• The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘Clarke & Dawe: In The Line of Satire’, February 2015

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Review that appeared on the cover of the February 14 2015 issue. An excerpt appears below.

    Clarke & Dawe: In The Line of Satire

    Andrew McMillen delves into Clarke & Dawe, the sharpest two-and-a-half minutes on television.

    The Weekend Australian Review story: 'Clarke & Dawe: In The Line of Satire' by Andrew McMillen, February 2015. Photo credit: Luis Enrique Ascui

    On a Wednesday morning in mid-November, a man picks up that day’s edition of The Age from a neighbouring table in a cafe in Melbourne’s Fitzroy. He skims the headlines and sips a flat white between turning the pages. What is he looking for? “Something I haven’t seen before,” he says. The 66-year-old is a picture of unhurried composure. To outward appearances, he’s an inner-city retiree happily fulfilling a daily routine of caffeine consumed alongside current affairs. On closer examination, however, this man is engaged in the serious, difficult business of turning news into satire, so that his work may make us laugh while also making us think.

    When a girl of about three pauses by his table after spilling sultanas on the floor, John Clarke looks up and greets her with a sonorous hello. The young girl is momentarily entranced by one of the most familiar faces on Australian television. She clocks his bald dome, the unkempt patch of white hair that circles behind his ears, the slight smile and the handsome black overcoat with matching slacks topped by a black bowler hat. Most of all, though, she’s drawn in by a pair of bright blue eyes that sparkle with a tangible sense of knowingness, as if their owner lives in a state of perpetual amusement at life itself.

    His task today is much the same as it has been for the past 25 years. Once a week, he writes and records a short television program that distils newsworthy issues into a satirical dialogue between two men: Bryan Dawe and himself. On camera, Clarke adopts the guise of a public figure in name alone. Dawe queries his guest in the public interest, while Clarke’s character — anyone from the prime minister or a premier, down to a lowly economic consultant — alternately answers and evades questions. The resulting two-and-a-half minute program, Clarke & Dawe, airs nationally at 6.57pm every Thursday, immediately before the ABC’s nightly news bulletin. More often than not, it is the among the week’s sharpest commentary on up-to-the-minute matters relating to Australian politics and public life.

    The Weekend Australian Review story: 'Clarke & Dawe: In The Line of Satire' by Andrew McMillen, February 2015Pages of The Age keep turning while mid-morning traffic streams by on Gertrude Street. On today’s agenda are several competing topics, which Clarke discusses casually while continuing to take in the newsprint. Throughout the week, he says, “I take notes subconsciously, but I don’t have a piece of paper.” This is how his writing days always begin: with a blank page, as it were, but not with a blank mind. “There’s been quite a lot of that in the media [with regard to the G20]. There are some very big things being discussed. That huge China trade deal, that was a nine-year job. The complexities in that must be colossal, and it’s a bit ridiculous to have it discussed at the level of ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’.”

    With this, Clarke smiles wryly, as he so often does when he knows he has delivered a funny line. “So there’s that,” he continues. “Domestic politics hasn’t much changed lately because they’ve still not got the budget through, and aspects of that have come apart in their hands a little bit. And then the global economy is always quite interesting, because when I was a kid you could not spend more than you had. Now you can spend whatever you like. Governments have started doing that in order to create what they call growth, which has not been an unalloyed success in parts of Europe” — the corners of his mouth curl upward — “because growth can just as easily go backwards as forwards.”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

  • CNET story: ‘Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth’, February 2015

    A feature story for CNET; excerpt below.

    Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth

    We embed in the field and go behind the scenes of Google’s augmented reality game, Ingress. Is walking through the streets of hundreds of countries the future of gaming?

    CNET story: 'Ingress: The Friendliest Turf War on Earth' by Andrew McMillen, February 2015

    Eleven of us gather deep in the enemy heartland on a balmy Sunday evening to partake in Operation: Green Court. Meeting in secret, we are agents of the Enlightened, a faction which seeks to advance society through our actions. The enemy will be unaware of our presence until we begin attacking and capturing a long corridor of their prized portals, flipping them from blue to green while figuratively flipping them the bird. Our movements must be coordinated and efficient, as it won’t be long before we attract the attention of the Resistance, the opposing faction which fears change and seeks to crush our idealism and progress.

    In actuality, we are 10 adults and one child meeting on a street corner to bond over our smartphones — specifically, an app called Ingress, a free-to-play augmented reality game that has been downloaded over 8 million times and is being played in more than 200 countries.

    The massively multiplayer mobile game encourages its players to walk around the real world, using data overlaid atop Google Maps to attack and defend real-world public locations known as “portals”. Our common goal for this operation is to turn the suburb green — the colour of the Enlightened, and the colour of the shirt of Aladrin, the 39 year-old agent who arranged this operation via Google+ earlier in the week.

    Milton — an inner-city suburb of Brisbane, Australia — is usually coated in blue, thanks to the dedicated efforts of its Resistance population, many of whom work at nearby IT firms. Our own neighbourhood, just across the Brisbane River, is firmly green-held, but on this Sunday night we’ve set out to ruffle a few blue feathers. Owing to their team colour, Resistance players are commonly referred to as “Smurfs”. The Enlightened tend to self-identify as “frogs”.

    Among the eleven of us is Apocs85, a dedicated level 15 agent who is widely known and respected as the unofficial guardian of Brisbane’s West End. The 29-year-old loves his day job of testing video games, and his Ingress statistics show that he has walked 118 kilometres (73 miles) in the last week while defending and rebuilding portals throughout the inner-city.

    Niantic’s ‘success failure’

    In-game action is shown on our smartphone screens, which act as “scanners” to reveal the portals located all around us. They’re invisible to the naked eye, but with Ingress loaded on our Android or iOS devices, we’re able to see portals attached to structures, artwork, historic locations and buildings of cultural significance — train stations, public parks and post offices are three common examples.

    The portal locations are user-submitted and manually checked by staff at Niantic Labs, the game’s Google-owned developer, to ensure their accuracy and suitability. Globally, more than 3 million such locations have been approved so far, in numbers far greater than expected when the game was first released as a public beta version in November 2012.

    “At Google, we call that a ‘success failure’,” says Niantic Labs founder John Hanke with a chuckle. “It’s a failure because it’s so successful: lots of people submitted portals, which is great, but now it’s more than we can really handle to keep the response time down.”

    To read the full story, visit CNET.

  • Backchannel story: ‘Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome’, February 2015

    My first story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome

    One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake

    'Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome: One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, February 2015

    On a Friday in July 2012, two employees of the Wikimedia Foundation gave a talk at Wikimania, their organization’s annual conference. Maryana Pinchuk and Steven Walling addressed a packed room as they answered a question that has likely popped into the minds of even the most casual users of Wikipedia: who the hell edits the site, and why do they do it?

    Pinchuk and Walling conducted hundreds of interviews to find out. They learned that many serious contributors have an independent streak and thrive off the opportunity to work on any topic they like. Other prolific editors highlight the encyclopedia’s huge global audience or say they derive satisfaction from feeling that their work is of use to someone, no matter how arcane their interests. Then Walling lands on a slide entitled, ‘perfectionism.’ The bespectacled young man pauses, frowning.

    “I feel sometimes that this motivation feels a little bit fuzzy, or a little bit negative in some ways… Like, one of my favorite Wikipedians of all time is this user called Giraffedata,” he says. “He has, like, 15,000 edits, and he’s done almost nothing except fix the incorrect use of ‘comprised of’ in articles.”

    A couple of audience members applaud loudly.

    “By hand, manually. No tools!” interjects Pinchuk, her green-painted fingernails fluttering as she gestures for emphasis.

    “It’s not a bot!” adds Walling. “It’s totally contextual in every article. He’s, like, my hero!”

    “If anybody knows him, get him to come to our office. We’ll give him a Barnstar in person,” says Pinchuk, referring to the coveted virtual medallion that Wikipedia editors award one another.

    Walling continues: “I don’t think he wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m gonna serve widows in Africa with the sum of all human knowledge.’” He begins shaking his hands in mock frustration. “He wakes up and says, ‘Those fuckers—they messed it up again!’”

    Giraffedata is something of a superstar among the tiny circle of people who closely monitor Wikipedia, one of the most popular websites in the English-speaking world. About 8 million English Wikipedia articles are visited every hour, yet only a tiny fraction of readers click the ‘edit’ button in the top right corner of every page. And only 30,000 or so people make at least five edits per month to the quickly growing site.

    Giraffedata—a 51-year-old software engineer named Bryan Henderson—is among the most prolific contributors, ranking in the top 1,000 most active editors. While some Wikipedia editors focus on adding content or vetting its accuracy, and others work to streamline the site’s grammar and style, generally few, if any, adopt Giraffedata’s approach to editing: an unrelenting, multi-year project to fix exactly one grammatical error.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘Something Quite Peculiar’ by Steve Kilbey, January 2015

    A book review for The Weekend Australian in January 2015, republished below in its entirety.

    Steve Kilbey’s rock memoir offers juicy details of The Church days

    'Something Quite Peculiar' by Steve Kilbey book cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, January 2015Steve Kilbey’s rock ’n’ roll memoir Something Quite Peculiar is a book best described using the adjective of its title, as the abrupt and unfulfilling closing chapters are completely out of sync with the generous story that comes before. What starts as an entertaining and informative autobiography by one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic musicians peters out and leaves the reader frustrated by what could have been.

    Surely this can’t have been a stylistic decision on the author’s part, as much of the 1980s, the most commercially successful period of Kilbey’s band The Church, are coloured in vivid ­detail and powered by strong narrative momentum. Rather the book’s incomplete nature suggests a writer up against a hard deadline. Fans are sure to be disappointed that the more recent years of Kilbey’s life flash by in too few pages.

    The positives of this book are many, most notably the author’s wry self-awareness and his ability to tell stories. From the opening pages it’s clear we’re in safe hands. Born in Hertfordshire, England, Kilbey was three when his family moved to Australia.

    They settled in Wollongong, where his ­father was a foreman and his mother worked in an insurance office. Their eldest son soon found a taste for attention-seeking — or, as he puts it, “an incredibly precocious pretentiousness was beginning to manifest in spades: an intrinsic desire to perform and be rewarded”.

    In early high school, in the Canberra suburb of Lyneham, he saw a live band for the first time at a school social and saw his future: “I felt implicitly that my place was up on the stage making the music, not down there dancing around.”

    Kilbey’s vast musical IQ thus began developing at age 16, when he opted for a bass guitar instead of its more popular six-string cousin, and began learning his favourite songs by ear. Soon he joined a popular local covers band named Saga. This plum gig earned him almost as much as his father was making, but more importantly Kilbey could play close to 1000 songs by the end of his 18-month tenure.

    These scenes from Kilbey’s youth are written in an easy, conversational style. Richly drawn and compelling, his story is buttressed by plenty of comic self-deprecation and wry foreshadowing for the international rock star he’d become.

    Over the years, much has been made in the music press of the fractious, fraught relationship between members of the Church, a band that has achieved much in its 34-year career and is still recording. Things didn’t begin well when Kilbey enlisted a former schoolyard bully to play drums in the band’s first incarnation. Nor, decades later, when the tedious nature of months-long world tours spent in close confines with the same handful of men would eventually lead to tantrums, sabotaged gigs and mid-tour walkouts.

    Kilbey identifies himself as the ultimate self-saboteur, however, when he tries heroin for the first time in 1991, at age 37, and subsequently loses the next 11 years of his life to addiction. Fittingly, these final chapters take a dark turn, and the frivolous, funny narrator is replaced by a man filled with pain and regret. “It’s quite an upheaval to write much of the story from here on in,” he notes on page 250. “It doesn’t come lightly or pleasantly like the earlier chapters: each memory fills me with shame and revulsion and sadness in differing amounts.”

    Fair enough. The book’s final 20 pages are some of its most interesting and insightful, devoted as they are to describing and analysing this period of Kilbey’s life. However, it’s a cop-out that the third-last paragraph in the book begins, “So I left Sweden in 2000 for a couple of years in America after having met an American girl on tour in 1999, and had another pair of twins.” What? It is bizarre that these seemingly key moments in his life are reduced to a flippant sentence in the closing pages. (We learn in the outro that Kilbey’s first pair of twin daughters, Elektra and Miranda, are musicians in a Swedish pop duo named Say Lou Lou — another interesting admission left way too late.)

    Perhaps cursory dismissals such as these are intended to highlight the egocentric and self-obsessed nature of the author, traits which Kilbey readily acknowledges. But the absence of any detail of his more recent years — besides a brief opening scene at the 2010 ARIA Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and a closing scene at a 2011 Sydney Opera House show — leaves a sour taste. For all the space devoted to discussing songwriting techniques, killer live shows and the importance of strong encores, what’s most peculiar of all is that this fascinating story ends on such a weak note.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    Something Quite Peculiar: Man of The Church. The Music. The Mayhem.
    By Steve Kilbey.
    Hardie Grant, 272pp, $29.95

    Further reading: an extract from my book Talking Smack featuring Steve Kilbey.

  • Australian Book Review: ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ by Bob Stanley, December 2014

    A piece for Australian Book Review published in December 2014, republished below in its entirety.

    Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley

    'Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop' book cover by Bob Stanley, reviewed in Australian Book Review by Andrew McMillen, December 2014It is difficult to imagine a more satisfying long-form narrative about pop music than Yeah Yeah Yeah. Although the book runs to almost 800 pages, British author Bob Stanley writes with such authority and infectious passion that the momentum never skips a beat. Beginning with the first British hit parade and the popularisation of the electric guitar, Stanley traces the arc through to modern forms such as dance and hip-hop while fulfilling the role of tour guide. He takes the reader through a museum of pop music, pausing before significant artefacts to offer erudite commentary, and encouraging the reader to don headphones and experience the sounds of each era.

    In the introduction, Stanley states his intention of drawing a straight line – ‘with the odd wiggle and personal diversion’ – from the birth of the seven-inch single to the recent decline of pop music as a physical thing. Stanley selects 1952 as the art form’s beginning, and charts its next fifty years through five parts and sixty-five distinct chapters, which intelligently group together artists, labels, scenes, and genres. Footnotes are included on almost every second page, a stylistic trait which the author never abuses; each aside and knowing reference contributes to the wider story being told. The purpose of Yeah Yeah Yeah is to tell pop’s story, and since the vast majority of the most influential pop acts began in either England or the United States, it is in these two engine rooms that much of the narrative is situated. Only a couple of Australia’s contributions are mentioned in passing, most notably AC/DC and The Saints, two seminal rock bands.

    From the outset, Stanley makes clear his unabashed enthusiasm for pop music. Covering five decades of human expression through sound would be a tedious and dreary task if the writer had not been fascinated by records since before he could walk. Fittingly, Stanley is unafraid to wear his own preferences on his sleeve; certainly, the presence or absence of particular artists can be attributed to the author’s tastes, but he never lowers himself into outright sneering élitism. When writing about American rock band Steely Dan, for example, he admits to trying hard to love the band as so many others do, before concluding, ‘I think, as with ninety per cent of jazz, I might like them a lot more one day.’ Regardless of his own response to musical genres, Stanley is willing to engage with the source material and to contextualise these artistic achievements on a grand scale.

    It takes considerable restraint on the reader’s part not to pause every few pages and seek out the music that Stanley writes about. Indeed, much of the fun of reading this excellent book is hearing chorus hooks and key changes play in your mind. We are lucky enough to be living in an age where most of the music discussed in Yeah Yeah Yeah can be heard on YouTube, if not a streaming service like Rdio or Spotify. This technological endpoint is flagged in his introduction, and, thankfully, our forty-nine-year-old narrator is not another Luddite trapped in the past, feebly shaking his fist at the demise of vinyl, cassettes, and compact discs. Stanley does not fetishise the physical product, as so many of his peers do; instead, it is clear throughout that the music itself is what’s important, rather than the medium of delivery.

    Stanley maintains a wry tone throughout Yeah Yeah Yeah, and never slips into navel-gazing academia. The book is all the stronger for this consistent voice. Personal anecdotes are frequent: midway through the book, after pointing out possibly his favourite lyric ever – ‘If I could get a job with that cool rockin’ band / you’d notice me with that red guitar in my hand,’ by British glam-rockers Wizzard – Stanley notes, ‘There it is. The entire pop myth in one couplet.’

    Soon after, in a chapter dedicated to country and western, Stanley points out ‘the most beautiful line in the whole pop canon’, which appears in ‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glen Campbell: ‘I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.’ It is a line, writes Stanley, ‘that makes me stop whatever I’m doing’. Moments like these enhance the book’s credibility. Another favourite example appears in a chapter concerning New York rock act the Velvet Underground. In one particular section on the track ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’, the band, Stanley writes, ‘had somehow created a noise so brand new that it tore a hole in pop’s natural state of progression, so sharp and freakish and heart-piercing that it makes me burst out laughing every time I hear it’.

    Importantly, the author is not just an excitable tour guide but a practitioner, too. In 1990, Bob Stanley founded a pop group named Saint Etienne. While he is modest enough to leave his own musical contributions out of the book’s main narrative, his understanding of songwriting mechanics, tricks, and techniques is on constant display. While Saint Etienne’s contribution to pop is admirable, and not easily forgotten, Stanley’s written work will last even longer. The book’s subtitle is ambitious, yet there can be no doubt that, with Yeah Yeah Yeah, the author has achieved his storytelling goal.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop
    by Bob Stanley
    Faber, $39.95 pb, 776 pp, 9780571281978

  • The Weekend Australian album review, December 2014: The Gin Club

    A review published in The Weekend Australian in December 2014.

    The Gin Club – Southern Lights

    The Gin Club – 'Southern Lights' album cover reviewed in The Australian, December 2014With five albums in an 11-year career, this Brisbane folk-rock collective is at the peak of its powers. Southern Lights completes a trilogy of essential recordings that began in 2008 with Junk, a two-disc epic; this was followed by an even stronger release in 2010’s Deathwish. Here, we’re treated to 10 tracks attributed to seven songwriters. Quality control remains enviably high, as there’s not a dud among the track list. Comprising nine distinctive musicians, this band has never tasted the fruits of mainstream success.

    It is an unwieldy and expensive group to tour. Positioned on the fringes of the independent rock scene, not particularly fashionable and with its members a few years past their youth, the Gin Club is a difficult prospect for the music media to cover. Its unbending pursuit of songwriting perfection is admirable, however, and with Southern Lights these nine players inch closer to this goal.

    From the bustling rock ‘n’ roll of Adrian Stoyles’s title track and Scott Regan’s ‘Alcatraz’ to the tentative, laconic vocals of Conor Macdonald’s two tracks, ‘Capricornia’ and ‘Proud Donkey’, every song here hammers home the breadth and depth of this group’s talent.

    That this release is seeing the light of day more than 18 months after it was recorded in April last year speaks to the eternal question faced by independent artists the world over: how to support a passion alongside a career? Long may the Gin Club continue to alternately write in isolation and, when financially feasible, join forces to share its wonderful music with the world. Southern Lights, like the two albums that preceded it, is simply too good to remain unheard.

    LABEL: Plus One Records
    RATING: 4.5 stars

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, November 2014: Jack Ladder, Black Cab, Lia Mice, Bertie Blackman

    Four reviews published in The Weekend Australian in November 2014.

    Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders – Playmates

    Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders – 'Playmates' album cover reviewed in The Australian, November 2014Jack Ladder’s slow-spoken deep baritone adds drama to everything he says. Only occasionally does this po-faced delivery backfire, when a questionable simile leaves his mouth, as on ‘Let Me Love You': “I need you like a miner needs his torch in the dark.” Ladder’s excellent band the Dreamlanders — Kirin J. Callinan (guitar), Laurence Pike (drums) and Donny Benet (bass) — demonstrates an increased interest in electronic sounds, most notably on second track ‘Her Hands’, propelled by synthesised bass and layered percussion.

    Ladder’s voice sits strongly in this mix. It’s a nice evolution from the rock instrumentation that coloured the Blue Mountains-based singer’s previous release, 2011’s Hurtsville. ‘Model Worlds’ pivots on Benet’s busy bassline; Callinan’s violent electric guitar tone drives ‘Neon Blue’ and ‘Reputation Amputation’. American singer Sharon Van Etten lends her voice to the opening track, ‘Come On Back This Way’, as well as ‘To Keep and to Be Kept’. The only misstep is at the end: if the dreary ‘Slow Boat to China’ had been lopped off, Playmates would have been uniformly strong.

    LABEL: Self-Portrait/Inertia
    RATING: 4 stars

    ++

    Black Cab – Games of the XXI Olympiad

    Black Cab – 'Games of the XXI Olympiad' album cover reviewed in The Australian, November 2014A thrilling artistic vision based on sporting achievement, Games of the XXI Olympiad is an album unlike any other. It’s the fourth LP in 10 years by Melbourne rock band Black Cab, whose immersive, stadium-ready sound was last heard on 2009’s excellent Call Signs. This time the band has ditched the electric guitars in favour of electronic sequencing, synthesisers and percussion, and the result is its best work yet.

    It’s a concept album based on the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympic Games, where doped-up East Germans topped the medal count and no Australian won gold. Seventy minutes long and bookended by tracks named for the opening and closing ceremonies, its first proper song is a 10-minute long rave-up “tribute to performance-enhanced swimming”, according to the publicity material.

    Elsewhere, another upbeat track is named for Kornelia Ender, who won four goal medals in Montreal. If all this sounds like a bizarre obsession for a few blokes from Melbourne, keep in mind that their first album, 2004’s Altamont Diary, was based on the Rolling Stones’ disastrous free concert in 1969.

    Principal songwriters Andrew Coates and James Lee are clearly fond of drawing inspiration from historical events, and what they’ve achieved here is masterful. The German-centric themes are solidified through the inclusion of earlier singles ‘Sexy Polizei’ and ‘Combat Boots’, while the euphoric mood of ‘Go Slow’ is the singular highlight.

    LABEL: Interstate 40/Remote Control
    RATING: 4.5 stars

    ++

    Lia Mice – I Love You

    Lia Mice – 'I Love You' album cover reviewed in The Australian, October 2014Born in Cairns, Queensland, and based in Lyon, France, Eleanor “Lia” Mice spent her 20s immersed in Brooklyn’s noise-punk scene. Her second album, I Love You, betrays little of this life experience, however: these are short, sharp pop songs backed by bass, keyboards, synthesisers and electronic percussion. The overall tempo is higher than what was heard on her 2012 debut, Happy New Year. The album comprises nine tracks at a touch under 30 minutes, and there are some compelling ideas here, though on repeated listens it reveals itself as somewhat one-dimensional.

    Mice’s vocals are invariably delivered slowly and treated with reverb, which lends an ethereal and nostalgic glow to her style. The highlight is the middle track, ‘All the Birds’, a down-tempo number that revolves around a memorable chorus hook: “Flip the record over / Play it at the wrong speed / Dance a little slower”. There’s beauty in simplicity here: the song arrangements are unhurried and barely evolve in the space of two to four minutes.

    The real strength of this work lies in Mice’s vocal and instrumental melodies, however. The closing minute of ‘Saint-Malo’ finds her ascending and descending scales beautifully; it would have been nice to hear more moments like this. Fans of electronica-influenced pop acts such as M83 and Crystal Castles will find plenty to enjoy here; there are shades of the latter act in the pitch-shifted vocals and pulsating synth line that drive the opening track and first single ‘Our Heavy Heart’. Mice is a skilled songwriter with a clear sense of her abilities, and I Love You is a commendable entry in the canon of experimental pop.

    LABEL: Rice is Nice/Inertia
    RATING: 3.5 stars

    ++

    Bertie Blackman – The Dash

    Bertie Blackman – 'The Dash' album cover reviewed in The Australian, October 2014For her fifth album, Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Bertie Blackman has changed her approach to the craft: rather than writing solo, she enlisted the help of fellow pop brains including Julian Hamilton (the Presets) and John Castle (Megan Washington) in a series of short recording sessions.

    The result is The Dash, a kinetic set of nine songs that together form Blackman’s strongest and most accessible work. It’s a perfectly weighted collection that begins with the elegant synth lines and call-and-response vocal hook of first single ‘Run for Your Life’, and flashes out half an hour later with the frenetic backbeat of ‘War of One’. The instrumentation surrounding these songs builds on the synth-pop beds that were heard on 2009’s Secrets and Lies and 2012’s Pope Innocent X, a pair of excellent pop albums.

    Blackman is stretching her vocal limits on these choruses, but has never sounded better, and neither has her sense of melody. On the album’s one tender moment, ‘Darker Days’, she is accompanied by little more than a palm-muted electric guitar — a stark contrast to the dancefloor-ready numbers heard elsewhere; but this track is her singular vocal highlight, and one that demands repeated listens.

    Brevity is often an asset in pop music, but the sheer strength of The Dash leads one to wonder whether the singer had a few extra tricks up her sleeve that could have bolstered the set list. Regardless, there’s wisdom in this decision: better to release a great short album than a longer one that’s merely good.

    LABEL: Warner
    RATING: 4 stars

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘The Dark Net’ by Jamie Bartlett, November 2014

    A book review for The Weekend Australian in November 2014, republished below in its entirety.

    Jamie Bartlett’s The Dark Net delves into internet’s murky depths

    'The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld' book cover by Jamie Bartlett, reviewed by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian, November 2014Beneath the surface of the well-trod online paths characterised by familiar corporate names — Google, eBay, YouTube, iTunes — mainstream news and entertainment portals lies a hidden layer: the “dark net’’, a shadier cousin of the comparatively generalist ‘‘cyberspace’’. It cannot be accessed by traditional web browsers, only via anonymising software called Tor, an acronym for The Onion Router, a cute nod to the network’s technical complexity.

    In his introduction to The Dark Net, British author Jamie Bartlett describes this online realm as “a place without limits, a place to push boundaries, a place to express ideas without censorship, a place to sate our curiosities and desires, whatever they may be. All dangerous, magnificent and uniquely human qualities”.

    Yet the dark net is best known for enabling the development and proliferation of two shady human endeavours: marketplaces for illicit drugs and child pornography hubs, areas that Bartlett interrogates in some detail. However, the title of this book is a bit misleading: rather than peeling back the onion’s layers, Bartlett broadens his scope by examining the “myriad shocking, disturbing and controversial corners of the net — the realm of imagined criminals and predators of all shapes and sizes”.

    He begins by tracing the history of the internet, and how the ‘‘online disinhibition effect’’ led to incendiary behaviours such as ‘‘trolling’’ and ‘‘flaming’’. This section is enlightening and well written. Even though I’ve been a heavy internet user for nearly 15 years, I learned a lot.

    “Whether we like it or not, trolling is a feature of the online world today,” Bartlett concludes. “As we all live more of our lives online, trolls might help us to recognise some of the dangers of doing so, make us a little more careful, and a little more thick-skinned. One day, we might even thank them for it.”

    He takes a magnifying glass to idealistic encryption software and ‘‘cryptocurrencies’’ such as Bitcoin, as well as social networks devoted to inflammatory topics such as self-harm, anorexia and British nationalism. The tone throughout is more journalistic than judgmental: “For every destructive subculture I examined,” he writes, “there are just as many that are positive, helpful and constructive.”

    The Bitcoin chapter takes him to a techno-commune in Barcelona, where programmers code through the night, fuelled by the libertarian promise of the unregul­ated currency. But the author isn’t convinced: “… if everyone starts using Bitcoin, government’s ability to tax and spend will diminish: healthcare, education and social security will suffer. The things that hold democracies together, and provide support for the most in need. Societies cannot be broken and fixed like computer code, nor do they follow predictable mathematical rules. If genuinely anonymous communication becomes the norm, it’s inevitable that it will be used by criminals too.” Such caution is prescient: in August, the Australian Taxation Office published a paper stating its views on Bitcoin, including its intention to treat it not as a currency but as an asset, akin to property or shares — a move that has been criticised by Bitcoin proponents as shortsighted and ill-informed.

    The line about criminals quoted above is explored in depth, too, when Bartlett inadvertently stumbles across a child pornography website while browsing the dark net’s Hidden Wiki. “Once I’d opened my Tor browser, it took me two mouse clicks to arrive at the page advertising the link,” he writes. “If I had clicked again, I would have committed an extremely serious crime. I can’t think of another instance where doing something so bad is so easy.”

    This narrative thread takes him to the Internet Watch Foundation, an organisation devoted to removing online child pornography. At its offices in Cambridgeshire, no family photos are allowed on desks, part of an effort to keep private and professional lives separate.

    Bartlett, who is director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at London think tank Demos, also interfaces with illicit drug marketplaces such as Silk Road, receiving a small amount of cannabis through the postal system after paying for it with Bitcoin. Here his tone is one of academic distance: “Inside, the product was carefully sealed, the correct weight and, according to an expert friend of mine, appeared to be extremely good quality.”

    In the book’s most entertaining vignette, Bartlett sits in on a ‘‘camgirl’’ broadcast wherein three young women pleasure themselves and each other in exchange for cash tips from their thousands of global viewers. “The three of them are sitting on the bed in sexy clothes, arms around each other like a school gang,” he writes breathlessly. “I am sitting just off-camera, two feet away from the bed, a pad of paper and my laptop on my knees […] It all feels a little strange, to say the least.”

    Bartlett covers a lot of ground in The Dark Net without becoming bogged down in technical minutiae. Even experienced dark net users will find this book engrossing. He also refuses to buy into the hysteria about this online realm: “In the dark net, we can simply find more, do more and see more. And in the dark net we have to be careful, cautious and responsible.”

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld
    By Jamie Bartlett
    Random House, 320pp, $35

  • Qweekend story: ‘The Player: John Collins and The Triffid’, November 2014

    A story for the November 1-2 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    The Player

    Making it as a muso is a hard act to follow, but ex-Powderfinger bassist John Collins is rolling the dice with his new gig in venue management.

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    by Andrew McMillen / Photography by David Kelly

    ++

    For now, the only music heard in this room comes from a dust-coated radio audible in intermittent bursts between a dissonant symphony of hammering, grinding and sawing. Shortly, though, this formerly vacant hangar in Newstead, in Brisbane’s inner-north, will come alive with the sounds of live music. On this midweek morning in early October, John “JC” Collins wears a blue hard hat and bright yellow high-visibility vest atop a black dress shirt and blue jeans. Transforming this building from a forgotten shell into what Collins hopes will become a shining light in Brisbane’s sparkling live music scene has occupied much of the past two years of his life.

    Thick, black electrical cables snake down from the curved ceiling. At the far end of the hangar, a hip-high raised stage sits at the foot of a brick wall painted bright green. Its sizeable main hall and mezzanine will accommodate up to 800 guests. It will be the first significant venue to open in the inner city since West End’s 1200 capacity Hi-Fi debuted in 2009.

    Outside, in the beer garden, a temporary worksite office is stacked atop shipping containers that will function as bars and a kitchen. In the adjacent “band garden”, green astroturf leads through to a stage door being painted grey. As Collins tours the construction site while consulting with a squad of architects, acoustic engineers and insulation specialists, The Triffid’s distinctive look and feel is slowly taking shape all around him. What began as an aspiration is very nearly a live, loud reality.

    From the mezzanine vantage point, the team of hard-hats inspects the original rainwater-tank roof. It’s been kept intact, but perforated with thousands of finger-sized holes and stacked with several layers of insulation in order to absorb the venue’s maximum volume of 110 decibels – and, hopefully, to stop future nearby residents from complaining about the noise. The former industrial hub of Newstead is on the cusp of a property boom set to rival neighbouring Teneriffe and New Farm; across from the venue, five residential towers comprising 900 apartments will soon sprout.

    Tapping the 60-year-old ribbed roof, lead architect Mick Hellen says with a smile: “This was JC’s bright idea, but it’s the worst possible shape for a music venue.” Collins laughs, and shoots back: “It’s still better than a square box, though. Hey, it worked for The Beatles at the Cavern Club,” he says, referring to the Liverpool venue where Beatlemania was born. Who knows what The Triffid will mean in time to emerging Brisbane acts?

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    ++

    When The Triffid opens its steel doors next Saturday, it will be almost four years to the day since the former Powderfinger bassist joined his bandmates for their final public performance at Brisbane Riverstage. The intervening years have not been particularly relaxing for Collins, 44, a restless soul who searched high and low for a project in which to invest his energy. After a two-decade career in which his identity was synonymous with four fellow musicians united under what became a household name, Collins initially struggled to find his own way.

    In the two years following the band’s November 2010 finale, Collins hired a desk at a friend’s business in inner-north Bowen Hills with the intention of giving his days structure and purpose, and separating his work aspirations from his home life at Morningside, in the city’s east. There were protracted investigations into business ventures in race cars and printing companies, as well as extended travels with his wife of 14 years, Tara, and their children, 10-year-old twins Grace and Rosie and Scarlett, 7.

    Eventually, he threw his weight behind the idea of a live music venue and after months of location scouting in the surrounding suburbs, he found the empty hangar on Stratton Street. Collins met with its owner in February 2013 and spent almost a year working through proposals, budgets and designs. “It was a tough year, because I felt like we had a good idea between us,” he says now. “I felt really strongly about it; I hadn’t felt this strongly since the ‘Fingers started. It was a gut feeling.”

    Born in Murgon, 250km north-west of Brisbane, on April 27, 1970, Collins grew up in the town of Kerry near Beaudesert, 85km south of the capital. While attending boarding school at Brisbane Grammar in inner-city Spring Hill, he met fellow boarder Steven Bishop, with whom he shared a love for music. The pair began playing with another student, Ian Haug, after the budding guitarist noticed Collins wearing a handmade shirt that advertised Sydney band Sunnyboys. The trio formed the first iteration of Powderfinger in late 1988, and while Bishop vacated the drum kit in 1991, the three men occasionally play together in a band called the Predators, whose debut EP, Pick Up The Pace, was released in 2006.

    “Powderfinger was an awesome thing. I loved it,” says Collins. “I don’t expect it to ever happen again with music, but I’ve always wanted to do something else. That was part of the decision to stop [in 2010], because if we’d stopped in our fifties, things would have been tougher; we worked through half our working lives.” In the intervening four years, singer Bernard Fanning and guitarist Darren Middleton have proceeded with solo careers, drummer Jon Coghill has pursued a career in journalism, and Haug has been recording at his home studio and joined Australian rock institution The Church. “It’s taken me three years to get that next act going,” says Collins.

    ++

    Its name is rooted in both literary and musical references; not just John Wyndham’s 1951 science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids, but more appropriately, the Triffids were a seminal Australian band based in Perth during the 1980s. “A few people have said to me, ‘Why didn’t you call it The Hangar?’” says Collins, who is one of several partners in the venture. “But that sounds more like a beer barn to me. I wanted to make sure people understood it’s a creative space, not just a place to come and skol piss. If you’re in a band, and you ask ‘Where are we playing?’ and the manager says ‘There’s this new venue in Brisbane called ‘The Triffid’, automatically you’re more inclined to think, well, okay, they must be at least a bit creative…”

    Beside the bar on the mezzanine level is an office that overlooks the lobby through glass salvaged from Powderfinger’s rehearsal space in Albion, in the city’s inner north, which was flooded a few years ago. To complete the fit-out, Collins is in the process of sourcing historic gig posters that will illustrate Brisbane’s rich musical heritage. The venue will fill a gap between The Zoo (capacity 500) and The Tivoli (1500) in Fortitude Valley, as well as The Hi-Fi on the other side of the river. “We definitely didn’t want to come in and tread on anyone’s toes,” says Collins. “Places like The Zoo, The Hi-Fi and The Tivoli are really important. We want to make the pie bigger, not take somebody’s slice.”

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David KellyAs we walk downstairs, I ask Collins what’s at stake here. “My reputation,” he replies. “And a bit of money. I’ve willingly put my name and my hand up to back this project. If it doesn’t work, my partners can walk and do another one, whereas I’ll go down with the ship. Obviously I’ve put a lot of time, energy and passion in, and I’d like it to work financially, too.”

    Haug is confident his friend and bandmate has bet on the right horse, as it were. “We’ve played so many venues around the world; he knows how to do it, so the musicians will be happy with how it’s all set out,” says Haug of Collins. “He’s surrounded himself with the best people to do sound and lighting. He didn’t think it was going to be easy, but he probably didn’t realise it would be this hard to build it from the ground up.”

    With a laugh, Haug adds: “He’ll be glad when it’s open, that’s for sure.”

    The Triffid opens on Saturday, 8 November with a line-up that includes Saskwatch, The Creases and MT Warning. thetriffid.com.au

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, October 2014: Sounds Like Sunset, The Peep Tempel, Seekae

    Three reviews published in The Weekend Australian in October 2014.

    Sounds Like Sunset – We Could Leave Tonight

    Sounds Like Sunset – 'We Could Leave Tonight' album cover reviewed in The Australian, October 2014With We Could Leave Tonight, Sydney band Sounds Like Sunset has produced its third album since forming in 1997. It’s the first since 2005’s Invisible, and from the opening bars of ‘Second Chance’ it’s clear that the long time between releases was well spent.

    This is a superb collection of expertly crafted indie rock songs that strikes a fine balance between melody and melancholy. The production ensures that the band sounds much larger than the sum of its three components. Vocalist David Challinor often double and triple tracks his guitar parts to add a bed of woozy atmospherics and swooning, distorted tones beneath his straightforward chord progressions, while Tobey Doctor and David Hobson keep the groove on drums and bass, respectively.

    The effect is especially intoxicating on tracks such as ‘Open Up My Eyes’ and ‘Sunshine’, where a few bent guitar notes run beneath the entire arrangement. Elsewhere, ‘Somebody Like You’ is imbued with a killer synth line beneath a massive chorus of ascending power chords, while the gentler ‘Undone’ is built around acoustic guitar.

    Comprising nine tracks in 34 minutes, We Could Leave Tonight is a brief affair, but one that demands repeated plays: the album’s streamlined, propulsive nature ensures that not a second is wasted. Fans of shoegaze and noise-pop bands such as Dinosaur Jr and the Jesus and Mary Chain will find plenty to like here.

    Among a uniformly strong collection, final track ‘Find Your Way’ is the standout: an epic slow-burner that never quite resolves, it’s a winning nod to the showbiz maxim to always leave the audience wanting more.

    LABEL: Tym Records
    RATING: 4 stars

    ++

    Seekae – The Worry

    Seekae – 'The Worry' album cover reviewed in The Australian, October 2014The final song on this Sydney trio’s second album, 2011’s +Dome , hinted at a forthcoming artistic progression, as it contained something that had previously been shunned: the human voice. Seekae had established itself as a reliable purveyor of interesting electronica, coloured by cut-up samples, synthesisers and pulsating beats. Still, the chasm between +Dome and The Worry is surprisingly wide, as percussionist Alex Cameron’s vocals are now central in the mix. It’s a bold move and one that risks alienating the group’s fanbase. There are echoes of another Sydney electronic group in this decision: PVT added vocals to its 2010 release Church With No Magic, and it didn’t add to the quality of the songs. If anything, it detracted from their appeal.

    This was my initial response to The Worry: for the first 10 spins, I couldn’t get past the fact Seekae had seemingly reduced its originality by joining the masses of vocal-led acts. Ultimately, through sheer repetition, I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate the new direction. Other fans may not be as patient.

    Cameron’s voice truly impresses only on a couple of tracks, most notably on sweet centrepiece ‘Further’, where he’s accompanied by horn blasts. The high-BPM programming on ‘Oxen Calm’ is the album’s energetic apex, and it would have been nice to hear more compositions of this style and calibre. The Worry captures a band seemingly in the midst of an identity crisis, though thankfully its songwriting abilities remain intact.

    LABEL: Future Classic
    RATING: 3.5 stars

    ++

    The Peep Tempel – Tales

    The Peep Tempel – 'Tales' album cover reviewed in The Australian, October 2014This Melbourne-based three-piece trades in sharp-edged, dark-humoured rock ‘n’ roll, and its second album is a fine extension of its superlative debut. The Peep Tempel’s world is populated by broken and desperate men, and by peeling back layers of the male psyche the trio has collected another memorable set of songs. Loneliness, desperation and jealousy course through the veins of the characters inhabited by singer-guitarist Blake Scott.

    Six of the album’s 11 track titles contain first names, while plenty more pop up in the verses. This direct approach to songwriting works in the band’s favour: rather than taking the well-trodden path of keeping things vague to appeal to wide audiences, the Peep Tempel homes in on its lyrical targets with clinical precision. The listener thus becomes a neutral bystander asked to pick sides. It’s a curious and powerful effect best captured on first single ‘Carol’, where amid an urgent beat and stinging guitar tones Scott sings: “I don’t want to be so sanctimonious, I don’t want to be such a negative jerk / But I’m the one who’s been helping you through the divorce, Carol”.

    This emphatic plea of a rejected lover is an addictive listen, captured in four minutes — “I don’t think Trevor is good for you, Carol!” — and the album’s highlight, though the threatening mood and rollicking rhythm of third track ‘Big Fish’ comes close. (Sample lyric: “Take a beer from the fridge, have a seat, Danny / Your Jackie’s been telling tales”). With Tales, the Peep Tempel has improved its songwriting smarts while amping up the tension.

    LABEL: Wing Sing Records
    RATING: 4 stars