Crack Cloud - Tough Baby (Meat Machine)

Crack Cloud – Tough Baby (Meat Machine)

Intense, febrile and dislocated from any frame of reference other than their own (excellent) debut, Pain Olympics, Vancouver collective Crack Cloud‘s second album Tough Baby is an ambitious sequel.

Led by pivotal songwriters Zach Choy and Mohammad Sharar, ‘Crack Cloud’ is more an idea than a band in the traditional sense. In an interview with Melissa Vincent, they wryly suggested it might still be around in fifteen years, but with entirely different members. The collective has evolved over nearly ten years as a community response, bringing support workers and survivors of Canada’s opiate crisis together through performing and digital arts. After a few self-released EPs, 2020’s breakthrough album Pain Olympics proved so much more than the cathartic sum of their individual experiences. But, as Choy explains, “we made that album with no expectation of making another.”

Tough Baby marks a conscious shift in approach, aiming to recapture the lost mystery and awe of their adolescence. It’s perhaps apt that the first and last voice we hear is Choy’s late father: “I hope you guys can learn lots from what I’m trying to tell you”. Diagnosed with a terminal illness, Danny Choy, aged only 29, left a legacy of poems, carvings and musical arrangements as inpirations for his family. “Be amazed at how good you can feel, afterwards… Music is an excellent way to let your anger out. Put it all on paper”. Zach, now also 29, sounds more resolute on Tough Baby. The rage that held Pain Olympics together in a chaotic, yet coherent shape has matured. Less focused on reconciling with past ghosts, Crack Cloud now look outwards, scanning the horizon, towards a future that is literally on fire.

Tough Baby explores some huge emotional, societal and political concepts, expressed in as many ways as Crack Cloud has performers. However, if there’s one criticism, it’s that there are moments where the music alone can’t carry the full weight of these ideas. Crack Cloud is a multimedia, multi-sensory experience, so to get the full treatment go and see them on tour (dates below), or dive into one of their accompanying videos. If you’re looking for an instant, gratifying hit of aural excitement at every turn, you won’t get it here. But that’s kind of the point; Crack Cloud aren’t here to sell us a dream.

At its most engaging points, Tough Baby gives us the passion and grit of ‘Costly Engineered Illusion’ with Choy blasting through prose like Joe Strummer eating fire. Next, the twisting, narrative epic ‘Please Yourself’ unravels like a hybrid of American Psycho and The Kids from Fame. Shifting between anti-pop piano ballad and funky breakdowns, it deconstructs our on-demand, disposable culture: “free as much as I can be / I want it now”. The title track is a story of the world and the neuroses of humankind in three parts. Surprising (and gorgeous) country-leaning vocals (care of Eve Adams) lead us into safe musical territory, until Sharar’s splintered screams push us wildly off-course into rhythmic mayhem:

“You met your moment of truth/It’s the pain that bogged you down
Took too long to discover/ You yourself needed to recover”

‘Tough Baby’ gradually winds down, passing through brass and saxophone refrains, angelic choruses and, bizarrely, the old BBC Video ident music.

The rest of Tough Baby takes a bit longer to get to know. It’s worth sitting with it a while to appreciate the nuance (maybe some might call it pretense). ‘The Politician’, for example, starts soft and languid, with Choy sounding somewhere between Bish Bosch Scott Walker and Bryan Ferry. With its inane laughter, quick-fire legal disclaimer and pompous rockabilly vocal ‘Virtuous Industry’ initially annoys. After several listens, it becomes clear that none of it is superfluous. The words, carefully chosen, sink into place and all the nonsensical noise makes perfect sense. The creepy thrum of ‘Criminal’ begins with a movie sample as a sinister tapping of bass string and toms ramps up into a rhythmic, stentorian onslaught akin to Ben Frost that dominates for three full minutes. At its climax the whole thing collapses into wails and moans, recalling that scene from Midsommar.

On first listen the last quarter of Tough Baby feels even more overplayed, with Crack Cloud throwing every device and trick into the mix to distract or overwhelm the senses. The gripping, nihilistic singalong ‘115 At Night’ is powered by what sounds like a restless deconstruction of a Steve Vai riff, embellished with ’80s synth and staccato Hammer horror organ flourishes. ‘Afterthought (Sukhi’s Prayer)’, casts a glance back Pain Olympics’ ‘The Next Fix (A Safe Space)’, weaving echoes of its chorus into the bewildering mix of other musical styles. The song lurches between cocktail bar piano tune, spoken word, ambient pop and acid showtune, cynically clinging on to hopes for a more equal world: “If I wasn’t able to stay in line / it makes me wonder where to go”. The song drips with sarcasm, from its parody structure and “this is the last song on the album” (it’s not) grandstanding, to the feeble kazoo fanfare at the end. By contrast, actual closer, ‘Crackin’ Up’ feels like a mic drop into the abyss.

Tough Baby is Crack Cloud at their best. No closure, no sentiment, just raw truth.

‘Tough Baby’ is out on 16th September, via Meat Machine.

Crack Cloud is in the UK this autumn:


19th: Usher Hall – Edinburgh (with Pavement)

21st: EartH – London

22nd: White Hotel – Manchester

23rd: Strange Brew – Bristol

24th: Brudenell Social – Leeds

25th: Chalk – Brighton


God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.