A vivarium. A container designed to keep specimens under semi-natural conditions for observation or study.
When Twin Atlantic released their debut mini-album on this day in 2009, they gave it a telling name. The tracks which make up Vivarium were formed over three years of live shows; and were captured, caged, and put on display for the world to study and scrutiny.
Ten years on from the record which unleashed this Scottish quartet on the world, we’re taking a closer look at its story, how it was made, and the legacy it still holds to this day. Welcome to Deep Cuts: Vivarium.
Let’s start at the beginning. Twin Atlantic were formed in 2006 from the ashes of other Glasgow bands. Singer and guitarist Sam McTrusty, guitarist and cellist Barry McKenna, bassist Ross McNae and drummer Craig Kneale quickly garnered a reputation for their ferocious live shows.
By the end of 2007 they had cut their teeth with support slots for Circa Survive and mewithoutYou, and released an EP called A Guidance From Colour in early 2008. Building on the success of that EP, Twin Atlantic found themselves played with the likes of Biffy Clyro and Smashing Pumpkins.
These experiences playing with big bands in big venues undoubtedly added to Twin Atlantic’s ambition. With an arsenal of songs which had survived – even flourished – on the cut throat live circuit, a growing reputation as a force to be reckoned with, and one eye firmly on the future, the band signed to Red Bull Records and headed to Los Angeles to record their debut album.
Producing the release was John Travis, who had worked with a range of artists from Wu Tang Clan and Kid Rock to No Doubt and Fountains of Wayne. He proved to be a wise choice, giving Scottish quartet the arena rock sound they desired while distilling the frantic energy of the band’s live performances.
Don’t underestimate just how important that is. This was a time when everyone in Scotland and their dad was in a rock band. Biffy Clyro were about to release the follow up to the monumental Puzzle. The Midnight Organ Fight had elevated Frightened Rabbit to god-like status. And The Xcerts and We Were Promised Jetpacks were going through the same debut album hysteria as Twin Atlantic.
So what made the Glaswegians stand out? Sam’s accent? Perhaps. But more important was the fact that Vivarium was an onslaught of angular, aggressive rock which refused to compromise on any of it’s themes, sounds or beliefs. And unlike Only Revolutions, The Midnight Organ Fight, In The Cold Wind We Smile or These Four Walls, Vivarium captured the chaos of a live show perfectly.
From the first fractious bars of the album’s opening track ‘Lightspeed’, you can just sense that this record is one which thrives on disruption and distortion. The simple but unforgiving punch of the drumming, the rolling bass lines and splintered, screeching guitars all roll out the carpet for Sam McTrusty’s opening lines.
“Step back into the river, float away; realise I want to raise the game” he snarls in his iconic Glaswegian accent. “Call them out into the streets, face the wall; Decide I want to run away.” We’re not even 40 seconds into the album, and Sam is already openly daring anyone to stand in his way.
The chorus kicks in with so much power that you are pushed into your seat. This is where Twin Atlantic set out their stall: on the border between moments of stadium ready anthems and gritty hardcore instrumentals. And it’s glorious.
‘Old Grey Face (And The Way Of The Magenta)’ follows the same template of a jagged, unruly chorus and an epic chorus. What makes this track so special is not only that the middle eight melds those two sides of the coin in awe inspiring fashion, but that the band have the audacity to follow it up with a key change.
The big theme of Vivarium rears its head on ‘You’re Turning Into John Wayne’: identity. Be it personal, cultural or national, the twin ideas of self-identity and self-discovery become very prevalent in Sam McTrusty’s lyrics from this point on.
On ‘You’re Turning Into John Wayne’, he takes no prisoners as he critiques singers who attempt to Americanise their voice and bands you dilute their identity or personality to suit a global audience. He does so in typical Sam McTrusty fashion: growling that “your culture spreads and then in pollutes” and accusing the perpetrators of “losing your latitude and longitude”.
As if the lyrical assault wasn’t enough, the song comes to a climax with a 30 second barrage of musical punches, reinforcing the anger and disdain beaming out from the band.
After three tracks, Twin Atlantic give the listener something of a reprive in the shape of ‘Caribbean War Syndrome’. There’s real tenderness in the opening guitar melody, and combined with the bass and drums, the song is genuinely quite soothing.
At one point, Sam returns to his core theme of identity (this time on a personal scale: “Yes, I love my country, a decision of my own, you gave me the choice, a projection of voices”) he touches on his deliberate decision not to dilute his thick Glasgow accent when singing.
As the track ebbs and flows between relaxed verses and more dynamic choruses, you slowly get the feeling that something big is coming. Finally, that suspicion is confirmed as everything drops away for a few seconds of gentle guitar before all hell breaks loose.
“This campaign is criminal, criminal,
Scream: fucking insane.
Bring me the contract,
Sign me up to blow these fuckers away”
That’s quite the closing statement from Sam McTrusty, and one which really reveals his ambitions to make a success of this band and prove people wrong. The ferocity of the instrumentation which supports his claims is hard to describe. It’s crashing cymbals, pounding drums, crunching riffs and warped distortion; designed to create an explosive effect and clear the path for Sam’s message.
For all his bravado, Sam’s lyrics do have a more tender and introspective side, which he gives some space to on ‘What Is Light? Where Is Laughter?’ The gentle tones of Barry’s cello add a somber weight to some of the lyrical musings, before the outro forms a more optimistic and calmly ambitious vision for the future.
It’s a stark contrast to ‘Human After All’: a four minute tornado of pulsating noise, anger and lust. This is probably the best example of John Travis’ ability to capture on record the chaotic force that was a Twin Atlantic live show in 2009. It’s also the best example of the band holding on to the raw savagery that caught the attention of so many people.
A special mention should go to Craig Kneale for his drumming on ‘Human After All’: tight, unpredictable and energetic; his performance (especially in the breakdown) is absolutely transfixing.
Actually, the breakdown in general is a thing of beauty. As Sam sings the repeated line “She’s human after all, she makes me lust for everything”, the tension makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention. Like a beast trying to break free of its cage, the instrumentation occasionally bursts out of its restraints, before one final cacophonous chorus brings the whole song to a close.
Vivarium’s penultimate track, ‘Audience and Audio’ is perhaps the one which has found a place in the hearts of Twin Atlantic fans above all others. The band show no sign of letting their energy levels drop in a song which ticks so many boxes. Jagged guitar riff? Check. Off kilter chorus? Check. Memorable lyrics? Check.
It’s really no surprise that this gem of a track resonated with people so deeply. It’s just a belter. The moment in the middle eight when Sam stands alone and asks “is there anybody out there?” before the rest of the band come crashing back in – as if to reply ‘yes, we are here’ – is pure, epic, glorious joy (see 3:10 in the video below).
The middle eight of ‘Audience and Audio’ also provides the most hardcore moment of the entire album. Rapid fire kick drum beats and thick, dirty riffs back up Sam as he screams into your ears. Even for a band as frenetic as Twin Atlantic, it still stuns you for a second.
‘Better Weather’ is an album closer which sits in contrast to almost every other track on Vivarium. Subtle and more reflective, it allows the band some time to show off the more delicate side of their personality.
It really shouldn’t work after the psychotic double header of ‘Human After All’ and ‘Audience and Audio’, but there’s something so soothing about ‘Better Weather’ that you just let it flow over you and slow your heart rate down.
By the time Vivarium’s thirty three minute runtime is over, you might well feel exhausted. And with good reason, this isn’t an album for the casual listener, such is its sheer intensity. You have to applaud Twin Atlantic for their refusal to compromise though: by sticking to their guns and doing what they know worked, they created an unmistakable identity for themselves among a crowded field of contemporaries.
And as identity is what this debut album is all about, it makes perfect sense for it to be called Vivarium. Not only did it allow Twin Atlantic’s fans to listen to and study a snapshot of a volatile, dynamic quartet; but it also allowed the band themselves do the same.
After three years of touring and self discovery, they could step back, look at what they had become, and make the right steps to satisfy their insatiable ambition. Which they did, on 2011’s Free. But you’ll have to wait another couple of years for an in depth look at that record.