All posts tagged 2014

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘Etched In Memory’, October 2015

    A story for the October 31 issue of The Weekend Australian Review. The full story appears below.

    Etched In Memory

    Glenn Ainsworth’s art is an exercise in beauty, tragedy and catharsis

    Baxter Ainsworth, as sketched by his father, Glenn, in 2014It was the night before the stillbirth of his son that Glenn Ainsworth realised he needed to sketch Baxter. He and his wife, Nichole Hamilton, were staying overnight in Buderim Hospital, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, in February last year. It was a Wednesday, and that morning the couple had been told Baxter had no heartbeat. They were offered sleeping pills, but both refused. Instead they lay together, numb with grief.

    “We just both lay there all night, watching the bloody clock,” says Ainsworth , a softly spoken 38-year-old. “That’s when I knew what I wanted to do.”

    Hamilton gave birth to Baxter on Thursday, February 13. “We were dead tired; we’d been awake for two days,” says Ainsworth . “I was just staring at him, trying to burn him into my head. You know that your time’s limited. You’re not going to see him after that day.”

    At first Ainsworth chose not to tell Hamilton of his plans to sketch their son, but when he did, she wasn’t surprised. Art runs in Ainsworth’s blood. Inside the garage of their two-storey home at Peregian Beach is a studio where the civil engineer paints and sketches, honing a talent he first picked up between rugby league matches while growing up in Biloela, a rural town in central Queensland. With Baxter’s sudden death, the couple were ushered into an exclusive club that no one joins voluntarily.

    “I thought stillbirth was something that only happened in Third World countries,” says Hamilton, 40, beside her husband of 10 years. “Nobody talks about it, and that makes it harder for friends and family to know what to say.”

    In time, the couple found their way to Sands Queensland, an organisation that provides support to parents who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death. It wasn’t long before Ainsworth decided to offer his skills to those who had joined the club. “It just grew from there, I suppose,” he says. “I thought it might be a nice opportunity for other people: if they can’t do a sketch, I’ll do it for them.”

    Says Nicole Ireland, president of Sands Queensland: “Glenn wanted to do something. He suggested that parents could make a donation to Sands, and he volunteered his skills to sketch their babies. A lot of people are more comfortable displaying drawings rather than photographs.” Parents can order a “free spirits” personalised portrait, hand-drawn by Ainsworth, based on supplied photographs. The proceeds go to the organisation, which is funded through Queensland Health’s community self-care program as well as via member donations. “(Glenn and Nichole) obviously have great support around them,” says Ireland, whose son Nicholas was stillborn 10 years ago. “But (Glenn would) have to balance his giving back with his grief.”

    In the couple’s home, adjacent to the rooms downstairs where Hamilton runs her physiotherapy clinic, Ainsworth sits at his computer and opens a scanned copy of his sketch of Baxter. His eyes trace the soft curves of his baby boy’s face, hooded in a blanket, his tiny hands grasped together just so. “Some of them are quite difficult, because some of them are quite young in terms of the gestation period,” he says quietly. “A lot of the bubs get a bit bruised, and have skin tears and stuff like that, which is just awful. I look at the pictures, then don’t do anything for a couple of weeks. I just have a think about it.”

    He starts with the face, making sure to get the proportions right before adding other details. Sometimes he draws composite sketches based on several photos. At the parents’ request, he can sketch around tubes and cords, thus removing their child from a medical context. He has completed 11 sketches so far, averaging one a month, and usually has another two or three waiting in the queue.

    Moving across to a filing cabinet beside his workspace, he flicks through folders until he finds his original drawing of Baxter. He holds it carefully at the edges, silently taking in his priceless drawing of a boy who was gone too soon. In the shock that followed his stillbirth, neither parent considered taking a photograph of their son. Hamilton’s sister did, though, and in the months that followed those few photographs became the couple’s most important possessions. A framed copy of the sketch of Baxter hangs now in their bedroom. “I’m glad that Glenn’s art has a chance to help people,” says Hamilton. “It’s a beautiful thing to share. I love his drawing of Baxter.”

    When asked how long each drawing takes to complete, he laughs and replies: “Put it this way: on an hourly rate, I’d be on about 20c an hour.” But it’s not about money.

    Ainsworth tends to lose track of time down in the quiet of his studio, with performers such as David Gray, Lady Antebellum and Amos Lee playing softly from the speakers. He sketches with a range of pencil grades and isn’t picky about brands or styles, opting to buy whatever the local art shop happens to have in stock. He is a self-taught artist, and doesn’t pay much attention to the work of contemporary professionals, though he is particularly fond of a New Zealand landscape artist named Tim Wilson.

    The grieving process hasn’t been easy. Hamilton says that for the first year, she cried every day. Ainsworth’s experience was much the same. “I’d get in my car each morning and cry all the way to work, and on the way home, 40 minutes each way,” he says. “I burst into tears all the time now.”

    Talking about the experience in his home with a stranger isn’t easy, either. Hanging on the wall of his living room are some of Ainsworth’s artworks, including photorealistic paintings of a sea turtle and clownfish. “You’ve got everything ready to bring a baby home. You go from the highest feeling to the lowest,” he says. “I’m just climbing out now, after 18 months.”

    Losing Baxter has made the couple stronger. “It’s welded us together,” says Hamilton, smiling at her husband. “I couldn’t have survived it without Glenn’s hugs and help.”

    The father still experiences the odd moment where the memory of his son hits him like a punch to the sternum, prompting him to ask himself: Holy shit, did that happen? They both find it hard to hear other parents making complaints about their children.

    “To hear your baby cry, you’d give anything,” says Ainsworth.

    About 106,000 couples experience reproductive loss each year, yet it remains a difficult topic of conversation. Indeed, Ainsworth and Hamilton are highly attuned to how uncomfortable this topic can be. When new patients arrive at her clinic and ask whether she has kids, there’s now a moment of hesitation as Hamilton measures whether to tell the truth. It’s much easier to talk about a dead grandparent than a dead son. “It’s not our discomfort anymore, it’s theirs,” she says.

    Since that February day last year, the couple has learned a few things about how to best support bereaved parents. Just be there. Be an ear. Sometimes a hug is the best response. Ask the parents: What was the child’s name?

    For the artist, his is a project wrapped in beauty and pain.

    “It’s something to immerse myself in,” says Ainsworth, returning to the computer and showing some of the other baby boys and girls he has drawn. “It’s this little guy’s birthday next week, I think.”

    He pauses. “It’s an awful thing: no one should ever have to bury their child, irrespective of age. With stillborns, you don’t get to share any of those memories. I do these sketches for my sanity.”

    For more about Sands Queensland, visit

  • 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.

  • 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

  • Qweekend story: ‘Think Inside The Box: Float therapy’, October 2014

    A story for the October 19-20 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    Think Inside The Box

    Solo enclosure in a dark tank of salty water isn’t everyone’s cup of calm, but converts to this niche form of stress management say there’s peace – and space for deep thought – to be found in the 60-year-old practice.

    Qweekend story: 'Think Inside The Box: Float therapy' by Andrew McMillen, October 2014

    by Andrew McMillen / Photograph by Russell Shakespeare


    I’m floating naked with my hands behind my back in a warm, shallow pool. Calming music plays quietly. My ears are plugged and submerged. It’s so dark that I can’t see my feet; the only light comes from a lamp outside, which filters through tiny slivers in the sliding door on the ceiling. I close my eyes, and from time to time, feel the currents of this private ocean causing my relaxed body to gently bump the sides. With the merest flex of a toe, elbow or finger, I push myself back toward the centre. Outside of my mother’s womb and my eventual coffin, I’m unlikely to encounter such a closed, sense-deprived environment – which, plainly, is a claustrophobe’s nightmare.

    After ten minutes, the music fades out, and I’m left alone with the sound of my breathing and my thoughts. I’m in a flotation tank: a vehicle for introspection slightly bigger than a dodgem car, containing 350kg of Epsom salts – hence the ability to float, as this water has the same density as the Dead Sea. It sits inside a storefront called Brisbane Float & Massage in the south-western suburb of Sherwood, yet for the duration of my disconnected hour inside, I could be anywhere in the world.

    I’m here because of Joe Rogan. Sometimes alternative therapies need celebrity advocates to shift public opinion from a fruity-sounding way to spend one’s time to an attractive prospect. For many float converts, Rogan – popular American stand-up comedian, podcast host and television presenter – has been the canary in this particular coal mine. “The sensory deprivation chamber has been the most important tool I’ve ever used for developing my mind – for thinking, for evolving,” he says in a YouTube clip that’s had more than 750,000 views. “Everybody should do the tank. You will learn more about yourself than any other way.”

    My first session reveals the truly abstract notion of time, as in the silence, I quickly lose all sense of the clock. For someone who has zero experience with meditation and a similarly low desire to spend time alone without some sort of stimulus – music, book, notepad, video game, smartphone – I wasn’t sure how I’d handle this dark, quiet vacation from reality. After I got comfortable in the water – whose warmth mimics my body temperature – time seemed to stand still.

    Before long, though, I was so deep in thought that I was surprised to hear the music return, signalling that five minutes remained in the hour. In the tank, a wide range of topics crossed my mind – partner, family, health, work, music, self – and I was able to carefully grasp each of these and examine it with newfound clarity.

    British-born John Battersby, 56, is the owner of Brisbane Float & Massage, one of only a handful of tank operators in Queensland. He shows me around his simple premises. “I built this myself,” he says, gesturing at the surrounding walls. “It’s not high-quality, but it’s functional.” A qualified sports therapist and local soccer coach, he leads me into one of his two float rooms, which both contain showers to be used before and after each session. Battersby explains that he found this therapy after a car accident in Sydney in 1989 left him with whiplash, a neck brace and limited mobility. He was sceptical of this alternative therapy at first: “A Pom, lying in a big bath of water?” he jokes with a smile. During his first 90 minute float, he experienced extraordinary pain relief. After that, he floated every day for six months.

    The sensory deprivation tank was first explored in 1954 by American physician John C. Lilly, who sought to isolate the human mind from external stimulation. Flotation therapy has since become a niche form of stress management. After its initial popularisation in the 1980s, public interest in floating dried up following health concerns about AIDS and the transfer of bodily fluids. “Now we know that’s not possible,” says Battersby, “as the water is so sterile that you can’t grow bacteria in it.”

    Battersby, who lives with his wife Kerry in the Lockyer Valley town of Laidley, 85km west of Brisbane, has used the tank at least once a week over the past 25 years. “It’s such a simple process that anyone can do it,” he says. Anyone, that is, except most children, whose short attention spans tend to limit the appeal of sliding the lid closed on a small space for an hour or more.

    When I mention Joe Rogan, Battersby describes him as “a breath of fresh air”. “I don’t believe in his use of drugs, though,” he clarifies. “We don’t allow people to use drugs here. But he’s an experienced floater, and he does good things. We need more of him.” For Battersby, the tank represents “one of the most creative spaces I’ve ever found. There are no distractions – only what’s going on between your ears.”

    For some, that same space between the ears can be the source of seemingly endless darkness and despair. Michael Harding knows a bit about this. A former army infantryman, Harding was medically discharged from service in 2011 after developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) born out of an intense, prolonged firefight in Afghanistan during which he witnessed a fellow soldier shot and killed. He developed full-body twitches, was diagnosed with conversion disorder and sent home early. The two years that followed were a mess of prescription medications and alcohol abuse. He’d drink a bottle of spirits every day, while his partner was at work, and his junk-food diet saw his weight top out at 110kg.

    Qweekend story: 'Think Inside The Box: Float therapy' by Andrew McMillen, October 2014. Michael Harding and Rebecca Houghton photographed by Russell ShakespeareHarding discovered floating in March and in his first week completed three sessions. “The changes I’ve seen in him after floating are incredible,” says his partner, Rebecca Houghton, who left her office job to care for Harding full-time. Having since lost dozens of kilos, Harding now wears his brown hair in thick, curly locks that belie his military history. He’s sitting in shorts, thongs and a black cap in an armchair outside the two float rooms in Sherwood, with Houghton at his side. The pair [pictured right] met at primary school in Bracken Ridge, in Brisbane’s north-east, and reconnected just before Harding joined the army.

    As the Department of Veterans’ Affairs does not view flotation therapy as a valid form of rehabilitation for Harding’s PTSD, their visits to Battersby’s Sherwood premises were paid for out of their own pocket. Both 27, they live in Lawnton, on Brisbane’s northside, and found that the 100-minute round trip was adding to Harding’s stress, eroding some of the benefits gained by floating. The solution? Battersby recently installed a reconditioned tank in their home basement. “I was in the tank by 3.20am this morning, for a four-hour session,” Harding beams. “It’s been great for my positivity, and my motivation. It allows me to de-stress, and get out of my head. A lot of my mates prefer to drink, take meds and try to forget about it all.”

    It’s a little early in my own floating career to expect to see the remarkable improvement in mental health and clarity that Harding reports. “When you first start doing the isolation tank, it’s hard to completely let go who you are,” Joe Rogan cautions in that popular YouTube clip. “But as you get more and more comfortable with the experience, you get better at actually letting go.”

    Once the music stops in the tank, I slide back the door on its ceiling, stand up and allow the salty water to run off. I shower, dress, hand over my $50 and bid Battersby a fond, grateful farewell. I look forward to my next session, and the one after that, as I float in the quiet dark and allow my mind to venture deeper and deeper inward.

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, September 2014: Richard In Your Mind, Royal Blood, Die! Die! Die!, Velociraptor

    Four reviews published in The Weekend Australian in September 2014.

    Richard In Your Mind – Ponderosa

    Richard In Your Mind – 'Ponderosa' album cover reviewed in The Australian, September 2014“A carnival of electric palominos / Have you seen those?” Contained in that bizarre, whispered rhyming couplet from the mid-album track ‘This Is House Music’ is almost everything you need to know about this Sydney psychedelic pop band. With one foot planted in the surreal, Richard in Your Mind has never attempted mainstream accessibility. Ponderosa — its fourth full-length release — doesn’t break that cycle. It’s a good album if you fancy a hefty dose of weird imagery and unconventional instrumentation amid the usual components of indie pop music.

    When the band plays it relatively straight, as on shimmering standout ‘Look You Gave’, the effects are stunning: four minutes of beautiful, propulsive storytelling. These moments of clarity are rare. Besides the album’s catchy ode to binge drinking in ‘Hammered’ (“Me and my baby get hammered in the daytime / Me and mine, all the time”), Ponderosa is defined by its flow of expansive, exploratory soundscapes.

    These ideas work more often than not, as on the elliptical title track, which starts in one musical postcode and ends up on an entirely different planet. Bandleader Richard Cartwright and his offsiders know exactly what they’re doing, and Ponderosa excels as an immersive listen because it’s simultaneously wacky and controlled. While I could have done without the short instrumental tracks, this is an interesting and worthwhile listen. In the remaining 12 songs, there’s rarely a dull moment.

    LABEL: Rice Is Nice
    RATING: 3.5 stars


    Royal Blood – Royal Blood

    Royal Blood – 'Royal Blood' album cover reviewed in The Australian, September 2014The first thing you should know about British two-piece Royal Blood is its unusual composition: drums and bass guitar. That takes balls to attempt, let alone pull off. For that reason every red-blooded rock ‘n’ roll fan should spin Royal Blood at least once.

    It’s rare for bands adhering to this genre to successfully experiment with anything other than percussion, bottom end, vocals and electric guitar, and it’s to the credit of Mike Kerr (bass and vocals) and Ben Thatcher (drums) that their debut album is a compelling listen despite the absence of an electric guitar. Comparisons to another innovative rock two-piece are inevitable, especially when Kerr’s vocals come dangerously close to Jack White-aping on ‘Loose Change’. Kerr is secretive about how he achieves his tone, which ranges from low groove to high-end treble.

    This sonic seesawing is best heard on penultimate track and album standout ‘Ten Tonne Skeleton’; punishing opener ‘Out of the Black’ is one of the year’s better rock songs. The problem is that the songs don’t stand up to repeated listens and close scrutiny.

    LABEL: Warner
    RATING: 3 stars


    Die! Die! Die! – S W I M

    Die! Die! Die! – 'S W I M' album cover reviewed in The Australian, September 2014This would make for a great debut album: raw, frenetic and propulsive. Unfortunately for this Dunedin, New Zealand, indie rock trio, S W I M is its fifth full-length release and it breaks a streak of essential listening that began in 2008 with Promises, Promises, a rough gem that preceded two superlative sets in 2010’s Form and 2012’s Harmony.

    This album, whose title is derived from online shorthand for “someone who isn’t me”, most often used on message boards where illegal activities are being discussed, simply lacks the songwriting punch and artistic evolution that has characterised the band’s three earlier collections. Andrew Wilson (guitar/vocals), Michael Logie (bass) and Michael Prain (drums) are innovative masters of their instruments and sparks fly, as anyone who has ever seen this band play live will attest. Throughout its decade-long career, Die! Die! Die! has tended to operate in either of two modes: its favoured flavour of abrasive, frenzied punk rock, and a contrasting delicate and melancholic style with fewer beats per minute and singing rather than shouting.

    S W I M features just two tracks in the latter mode, and they’re both highlights: ‘Crystal’ and the album closer, ‘Mirror’, wherein Wilson reflects on youthful fantasies of escaping home towns: “When we were young / There was any excuse / To get away / From where we’re from”. The remaining 10 tracks offer interesting ideas, though only a handful stack up to the best moments heard on previous albums.

    LABEL: Black Night Crash
    RATING: 3 stars


    Velociraptor – Velociraptor

    Velociraptor – 'Velociraptor' album cover reviewed in The Australian, September 2014From the beginning this band has relied on its sheer strength in numbers as a gimmick: as many as 15 musicians have appeared on stage during Velociraptor’s spirited live performances and its gang-pop style was a cute party trick that worked for several years leading up to the release of its debut album.

    On Velociraptor, the quality of songwriting outshines the quantity of players. This is an absolute classic of the pop genre: an album stacked top to tail with bright, clever musicianship and flawless song structures. Its 11 tracks are crisp, immediate, and deceptively simple. It is clear that plenty of work has gone into creating music so pure and accessible. At a touch more than a half-hour in length, Velociraptor is short and sweet, yet the melodies and instrumental hooks reverberate throughout the skull for days.

    The inclusion of Sweetie Zamora’s vocals on ‘One Last Serenade’ is a fine choice, breaking up the tales of inner-city heartbreak favoured by vocalist Jeremy Neale — a common thread best exemplified on ‘Ramona’, whose opening lines paint a vivid picture in so few words: “Ramona, I told you, I can’t sit next to you / In the cinema, when you’re texting other guys.”

    The album’s one shadowy moment, ‘Leeches’, is centred on a menacing lead riff that would make the Saints guitarist and Australian punk-rock forefather Ed Kuepper nod in appreciation. Velociraptor is a stunning debut album that comes highly recommended.

    LABEL: Dot Dash/Remote Control
    RATING: 4.5 stars

  • 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