The most common charge levied against Wolf Parade’s solid second album, At Mount Zoomer, was that the band was stretching itself thin, and maybe, just maybe, co-frontmen Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner were saving their best material for their other projects (Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs, respectively). But that charge came off as an easy way to explain the different and languid tunes on At Mount Zoomer, because both guys were working on solo material long before joining Wolf Parade, and they were able to bring their A-game to Apologies to the Queen Mary, their nearly perfect debut album. And now Expo 86, Wolf Parade’s third album, further renders that notion moot: This is the best album either singer has unleashed since Apologies, and it is bound to make the recent releases from Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs distant memories.
Like the other Wolf Parade albums, Expo 86 is split down the middle between Boeckner and Krug. For his half, Krug lets his Bowie-isms rip loose, from the powdered-wig regality of the simmering “In the Direction of the Moon,” the white-hot “Two Men In New Tuxedos” and the van-painting epic feel of “Cave-o-Sapien.” But Krug knocks one into the Yukon Territory with “What Did My Lover Say (It Always Had To Go This Way),” a crushing, guitar heroic track ready-made for shuffle dancing at concerts. It’s perhaps the first song Krug’s written since “I’ll Believe in Anything” that has true anthem power; it never lets up its explosive dominance over the course of its winding guitar solos (there are three) and its interstellar chorus (the moon and sun figure prominently).
Boeckner has long played second fiddle in Wolf Parade -- his workman Springsteen with synths style often plays backseat to Krug’s arty pretenses -- but he runs off with a higher percentage of the memorable moments on Expo 86. Boecker’s greatest strength as a songwriter is his ability to make songs feel like rushing journeys on a desolate highway of introspection, and he packs a couple doozies in here, from “Palm Road” and shout-along “Little Golden Age” to the climbing synth-heavy “Ghost Pressure” and the life-affirming stomper “Pobody’s Nerfect.” He even finds space to cram in Handsome Furs’ fascination with all things Soviet, delivering perhaps the first ballad not in Russion to a girl named “Yulia.” Krug might get all the pub, but it’s Boeckner, as much as anyone, who holds these albums together.
The most valid charge levied against At Mount Zoomer was that it was like the band members convinced themselves that what everyone wanted to hear from them was a late-'70s prog-rock album full of 11-minute songs that are just really long guitar solos strung together with lyrics. But listening to Expo 86, it becomes clear that At Mount Zoomer was a test-run for the stuff they’ve perfected here. Expo 86 welds the proggier inclinations of the band with its Modest Mouse-like busted-ass pop crafting. But most important, Expo 86 just straight up rocks. It never lets up on the monstrous riffs it delivers in its first 10 seconds. After a few years out of the indie spotlight together (but very much in it apart), Wolf Parade is back in full force, delivering Zippo-friendly anthems and ready to conquer the world.
Hype certainly didn't sink Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to Queen Mary, and after 2008's At Mount Zoomer, as well as countless prominent sideprojects from Wolf Parade members (including the Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown), the Montreal band has proven to be more than a simple Isaac Brock find. EXPO '86 is named after the world's fair in Vancouver, and the album was mostly recorded live in studio, and while it will maintain the band's self-described "maximalist" sound, Dan Boeckner told Pitchfork the album will have more upbeat songs than Wolf Parade's earlier releases.