The Weekend Australian album reviews, August 2014: Hilltop Hoods, Shihad, Firekites

Three reviews published in The Weekend Australian in August 2014.

Hilltop Hoods – Walking Under Stars

Hilltop Hoods – 'Walking Under Stars' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, August 2014The same spoken-word sample that closed 2012’s Drinking From The Sun opens its successor: “They were recording enough music for two albums, that was premeditated …”

The unidentified voice tells us that for this platinum-selling, ARIA award-winning hip-hop trio, it wasn’t simply a matter of picking their best 12 tracks; instead, the two releases were seemingly intended as a double album, of sorts — though one that conveniently required its fans to make two purchases.

Opening track ‘The Thirst Part 4’, which picks up a timeline that began on Drinking From The Sun, establishes that life got in the way, delaying the release of their seventh album. After revealing the death of his grandmother and his son’s illness, Pressure raps: “Two years, one album, nothing left, just writing these songs / No apologies — my whole discography been righting my wrongs”.

To be blunt: this is surprisingly heavy shit. Emotional honesty is not a quality we’ve come to associate with Hilltop Hoods, an Adelaide-based act that was the first of the genre to break through from the underground to the mainstream with 2003’s The Calling. Yet a lot has changed since those heady days and Walking Under Stars finds MCs Pressure and Suffa — both now in their late 30s — revealing more of themselves. No better is this honesty exemplified than on ‘Through The Dark’, a moving track written by Pressure while his 8-year-old son was in hospital undergoing leukaemia treatment.

Penultimate track ‘I’m A Ghost’ is the standout here; backed by sparse piano chords, fingerpicked acoustic guitar and strings, the two MCs rap a cappella for two minutes before the beat kicks in. “It’s been a ride but there’s been few times / That I thought I’d lose sight when the effort wasn’t painful,” admits Pressure.

Production has never been a weakness for the trio, and Walking Under Stars is no exception: the beats, instruments and samples selected by DJ Debris are typically commendable. It’s the men with the microphones who occasionally fail to impress on throwaway tracks such as ‘The Art of the Handshake’, a half-baked idea that stalls in its execution. Conversely, ‘Rumble Young Man, Rumble’ — featuring rock singer Dan Sultan in fine form — is an excellent example of a dark mood concocted and sustained across four minutes.

The irony of the album’s spoken word introduction is that if Hilltop Hoods had cut the fat and packaged the best tracks into a single release, it would be a classic of the genre. Instead, with Walking Under Stars they’ve tripped up for the first time, as it were, by turning in a merely competent follow-up to Drinking From The Sun. Given hip-hop’s ever-rising popularity and the talent of some of their domestic peers, one wonders if the trio still has it in them to match the competition.

LABEL: Golden Era/UMA
RATING: 3 stars


Firekites – Closing Forever Sky


Firekites – 'Closing Forever Sky' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, August 2014Rarely are debut albums as fully formed and beguiling as The Bowery, a 2008 release by Newcastle indie-pop act Firekites. Featuring strong songwriting, shared male-female vocals, pretty acoustic guitar tones, innovative percussion and stunning violin interjections, The Bowery remains a compelling listen. While Closing Forever Sky can’t quite match it for sheer verve, it’s not far from achieving those lofty heights. The set list is shorter, but its seven songs total 45 minutes, which allows the quartet ample time to explore many ideas.

This is best exemplified in standout track ‘The Counting’, which runs to almost nine minutes and evolves beautifully from the sparse, clean guitar notes of its opening bars to its evocative peak, led by vocalist-keyboardist Pegs Adams, amid swooning electric guitars.

Adams and guitarist Tim McPhee share vocal duties equally on Closing Forever Sky, and this tonal trading works well, though sometimes their voices are obscured beneath instrumental layers. In this sense, Firekites borrow a trick from lauded shoegaze rock act My Bloody Valentine, for whom intelligible lyrics weren’t as important as the sound of the vocals within the overall mix.

There’s no doubting that Firekites comprises four talented musicians and songwriters, though one wonders whether their quest for perfection contributed to that six-year gap between releases.

LABEL: Spunk
RATING: 4 stars


Shihad – FVEY

Shihad – 'FVEY' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, August 2014There’s a pleasing sense of circularity to FVEY, the ninth album by New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based rock act Shihad. The quartet has again enlisted Jaz Coleman to produce, just as it did with its 1993 debut, Churn. Coleman was co-founder of lauded British post-punk pioneers Killing Joke, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Churn remains the heaviest album of Shihad’s career — until now. FVEY is raw and calculated, full of searing, down-tuned guitar riffs and bludgeoning rhythms, though a melodic hook is never far away.

The quality of the band’s discography has been inconsistent and defined by an artistic seesawing between those thrash-metal roots and a fondness for pop songwriting. On FVEY, the band leans towards the former. Happily, the writing is strong throughout. The title is pronounced “five eyes”, and refers to the intelligence-sharing alliance between Australia, New Zealand, the US, Britain and Canada. Hot topics in singer-guitarist Jon Toogood’s notebook include the society-wide surveillance that was uncovered with last year’s National Security Agency whistleblower leaks, as well as personal freedom and inequality.

These are lofty ideas for a rock band to consider in three to seven-minute slices, yet the songs bristle with positive energy and righteous indignation. Toogood is clearly pissed off with certain states of affairs, and he’s not afraid to say so; fittingly, his bandmates have outdone themselves to match his fury.

LABEL: Warner
RATING: 4 stars

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