Finding “Beauty in the Tension” – The Olympic Symphonium

Olympic Symphonium - Beauty in the Tension

It’s only February, and already there’s a contender for my favorite album of the year: “Beauty in the Tension,” the new album from the Olympic Symphonium.  This utterly gorgeous, occasionally ethereal album is equal parts folk and prog rock, and completely riveting all the way through.  The songs celebrate beauty in many guises – in relationships, in nature, in questions (and yes, in tension) – whilst also musing on getting older (or at least finding new maturity).  And in the great tradition of prog rock, even the cover art invites the questions – a juxtaposition of beauty with mortality.

“Coat of Arms” opens the album with a great opening meditation on the transience of love and the fact that uncertainty is okay: “there’s beauty in questions – we don’t have to give it all away – there’s beauty in the tension; we’ll never own love, we can only borrow.”  (As a former theology major, I can’t even begin to describe how deeply I appreciate these sentiments.)  In its sound and its tight harmonies, “Glory of Love” reminds me of some of America’s songs (the band, certainly not the country!), but its lyrical depth shimmers.

We’ve had the great good fortune to hear Kyle Cunjak, the group’s bassist, play live (twice, both times with David Myles), so the wondrous bass line of “The Middle” is totally no surprise.  This gently swinging tune will definitely have you tapping your toes (or fingers, in my case, as I was driving) with its sound, so reminiscent of the best parts of the music of the 1970s.  “Careful” is a devastatingly penetrating reflection on mortality and who gets left behind; if other songs on the album were influenced by some of the lighter sounds of the 70s, this song is a full-throttle prog rock anthem.

The album features one instrumental composition, the lovely “In With the Camera”; as much as I’ve treasured the lyrical gifts of these writers in these songs, I’d bet they could craft an equally wondrous instrumental album.  (Not that I’m hinting…)  The group flirts with some soul sounds (complete with the horns) on “Lost in the Party,” while “Look at Her Now” is an earworm of a minor-key confection with some Brit-pop sound and a bit of Doobie Brothers-esque guitar on the side.  “Choral Sounds,” which ends the album, has exactly that (great harmonies reminiscent of some of the Carpenters’ layered vocals).

For someone like me who is deeply steeped in the music of the 1970s, this album contains countless “that reminds of…” moments, but don’t think for a second that this isn’t an incredibly creative, original, deeply thoughtful and moving project.  I’m only sorry that I haven’t discovered the Olympic Symphonium sooner – and I hope that they don’t wait another three years before putting out another album.

We’re totally chuffed that ALL FOUR members of the Olympic Symphonium (Graeme Walker, Kyle Cunjak, Nick Cobham, and Dennis Goodwin) chatted with us about the new album.

This is your first album in over three years – what keeps bringing you all back together to work as this particular musical ensemble?

Graeme Walker – 3 years between albums yes but not three years apart. We’re never really apart. We’re close and feel privileged to share music together. Ideas are always brewing, we are always communicating. Despite gaps between albums I always feel connected to this music and this group of people.

Kyle Cunjak – I wish we could do it more than every three years. If it was up to us we’d be in the studio once a month making a new record. We love recording and it’s only getting better and easier for us. Financing these efforts is a different story. It’s not cheap and we’re not selling thousands of records so we do what we can, when we can.

To me, the opening track (“Coat of Arms”) speaks as much to the title of the album as the title track… the idea that love is something that can only be borrowed, not owned, has a beautiful tension of its own. Your work seems to wrestle with deep philosophical questions – do these songs encapsulate your shared experiences or are they specific to whoever has written a particular song?

GW – This song wrestles with a lot of things… The focus is that these things can be complicated but complicated doesn’t always mean bad. Complicated can be a test to see what’s real, what’s valuable, and what sticks….a form of quality control. I think we all appreciate things that aren’t obvious to us and when we work hard at discovering something its far more rewarding than if it appeared without a journey to get there.

So how did the Dark Side of the Moon pajama pants contribute to the album, anyway?

Nick Cobham – The discovery of two pairs of Dark Side of the Moon pyjama bottoms was a game changer. Why did two of us own two different pairs? After a long day of recording, we jammied up and instantly decided to have a late night listening party of that Pink Floyd album. It was playing loudly. We fell asleep to it like we all have many times over throughout our lives. It influenced how we wanted this album to sound. It influenced our choices during the recording of the album. Pyjamas made it happen.

Dennis Goodwin – We put that much more delay on things. And giggled in bed.

The Olympic Symphonium

“The Middle” reminds me so much in its beat and its sound of some of my favorite pop music from the 1970s but it’s so much deeper lyrically… is there a specific person or experience that inspired it?

GW – It makes me really happy to hear the 70’s pop reference. I’d be curious to know what exactly. The Middle is a song about feeling violated and interfered with but probably being too laissez faire/polite to step up and protect what’s important. Not a literal song but certainly borrows from experience.

(Note to GW, from L – In answer to your question this song reminds me sonically, though not lyrically, of England Dan and John Ford Coley’s music, which (though I realize I may be inviting scorn here) I grew up hearing on my older sister’s stereo as a child.)

One of the themes that seems to run through several of the songs (“Careful” is one example) is the awareness of mortality, and the shortness of time’s availability. Even the cover art speaks to this, it seems.  Exploring those ideas of death and endings within one of the most live and living arts – music – has a tension all its own… how do you as songwriters and musicians experience that?

NC – Getting older means coming to terms with the inevitability of death and feeling the weight of that idea pushing down on you from time to time. I can’t help but fear losing someone or dread leaving loved ones behind when my time comes. I also can’t help but write songs about that. It’s a form of therapy. It’s a theme I’ve explored before and one I will keep exploring. Probably will till my time comes.

“In With the Camera” is a gorgeous instrumental, and musically it definitely fits with the rest of the album… how do you view its place in the project thematically?

KC – We’ve always had at least one song on every album that’s created in the studio as opposed to arranged/rehearsed beforehand. I think it’s important to document spontaneity and fresh ideas because the results are often pleasantly surprising.

I had the main guitar part for years and so when we were laying down bed tracks I played it through and added a couple electric guitar parts as well. Then, piece by piece the other members contributed on a variety of instruments – Wurlitzer, more guitars, bass, drums – and it was done within a couple hours. Diego really shines as a mixing engineer on this song in particular. Those delays that grab the syncopated melody at the end of the B section give me chills every time I listen.

At this point you have a few tour dates set, all in eastern Canada… any plans to tour the new material elsewhere in Canada?

KC – We’ll go anywhere! We don’t have a booking agent so all our touring is dependent on who is interested. I do A LOT of outreach through Forward Music Group but times are tough so we end up playing at home more than anywhere else. That being said, we’re making a small run to Quebec in late April that may include some Ontario dates, and summer festivals in Atlantic Canada are coming together as well. We’ve been trying to get back to Western Canada for years now and it’ll happen again when the time is right.

~ L

Photo credit: Pat Deighan

Visit the Olympic Symphonium’s website.

Listen to “Beauty in the Tension” on Spotify.


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