The Canadian hardcore and melodic punk group Sum 41 has been making inroads since 1996 and three years later they broke out of their locale with the classic debut All Killer, No Filler. No idle boast either that since AKNF has gone Platinum in the UK, the USA and, of course, in their native Canada where they are feted as superstars. Following such a success might seem daunting but they achieved that feat with Does This Look Infected? Global sales of over 5 million, allied to Sum 41’s legendary touring schedule, where they have been known to appear as their own support act – the heavy metal version they call Pain for Pleasure – kept them in the public gaze and they have maintained a ferociously high standard on Chuck, Underclass Hero and the most recent, Screaming Bloody Murder. Underlining their prestige they are two time Juno Awards winners in a field that regularly includes other Canadian stars like Nickelback, Diana Krall and Sam Roberts. In the 2012 Grammy Awards Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance category they narrowly lost out when their most excellent “Blood in My Eyes” was pipped by Foo Fighters’ “White Limo” but really they crave the acclaim of their fans way above industry glad-handing. With an increasingly complex framework of sound to explore they can’t be defined in simplistic punk rock terms: metal and hardcore roots aren’t going away but they are fine with garage rock and major in melody, citing Bad Religion, Rancid, Green Day, Slayer, Nirvana and even The Beatles as influences. With their charismatic front man and main writer Deryck Whibley providing the ever-present core, other long-standing Sum 41’ers are bassist Jason McCaslin and lead guitarist Tom Thacker. Whibley recently overcame a life-threatening personal problem but after hanging out with recovering friends Iggy Pop, Duff McKagan, Matt Sorum and Tommy Lee he is in a good place and hints at new material for what will be the band’s sixth studio release. With Whibley playing club dates that feature offshoot act The Happiness Machines and a major summer date in Colombia at Festival Rock al Parque the stage is set for a grand return.
Tearing out of Ajax, Ontario as a band called Kaspir, Whibley and original drummer Steve Jocz enlisted Dave Baksh on guitar and Jason McAslin on bass to perfect a mostly covers set. They changed their name to Sum 41 to reflect an extended summer vacation – or so they say. The EP, Half Hour of Power included “Makes No Difference”, a slice of teenage skate rock that turned heads and helped them win an improved deal with Island Records. At the turn of the millennium they were now primed to maker their debut album proper, the mighty All Killer, No Filler, which borrowed its title from Jerry Lee Lewis. Contained within is the essence of what makes Sum 41 tick: “Fat Lip”, “In Too Deep”, “Motivation”, “Handle This” – all were polished up with the producer Jerry Finn (Blink-182, Morrissey, The Offspring et al) who died far too early in 2008. Gravitating towards the anthemic side of punk pionneered by the likes of Green Day, Sum 41 captured the teen zeitgeist alright and the absurdly catchy “Fat Lip” topped the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart while hitting #8 in the UK where audiences took them to heart, no doubt appreciating an energy that fused the Beastie Boys crowd antics to Black Sabbath’s incendiary sonic prowess.
Sticking to the short, sharp shock method Sum 41 weighed in with Does This Look Infected? now utilising the console skills of Greg Nori, their then manager. While the previous album was mostly aimed at the concerns of their natural audience this time they darkened and blurred the edges with tracks that dealt with depression, insomnia and the perils of untrammelled hedonism. Aggressive and heavy throughout, the zombie art work and spooky tracks like “The Hell Song” and “Over My Head (Better Off Dead)” hit the panic button and ensured their concerts became a flailing mass of humanity. Well worth discovery if this floats your Hadean boat, it’s weird and surprisingly witty tunes aren’t limited by the hardcore genre.
Dave Baksh hung around to make third album, Chuck (Juno award winner for Rock Album of the Year, 2005) and Sum 41 made a precarious visit to the Congo on behalf of War Child Canada. Chuck was chosen as the title after this hairy episode since he was the U.N. peacekeeper who acted as intermediary on the trip. Anxious to keep upping their game Chuck’s songs deal with death, anarchy and apocalypse, though never in a prurient fashion. Stand-outs are everywhere but try “No Reason”, “We’re All to Blame” and the genuinely morbid “Pieces” and you hear them improving at a super fast rate, and yet again they make Gold in the US and Japan and brush Platinum in Canada.
Now adding layers of keyboards, harmonised vocals and increasingly complex lyrics to the mix Whibley and his crew spent a decent time creating Underclass Hero, a conceptual album that looks into the confusion and frustration of modern society and the disassociation and fury of youth culture. The disenfranchised mood is no accident as Whibley was taking on board John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and adding a variation of The Who’s “teenage wasteland”. An ambitious and lengthy affair this is not without flaws but it is Sum 41’s most far ranging disc, touching on Whibley’s relationship with the Canadian singer Avril Lavigne (his then wife), parental conflict (“Walkin Disaster”) and the semi-acoustic “With Me”. To that extent Underclass Hero is the band’s most personal work, though it contains the nut of universality. No surprise that Whibley chose to produce this one himself.
He stays at the desk for Screaming Bloody Murder (2011), an album that suggests all their old rage and sense of disillusionment is back in the room. Given the return to hardcore roots had been well signposted in the title Screaming Bloody Murder restores Sum 41 to the UK charts and sees them hit #5 on Billboard’s Rock and Alternative charts with European markets also lapping up the results. Big fat chords, power house vocals and the constant thrash of the rhythm section are a given but there are nuances to be heard once Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. adds his keys and Gil Norton mixes magic into the drum sound.
Whibley wrote the title cut with fellow Canadian Tom Thacker (Gob) and combined with musician Matt Squire on “Baby, You Don’t Wanna Know”, the latter being a straight ahead rocker that nods at 1960s titans like The Beatles and The Stones. The busy “Blood in My Eyes” is the album’s sleeper and the band’s most provocative statement to date: certainly the graphic video doesn’t pull many punches.
In addition to the studio works we also have live albums, including Live At The House Of Blues, Cleveland 9.15.07 and the compilation, All the Good Shit: 14 Solid Gold Hits 2000-2008 whose breast beating title is underlined by the evidence. The Best Buy bonus tracks and iTunes bonus tracks edition offer extra live good shit, including a hometown version of “The Hell Song” from the Orange Lounge, Ontario.
Much underrated (though not by their fans or peers) Sum 41 are in a holding pattern for now but we can’t wait for the next installment of Deryck Whibley’s “chronicles from the middle of nowhere and everywhere”. Keep ‘em coming, pilgrim.
Words: Max Bell
It would be a mistake to view Sum 41 as just another second-rate band cashing in on the early-'00s punk-pop boom, even if it did recruit Jerry Finn to produce All Killer No Filler. Just as Finn had done for both blink-182 and Green Day, he charges Sum 41's punk-pop with a razor-sharp edge, the sort of dynamic in-your-face sound that helps this music cross over to MTV and radio so well. Besides the notable production, a lot of credit should go to the band as well. Its songwriting is obviously more diverse here than it was a year earlier on its debut album, Half Hour of Power; for example, the group's rap and '80s metal influences rise to the surface more frequently here than on that first album and instill a fun sense of camp. "Fatlip" is perhaps the best example of how Sum 41 has made an effort to diversify the music with more than just power chords and melodic punk vocals. Judging from this album, Sum 41 still isn't quite on the same level as alt-rock peers such as Weezer or Green Day, but the band is obviously headed in the right direction. In the meantime, it's difficult not to enjoy this album for what it is, even if it's a bit derivative.
Words: Jason Birchmeier
In June 2004, Sum 41 was in Congo filming a documentary for charity when they found themselves caught in the midst of the country's ongoing hostilities. But a UN aid worker named Chuck Pelletier was instrumental in getting the band to safety, and a grateful Sum 41 named their fourth album in his honor. As they say in their liners, "Without him, we'd be dead. Chuck rules!" The experience also seems to have mellowed the group's sarcastic streak. From its aggressive metal and hardcore overtones to lyrics that rail against societal ignorance and a world gone wrong, Chuck is a few steps ahead of the smirking, jocular anthems that populated Sum 41's previous output. This suddenly sober outlook hasn't lessened the rock power, though. "Why is there no reason we all can't change?" Deryck Whibley wonders in "No Reason," but the cut also binds the rapid-fire pace of hardcore to a great chorus hook. Lead single "We're All to Blame" lashes out at greed with some vicious metal riffing, "Bitter End" takes its cues from the double-bass kicks and furious lead solos of Anthrax, and "There's No Solution"'s layered vocals, psychological fretting, and explosive chorus shift give it a Linkin Park feel. Sum 41 also avoids employing too many "serious" add-ons, such as string sections or synthesizers. Chuck does have a few passages of acoustic guitar (most effectively on the low-key "Slipping Away"). But like Sum 41's previous efforts, it's a concise album that clocks in at just over a half-hour, with a basic understanding that fast and loud is what the band does best. But this time around, Sum 41 has made sure to set its message at the same high volume.
Words: Johnny Loftus
Sum 41 album three, Does This Look Infected?, is much like Sum 41 album two, which was much like their lesser-known indie debut, Half Hour of Power. Which means, Does This Look Infected? sounds much like the work of Blink-182's snottier kid brothers, who are just in it for good times. Frankly, it's kind of a relief to be spared both the smutty double entendres and the self-pity, and while they still rely too much on processed guitar distortion and have sparkling productions, Sum 41 makes up for that cleanliness with vigorous performances and simple, catchy hooks. It's pretty fun, particularly since the whole affair is blissfully short at a few minutes over a half-hour, giving it a nice, punchy effect. There's nothing here that's unexpected, but it's delivered well, so it's a fun little record...but it's not much more than that, either.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The first track, "Grab the Devil by the Horns and Fuck Him up the Ass," is a time warp. For a minute and a half the group relives the new wave of British metal and cranks out an Iron Maiden style tune. After a brief trip down memory lane the album quickly morphs into pop punk. The songs are well crafted and the hooks are catchy on "Make No Difference" and "Summer." But in some respects that is problematic, there was a time in the pre-Green Day/Blink 182 years where punk defined itself by not being radio friendly. A good album, but essentially proof that turn of the millennium punk is just as much a corporate rock entity as adult contemporary.
Words: Curtis Zimmermann
The instigating factor on Screaming Bloody Murder, Sum 41’s fifth album, are Deryck Whibley’s divorce from pretty punkette Avril Lavigne and his decision to produce the record on his own. The divorce provides considerable grist for the lyrical mill and Whibley gives Sum 41 a musicality they’ve never suggested on their prior four albums, adding considerable drama and ballast, not to mention strings and pianos. Even if there’s a fair amount of affected British accents and overdriven guitars, it’s a far cry from the mall-punk rebellion of Underclass Hero, the melodramatic bombast flavored with metallic flecks and solipsistic acoustic pity, all giving Screaming Bloody Murder a grander, richer palette than any other Sum 41 record. For as much thematic and musical ambition Whibley and crew display here, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that Sum 41 are trying on a suit they don’t have the build to fill; the threads are right, but the cut is loose and baggy, so even if it is appealing at a glance, it becomes less attractive upon closer inspection.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Sum 41 have always seemed like blink-182's baby brothers, right down to their nonsensical numbers in the name, so it's only appropriate that they're also attempting to grow up just like blink -- or better still, a bit like blink and a bit like Green Day, who have proven to be the standard-bearers for how latter-day punks can grow a social conscience and become mature, as evidenced by American Idiot. Sporting a similar-sounding but not as politically potent title in Underclass Hero, Sum 41's fifth studio album extends upon its predecessor Chuck's deliberate attempt at getting serious and relevant, containing just enough garbled commentary and political platitudes to not only give the impression that the bandmembers are saying something beyond their beloved clichés, but to give the impression that they're telling a story, creating an anthem for the "underclass hero," the slacker who can't be labeled as an underachiever because he never attempts to achieve. The first few songs here -- the fists-in-the-air wannabe anthem title track, the narcissistic self-loathing "Walking Disaster" -- hit as hard as processed pedal distortion can, but Sum 41 (now down to a trio after the departure of guitarist Dave Baksh) soon abandon any larger narrative as they start to stretch out with acoustic guitars, keyboards, and Queen harmonies uncannily reminiscent of My Chemical Romance's more conceptually cohesive The Black Parade. Despite these flashy accoutrements, Sum 41 don't want to be emo, they don't want to be prog, they don't even aspire to the mock the U2 atmospherics of Angels and Airwaves; they want to be nothing more than pedestrian yet pleasant punk-pop, predictable in every way from their nagging chant-along choruses to their portentous attempts at rewriting "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)." Like all Sum 41 albums, Underclass Hero is ingratiating enough as background music -- it's hooky enough to have momentum but not enough to linger in the memory -- but they've never sounded quite so toothless and it's all down to this increased ambition. Now that Deryck Whibley wants to say something important, it's all the more evident that he's not armed with much more than a juvenile sense of melody and a cookie-cutter outlook on the world: when he's railing against his parents or the man at large, he gives no specifics, only platitudes, which only emphasizes that this is prefabricated rebellion, protest music for the branding generation -- kids who make a stand by preferring Pepsi to Coke or Burger King to McDonalds. Or Sum 41 to blink-182.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine