Operators Play Handsome Furs Lee's Palace, Toronto ON, December 15
Published Dec 16, 2018Handsome Furs were ahead of their time. Between 2007 and 2011, the synth-rock duo, married couple Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry, dropped three critically acclaimed albums, each one a travelogue documenting their experiences in eastern Europe and Asia, set to a bed of noisy, electroacoustic tracks that slowly shifted into a sleeker, dance-oriented direction. When the band (and the couple) broke up in 2012, the project's bleary-eyed musings about urban decay and authoritarianism seemed a world away; few could have guessed just how relevant they'd become in only a few years.
Operators, Boeckner's latest band, picked up where Handsome Furs left off, and discussions of the new outfit playing Handsome Furs material stretch back a few years. Said Boeckner to Exclaim!, "I just wanna play [Furs track] 'Serve the People' in 2016 in the United States in an election year when Trump and Hillary are running against each other, y'know?" As we all know too well, things got even worse, which made the return of the Furs songs more welcome and vital than ever.
The key difference between Operators and Handsome Furs is the addition of live drums, courtesy of Sam Brown, which heightened the urgency, turning tracks like "Legal Tender" and "Damage" into synth-rock bangers, adding an explosive edge for Boeckner and synth commander Devojka to lean into. It wasn't just the nostalgia factor alone that made this show one for the books — Boeckner was notably energized, and Devojka flawlessly handled the many synth lines and MIDI sequences, of which many had been painstakingly recreated for these performances.
The trio stuck largely to Handsome Furs' final record, 2011's Sound Kapital, which hews closest to Operators' synth-rock sound, but it was the older, slower tracks that benefited the most from the expanded arrangements. Thanks to Brown's propulsive backbone, tunes like "All We Want, Baby, Is Everything" and "Handsome Furs Hate This City" were elevated from glitchy, mid-tempo swayers to dystopian dance rock.
The soldout crowd, which spent more time with their fists raised in jubilation than not, were shouting out the many refrains for the first time in years, but no one seemed to be more excited than Boeckner. The singer seemed free, both physically — he went guitar-free for several numbers, allowing him to gleefully bound across the stage — and emotionally, able to revitalize many of his best songs that had been left in performance purgatory for six-plus years. Boeckner has been continuing Handsome Furs' analogue synth experiments with Operators, and so this new live incarnation seemed a fitting extension of the Furs' original MO, a glimpse into what could have been had the project remained active.
The night fittingly ended with "Serve the People," the song that best encapsulates Handsome Furs' prescience. Boeckner may have envisioned singing it during the 2016 US presidential election, but the song — with its repeated shout of "You don't serve the people" — resonated even more today. With the live drums adding a new dimension of interplay, it was a welcome makeover that turned the night into far more than a nostalgia trip ("Nostalgia never meant much to me," sang Boeckner during highlight "Memories of the Future"). Thematically and sonically, the music of Handsome Furs slots seamlessly into today's terse, synth-addled soundtrack, but it was thrilling to see Boeckner and company still working to heighten the intensity, unwilling to just let the context do all the heavy lifting.