Ultimate Power Duo takes demolition rock to outer space

MUSIC by Charles Cassino


Ultimate Power Duo
Friday 23

Brennan Risling has a lot of comic books. A lot.

Risling started his collection when he was three or four years old and by the time he was a teenager, the ravenous fan of all things fantastic and amazing had over 3,000 comics.

Risling’s childhood obsession turned out to be a catalyst for his creative endeavours years later. As the bassist and co-frontman of Saskatoon’s demolition rock trio Ultimate Power Duo, Risling — along with Scott Pilling (guitar/vocals) and Amber Kraft (drums/vocals) — takes his cues from the adventures of muscle-bound heroes and puts his own stupendous spin on them. Think pile-driving punk, as interpreted by Marvel mastermind Jack “King” Kirby.

“The Power Duo’s Preposterous Plan”

When they’re performing, Ultimate Power Duo has a flair for the dramatic — blasting out frenetic, energy-filled sets full of windmill riffs, melodic vocals and pounding rhythms. The members even have alter-egos — The Riz, Scott RP and AKdoubleAK. They take their transformation from friendly, mild-mannered people into stage-smashing superheroes very seriously.

On their latest release, Space Joe: Ad Astra, the group has an LP that matches the intensity of their live antics.

A sprawling work of aural and visual art that stretches far beyond the surly bounds of both gravity and imagination, Space Joe: Ad Astra is a concept album and accompanying comic. It’s one of the most ambitious pieces of punk rock — or any kind of music, really — to ever emerge from Saskatoon. The comic component is a visual feast of interstellar travels and sci-fi/fantasy nerd fandom, while musically, the album captures Ultimate Power Duo at the height of their powers.

Each song on Space Joe: Ad Astra tells a story — which was left up to a given artist’s visual interpretation when it came to the book. Going into the project, no one in the band knew quite how much work was ahead of them.

“We underestimated how big of a task this was, partly because we had never created our own book, let alone bringing all these different people in,” says The Riz. “The learning curve was steep, all the way from getting the artists to getting the artwork finished. It’s a tough process.”

And there were some hard lessons learned along the way. As it turns out, some artists don’t do lettering.

“I should’ve known that,” chuckles The Riz, who ended up doing some of it himself.

“Drawings Of Destiny”

So how did the process work? “For each story I gave the artists notes and descriptions of all the characters,” says The Riz. “I had a very succinct idea in my head of what was happening in the song, but for the artists we wanted to let them have creative leeway. Having a creative vision and letting someone run with it can be a daunting task, because you’re afraid of how someone will interpret it.

“But when we got the first series of drawings back we were blown away.”

At first, the band thought they’d get all the artwork back in a month. Ha ha, laughs The Riz, who now realizes how ridiculous it was to expect the book to come together so quickly.

The album/comic was a challenge to pull off but it’s worth the wait — especially considering how long the whole thing spent in the planning stages.

Back in the ’90s, The Riz and Scott RP wrote a song called “Joe Goes to Space” with their previous band, and eventually revisited the interstellar punk rock theme with Ultimate Power Duo. While writing a prequel to the original song, the group realized they’d stumbled onto every comic-loving, crate-digging punk rock kid’s ultimate fantasy project.

“We suddenly realized we could do a concept album,” says The Riz. “And then we talked about it for a decade.”

As the years went on, the duo would write a riff here and there, stashing them away with the intent of finally amassing enough songs for a sprawling space album. The inspiration, of course, came from The Riz’s comic collection.

“I have this Batman double vinyl record from the ’70s where there’s a comic inside with artwork that matches up to the story,” he says. “So you would hear people do the voices of the characters and the sound effects. And I showed Scott this album and said, ‘We have to do this.’”

Unfortunately, that idea was immediately scrapped when they realized the cost to get each one made would skyrocket into at least a hundred dollars apiece.

“Then we thought maybe we should do the comic, which follows the storyline of the album. And then it turned into more a graphic novel format.”

While Ultimate Power Duo’s patience was tested putting together the concept and the songs, it all seems to be paying off. The group has been nominated for a Gene Day Award — the Can-comic version of the Eisner or Harvey awards — for creators who self-publish.

The announcement came as both a shock and a surprise for The Riz, who said he only found out about it through a friend’s Facebook posting. But the high praise came at just the right time.

“The nomination is unbelievable. Gene Day is synonymous with self-publishing and to have our name attached to his is a real honour,” says The Riz, adding that Saskatoon artist Elaine Will — who contributed to Space Joe: Ad Astra — was also nominated for her own work.

So, after pouring years’ worth of sweat and comic fandom into the album, would they do it all again?

Absolutely, says The Riz — and in fact, they’re already plotting to do just that.

“We’re already looking towards Space Joe 2,” says The Riz. “There will be 13 tracks and each one will tell a story about a side character, and each one will have a story with a book again.

“We love huge, ridiculous concept albums and we have some pretty big-scope ideas we can’t reveal yet,” he says. “But we do have some more projects with Space Joe before we let it go, so keep your ears and eyes open.”