the sleeves of all your winter t-shirts and just go buck in a public park.
Hayden – Everything I Long For
Hayden’s debut, originally released on cassette and re-issued in 1995 by Sonic Unyon, lays the blueprint for the singer-songwriter’s later, major-label catalogue. Contemplative lyrics, strumming guitars, plunking piano keys, and a vague stoner attitude are all present, with a healthy dose of grungy ennui added for good measure. “Bad As It Seems,” the lead track, comes off like a mutant bastard of Neil Young and Mellow Gold-era Beck. Tracks like “In September” veer further into rock territory than much of what Hayden would record later. While not necessarily a monumental album in the grand scheme of things, it stands the test of time today, and it was prescient for the Unyon to release, considering the star Hayden would become through the late ’90s and early 2000’s.
Frank Black & the Catholics – Self-titled
In the years immediately following the (initial) demise of the Pixies, Black Francis seemed to struggle to define his own sound, producing a short string of eccentric but ultimately lacklustre solo efforts. But on this debut release with the Catholics, Black and co. developed a raw product that seemed drawn from the grimy roadhouses of weird, old America. It was far from the well-travelled interstates of other alternative rockers. The Catholics would record a string of albums that increasingly pushed the barroom rock vibe of this debut into different directions, and eventually started performing Pixies tunes live with increased regularity. But they never quite hit the nail on the head as hard (or accurately) as they did with this album. For my money, this beauty of a record stands up to at least half of—and certainly the most recent addition to—the Pixies catalogue.
SIANspheric – there’s always someplace you’d rather be
The sophomore album from Hamilton ambient space-rock pioneers SIANspheric is a long journey, full of droning feedback, ethereal vocals, and trippy, catchy hooks. The hard-touring act gave it up in 2000, but have reunited and have been performing sporadically. I was never quite sure what they were all about, but this album logged a lot of play on my DiscMan while I experimented with the limits of my own consciousness just prior to the turn of the millennium, when everything seemed to be waiting just beyond the horizon. Even with the record in your hands, it’s hard to know just where one track begins and another ends. And that’s part of the beauty of this album. So why not take spend a little time with your mind and dig on it in its entirety?
Chore – Take My Mask & Breathe
Releasing three albums on the Unyon between 1997 and 2002, Chore were early forebearers of Canadian melodic post-hardcore. This sophomore release was a sprawling, heavy release that spawned the Shawn Fedorchuk (of Kittens) produced video for “General Warning.” Their final album edged even closer towards screamo territory, with “The Hitchhiker” gaining some regular play on both MTV and the first season of 24. But it’s Take My Mask & Breathe that really stands the tallest today—it’s a timeless piece of music that was as heavy on melody and songwriting as it was on volume.
Shallow North Dakota – This Apparatus Must Be Earthed
Loud, punishing, and heavy as hell, Hamilton’s Shallow North Dakota blazed a rough and violent trail through the backwoods of Canadian noise rock from the early ’90s through to the early years of the 21st century. While their Sonic Unyon debut, Autobody Crusher, is a powerful record itself, 1997’s This Apparatus Must Be Earthed is the pinnacle of their recorded output. Every track is larger than life, like a high-octane monster truck rally set in an open pit mine. When it’s over, you’re exhausted, but oddly compelled to put yourself through the wringer again. Between Shallow, ND, and Winnipeg’s Kittens (see below), Sonic Unyon had a lock on the finest, brutally bizarre noise rock coming out of Canada in the ’90s.
Kittens – Bazooka & The Hustler
Speaking of Kittens, it’s nearly impossible to pick just one of their albums for inclusion here. Their Sonic Unyon debut, Tiger Comet, features a sound more akin to their punishing early cassettes (anthologized by the Unyon as Low-Fi Classics & Other Rarities). And their final offering, The Night Danger Albumwasan EP that perfectly captures and distills the niche they carved for themselves in the Canadian noise rock scene through the ’90s.
The Night Danger Album was what turned me on to Kittens, and many other Sonic Unyon bands, in the first place. But if there’s one Kittens album to experience, it’sBazooka & The Hustler. An ambitious, sprawling, downright bizarre album, it’s the pinnacle of Shawn Fedorchuk and co.’s work as shamans to the legion of high-volume weirdos across the country. With a penchant for primal, savage songs merging Melvins-like intensity with Spaghetti Western honkytonk tropes, Kittens were a force of unto themselves, addinglyrical content from the deepest fever dreams. (For example: “I’m an electronic polyphemus moth. I dress like a sheep, and got the head of a wolf eel,” or “Never been to San Pedro, but I know about gushing and the Koala fireball.”)A concept album of sorts, Bazooka & The Hustler is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. And what a terrifying, yet sickly satisfying, trip it is.