In a sea of independent pretension, Key Witness stands out as one of the few indie rock bands that doesn’t sound like an indie rock band. They abandon repetitive pop riffs and vainly danceable tunes in favour of a more genuine, roots-based sound; the only problem is that you can’t always tell. Their ambitious eclecticism is tricky to balance alongside real quality—especially for six 20-something-year-old Torontonians with innately different influences—but Key Witness manages to pull it off and turn it into a style, both onstage and in the studio.

Their release party for Mercury in Retrograde, their debut album, went down on December 15th at the Tranzac in Toronto. Despite Retrograde sporting the artwork of a Radiohead album, Witness proves themselves pinned down in no clear way to the umbrella of “alternative” music and determinedly strives for more. Lead singer J.M. McNab, with raspy vocals reminiscent of a hybrid Eddie Vedder meets Bob Dylan, defined their style as “collaborative” in an interview after the show.

“We’re all pulling in different directions,” he said. “For me, it’s a benefit—it’s better to have more than one mindset.”

“Different directions” is no lie: in a 35-minute album, there are moments of Les Claypool-inspired bass, country guitar, western duel music, epic post-rock crescendos and an ever-present violin to tie it all together into a refreshingly unique and ultimately unpredictable package.

“We haven’t really found a niche yet,” McNab said.

However, with collaboration in mind, Retrograde sounds sometimes compromised—certain tracks, like “Last Night Was The Last Night” and “Perchance to Dream”, blend into generic rock songs that sound as if they’re striving for something more pure and properly directed.

But their Tranzac show was a full-blown success regardless. Despite being plagued by a few unfortunate sound glitches and a snowstorm outside, there was high energy throughout the night, particularly from guitarist Stefan Banjevic and bassist Dave Clark wildly moving up at the front of the stage.

“Does anyone have to get home or go to bed or anything,” McNab said near the end of their set, “or can we play a few more songs?”

Their last two tracks exemplified both their diversity and incoherence. Their psychedelic jam of “The Hellmouths of Bewdley” drew heavily from post-rockers Explosions in the Sky or Mogwai, while also incorporating the sporadic repetition during lulls frequently heard by bands like Islands or Yo La Tengo; and then they ended with a balls-out western duel with a powerful harmonica finale.

Key Witness is a prime example of an ambitious and doubtlessly talented crew that’s testing the waters. Retrograde is a fine album, and the band is far and away one of the most energetic and lively acts you’ll see in the underground Toronto scene, but what’s more exciting is what their next album could be.



Photos courtesy of Chris Leung.

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