All posts tagged album-review

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, December 2015

    I reviewed 15 albums for The Weekend Australian in 2015. Many of them were great, but the only five-star rating I awarded was to the below album, which was released in early August. The full review follows.


    HEALTH - 'DEATH MAGIC' album cover, reviewed by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian, 2015That this Los Angeles-based electronic pop quartet insists on capitalising all of its song and album titles speaks to the confronting nature of the music it creates. DEATH MAGIC is the group’s third album, and its best: a futuristic and immersive marriage of electronic beats and pop sensibilities. Its style on previous records was rooted in the abrasive repetition of noise rock, and while that scaffolding remains in place, HEALTH has spent the six years since its last album, GET COLOR, perfecting an aesthetic which is entirely its own.

    Since 2009, the quartet has composed an eerie, atmospheric score for a popular video game, Max Payne 3, and according to an interview published on Pitchfork in April, they “made this record like four times”. The rewrites were well worth it.

    This is among the most vital and exciting albums to be released in any genre in any year. It is a masterpiece of staggering depth and immediacy. Each track pulses with energy and the optimism of youth, yet its overarching lyrical theme is an obsession with the end of life: “We die / So what?” sings guitarist Jake Duzsik on fourth track ‘FLESH WORLD (UK)’. “We’re here / Let go,” he intones atop an insistent backbeat and snippets of warped, metallic squalls.

    Wedged among the unrelenting darkness are two anomalously poppy tracks, ‘DARK ENOUGH’ and ‘LIFE’, which appear back-to-back in the middle of the set list. “Does it make a difference if it’s real / As long as I still say ‘I love you’?” sings Duzsik on the former track, while on the latter he reflects, “Life is strange / We die, and we don’t know why”.

    For a bunch of guys in their early 30s, this preoccupation with death is curious, but as fuel for their art, clearly it has been a boon. The mood that surrounds these themes is far more ebullient than funereal. In acknowledging its mortality rather than denying it, HEALTH seems to have replaced existential anxiety with self-confidence. First single ‘NEW COKE’ is the album’s darkest arrangement, wherein Duzsik’s ethereal vocals state a mantra (“Life is good”) that’s offset by waves of engrossing electronic distortion, like a plane crashing in slow motion. In the middle of the track, there are a couple of brief moments of silence, before the diabolical noise returns anew.

    Stylistic decisions such as these are perhaps influenced by the notion of “the drop” in electronic dance music: compulsive snatches of anticipated euphoria which spur the mind and body into action. DEATH MAGIC is a tough album to categorise: half pop, half electronica and wholly immersive, it is the sound of four singular musicians mining a rich, untapped vein of material. Defiantly, proudly, this band sounds like no other in existence. What HEALTH has come up with here is a towering achievement best played very, very loud.

    I also reviewed the below albums for The Weekend Australian in 2015. They are listed in chronological order, with the publication date and my rating noted in brackets.


  • The Weekend Australian album review, February 2015: Pearls

    A review published in The Weekend Australian in February 2015.

    Pearls – Pretend You’re Mine

    Pearls – 'Pretend You're Mine' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, February 2015The best moment of Pretend You’re Mine is a lead guitar break that appears towards the end of track seven, ‘Baby’. It’s an extraordinary 30-second passage that breaks the song wide open, changing keys while also providing crystal-clear context to what this Melbourne-based trio attempts to achieve on its debut album.

    Pearls trades in glam rock, according to publicity materials accrued since forming in 2011, yet that loaded term arrives with significant baggage attached and should be shelved in favour of keeping a few distinctive traits in mind: shared male-female vocals, uniformly sharp songwriting and a refined aesthetic best exemplified by the album cover, which features two-thirds of the band in soft focus beneath artful fonts.

    Pretend You’re Mine is a self-assured collection. The aforementioned ‘Baby’ is an instant classic pop song built around clattering percussion, lock-step guitars, lovestruck vocals and a few root keyboard chords that burble away, low in the mix. It’s breathtaking in its simplicity and efficacy and, like all great music, it belies the difficulties of the craft itself.

    Elsewhere, ‘Dirty Water’ is stalked by an unhinged, distorted lead guitar tone that’s indebted to a generation of shoegaze practitioners, and opener ‘Big Shot’ pivots on a strutting bassline and menacing gang vocals that mimic the guitar melody. It all ends with the propulsive title track, which slowly fades out and begs for the entire experience to be repeated. Debut albums as great as Pretend You’re Mine are rare; they deserve to be applauded and savoured.

    LABEL: Dot Dash/Remote Control
    RATING: 4.5 stars

  • 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 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

  • 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

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, June – July 2014: Scott Spark, Sia, Jonathan Boulet

    Three reviews published in The Weekend Australian in June and July 2014.

    Scott Spark – Muscle Memory

    Scott Spark – 'Muscle Memory' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, June 2014Piano-led pop is the domain of this Sydney-based singer-songwriter, who demonstrates a firm grasp of the genre on his second album. Backed by a compact rhythm section and occasional flourishes from stringed instruments, Scott Spark has arranged a winning follow-up to his 2010 debut, Fail Like You Mean It.

    His piano playing is inventive, but it’s his strong voice and fine ear for melody that sets these 13 tracks alight. The album bursts into life with driving opener ‘Days Are Business’ and maintains its momentum into the first single, ‘Two Alarms’, a workaday anthem for the disaffected modern wage slave. Spark navigates the space between such macro themes and more personal tales with grace; the heartache of missing a significant other is written large across album closer ‘Keep It Together’, while ‘Tag Along’ tells the story of meeting that same person for the first time. Well-trod though these lyrical paths might be, Spark’s unique toolbox includes a smart eye for detail, clever turns of phrase and a consistent ability to surprise the listener, such as when the string section in the latter track gently glides behind Spark’s voice until unexpectedly blooming into a sublime countermelody.

    ‘Going Out Tonight’ is built upon echoing, shimmering keys. The pleasantly disorienting effect doesn’t diminish with repeated listens, while the jarring chords of ‘Cut Loose’ impart a sense of urgency fitting for the album’s poppiest track. Muscle Memory is an engaging listen from top to tail.

    RATING: 4 stars


    Sia – 1000 Forms of Fear

    Sia – '1000 Forms of Fear' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, July 2014Few careers in Australian pop music have burned as steadily and slowly as that of Adelaide-born Sia Furler. Her second album, 2001’s Healing is Difficult, yielded a couple of singles that hit on the British charts but barely raised heart rates here; a key placement in the finale of HBO drama Six Feet Under in 2005 added fuel to the fire, as did her ARIA Award-winning fifth LP, 2010’s We are Born. Yet it is only in the past couple of years that the spark has finally burst into full conflagration. Happily for the camera-shy 38-year-old, her greatest success has come through writing hit songs for the likes of pop luminaries Rihanna, Katy Perry, Britney Spears and Beyonce. For Furler, the result has been fortune without much of the fame.

    Fittingly, the blonde mop on the cover of her sixth album is presented sans facial features. Beneath that golden dome lies one of the world’s sharpest musical brains. Few would doubt that Furler is a master of her craft, and 1000 Forms of Fear is a fine summary of everything that she has learned about the art of pop songwriting. Furler’s long-time collaborator Greg Kurstin handles production; it’s a winning combination as he too writes regularly with big-name pop acts.

    This album is packed with soaring choruses that highlight the singer’s formidable pipes. Her voice is a curious instrument that’s perfectly capable of cycling through high-register scales with beautiful tone, yet Furler is just as keen to emphasise her vocal quirks. This stylistic decision is central to her appeal, as they remind the listener that a human being is behind the microphone at all times, rather than an auto-tuned studio machine scrubbed of all imperfections.

    Simplicity and repetition are key components of the best pop music, a fact Furler knows well and replicates across 1000 Forms of Fear. Its 12 tracks are named for key words or phrases sung in the choruses, usually leaning towards peculiar or memorable images (‘Hostage’, ‘Free the Animal’, ‘Eye of the Needle’). First single ‘Chandelier‘ is a stunning composition based on Furler’s experiences with alcoholism (“Keep my glass full until morning light / ‘Cause I’m just holding on for tonight”), while ‘Elastic Heart’ — which first appeared on a soundtrack last year — is a universal tale of human resilience.

    The instrumentation draws largely on keyboards, live drums, bass and guitar, though sparse piano is relied on for the album’s two big ballads, ‘Straight for the Knife‘ and ‘Cellophane’. Overall, its tones and moods are well-paced, with the poppiest tracks offsetting the slower tempos of the two ballads — tracks six and 11, respectively. Smartly, Furler saves her best for last. Six-minute epic ‘Dressed in Black’ ends 1000 Forms of Fear on a haunting note: in its final two minutes, Furler throws her all into impassioned, wordless vocalising amid dramatic chords, drawing a firm line under her best collection to date.

    LABEL: Monkey Puzzle/Inertia
    RATING: 4 stars


    Jonathan Boulet – Gubba

    Jonathan Boulet – 'Gubba' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, July 2014The first time we heard Sydney songwriter Jonathan Boulet was five years ago, on a self-titled album that bubbled with nervous energy, clattering acoustic guitars and folk-rock sensibilities. It was a similar story with a stronger second album in 2012, yet Gubba heralds a considerable stylistic shift.

    Written, recorded and self-produced in Berlin, this third LP sees Boulet replacing acoustic instruments with distorted guitars and punishing drumbeats. Defined as “pop music with a scummy outer layer”, its 14 tracks are packed into 34 minutes and showcase Boulet’s previously hidden affinity for rock and heavy metal.

    We’ve known for five years he knows his way around writing a catchy song, and in that respect nothing has changed: although Gubba is noisier and more aggressive than its predecessors, musical and vocal hooks abound. Many of these songs are driven by fearsome bass grooves, most notably ‘Is Anybody Dooming’ and the Melvins-esque track ‘Bog’. Boulet is a notable drummer above all else, and innovative percussion is a consistent highlight.

    Five tracks fail to reach the 90-second mark and instead are used to showcase curious musical ideas that feel unfinished due to brevity. Of these shorter tracks, ‘Set It Off’ is the standout: its driving guitars call to mind New York noise rock band A Place to Bury Strangers. Gubba is best appreciated as an insight into the scattered mind of a talented songwriter whose musical abilities far outweigh his lyrical aptitude.

    LABEL: Popfrenzy
    RATING: 3.5 stars

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, April – May 2014: Future Islands, Astronomy Class, DZ Deathrays

    Three reviews published in The Weekend Australian in April and May 2014.

    Future Islands – Singles

    Future Islands – 'Singles' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, April 2014Four albums and eight years into its career, this Baltimore pop trio has hit its stride with Singles, a 10-song collection that all but lives up to its title. The band’s previous release, 2011’s On the Water, was memorable but lacked the consistent hooks that set Singles apart. The songs are assembled with the usual suspects on keyboards, bass, guitar and drums, but vocalist Sam Herring dominates.

    Even after cycling through every synonym for “unique”, I fall short of capturing what Herring offers. He possesses an improbably wide vocal range, from sweet high melodies to a surprising death-metal growl that makes a brief appearance in ‘Fall from Grace’, but he has the emotive weight to sell the lovelorn concepts that take centre-stage. There’s no room for second-guessing his sincerity. Herring is as compelling a frontman as I’ve heard in any genre, let alone in the pleasant pop music with which Future Islands concerns itself.

    This point of difference is worth the price of admission, yet the leap forward in songwriting that William Cashion (bass, guitar) and Gerrit Welmers (keyboards, guitar, programming) have assembled around Herring is remarkable. Standout moments include the driving guitars on album opener ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’, the sighing synth sounds in ‘Doves’ and the poignant mood that imbues ‘A Song for Our Grandfathers’.

    It’s to the trio’s credit that all 10 tracks are uniformly strong. Naming an album Singles takes no small amount of self-confidence, yet in this case it’s well-earned.

    LABEL: 4AD/Remote Control
    RATING: 4 stars


    Astronomy Class – Mekong Delta Sunrise

    Astronomy Class – 'Mekong Delta Sunrise' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, April 2014For all the great strides that the genre has made since attaining critical mass more than a decade ago, Australian hip-hop can tend to mine the same soil over and over. Familiar thematic tropes have become entrenched in the minds of artists and audiences; to pursue sounds from outside of that comfort zone is to risk alienating listeners.

    For that reason, this is an ideal third full-length release for an established hip-hop trio whose reggae-influenced 2006 debut Exit Strategy sounded unlike anything else circulating at the time. So, too, does Mekong Delta Sunrise, an album overflowing with original ideas that again separates Sydney-based Astronomy Class from the usual suspects.

    By immersing itself in Cambodian culture, the trio has tapped into a rich vein of stories and sounds. Gifted MC Ozi Batla (The Herd) is the perceptive guide through this unfamiliar territory; his fantastic wordplay is a consistent highlight, but the way his percussive voice bends around the two evocative verses of ‘Four Barang in a Tuk-tuk’ may be a career highlight. The musical accompaniment layered by producers Chasm and Sir Robbo bustles with traditional basslines and beats offset by local instrumentation and samples, while many of the chorus hooks are beautifully sung in the mother tongue of Cambodian Space Project singer Srey Channthy. This is far from opportunistic cultural tourism; instead, a compelling and unique snapshot of a band extending itself and succeeding. Too brief at 37 minutes, Mekong Delta Sunrise makes clear that Astronomy Class has a deep respect for the country that has inspired its third — and best — album.

    LABEL: Elefant Traks
    RATING: 4.5 stars


    DZ Deathrays – Black Rat

    DZ Deathrays – 'Black Rat' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, May 2014Two years between releases finds this Brisbane duo evolving beyond its self-dubbed “thrash party” roots in favour of songwriting maturity. It’s taking a risk of alienating their established fan base but, to DZ Deathrays’ credit, it works. This new sound suits the pair better than the comparatively juvenile approach heard on the ARIA award-winning 2012 debut Bloodstreams and its preceding EPs.

    Shane Parsons’s penchant for catchy, effects-heavy guitar riffs hasn’t diminished, nor has Simon Ridley’s hard-hitting work behind the kit, yet these 11 tracks represent a significant step forward. Aside from the monstrous headbanger ‘Reflective Skull’ — the heaviest track they’ve released to date — the mosh-friendly moments of their early career are largely toned down. Instead, the pair demonstrates a firmer grasp on the mechanics of writing memorable, replay-friendly songs within the limited confines of guitar, drums and vocals.

    This compact format is ideal for the live circuit, a realm wherein DZ Deathrays has plenty of experience both nationally and overseas. Parsons mentions in the promotional material that “all we’ve done for two years is drink and tour”; fittingly, the bones of Black Rat were formed while on the road.

    Lyrical depth or complexity has never been high on the duo’s priorities, and here, the trend of serviceable but unremarkable hooks continues. Parsons’s tortured yowl remains a central force, but it’s just as often superseded by a more confident singing voice, and several tracks feature pretty vocal melodies. The subdued verses and explosive choruses of ‘Keep Myself on Edge’ contain shades of Brisbane labelmate Violent Soho, whose successful sonic evolution on last year’s Hungry Ghost has undoubtedly been studied closely by many rock acts around the country.

    Like that band, however, DZ Deathrays’ chief appeal is huge riffs and punchy percussion. On that front, Black Rat certainly delivers. Parsons describes it as “definitely a night-time record. After 9pm; that’s where it finds its place.” He’s right.

    Distinctive first single, ‘Northern Lights’, is an impressive departure from the duo’s regular formula; its busy follow-up, ‘Gina Works at Hearts’ — written from the perspective of a stripper who “just loves the attention” — could have been a Bloodstreams B-side. This stylistic seesawing is typical of Black Rat.

    It’s not quite a classic — album No 3, perhaps? — but it’s the sound of a confident band torn between its populist, party-friendly beginnings and a new-found ability to embrace glimpses of beauty amid the sonic destruction.

    LABEL: I Oh You
    RATING: 3.5 stars

  • The Weekend Australian album review: The War On Drugs, March 2014

    An album review published in The Weekend Australian on March 15 – my first ever five-star album review, I believe.

    The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream

    twod_dreamAbout 3 ½ minutes into the first track, ‘Under the Pressure’, is when it first becomes apparent that Lost in the Dream may be a masterpiece: a muscular brass melody seeps into the mix, mimicking the chord progression and adding a new urgency to an already brisk tune. Its final three minutes are free of percussion; instead, waves of shimmering guitar tones and bass harmonics slowly fade out, to stunning effect. It’s one hell of a mood-setter that summarises the album’s pervasive feel of hazy discontent tinged with brightness.

    Within moments of track two settling into its groove, all bets are off. This galloping indie rock number is an instant classic that captures The War on Drugs at its most vital: four players locked into one of the most remarkable and moving grooves I’ve heard. It’s a cop-out that one hates to defer to, but words don’t do it justice. ‘Red Eyes‘ — the album’s first single — is a towering musical achievement that will be studied decades hence, just as we still study Led Zeppelin, the Stones and the Beatles.

    The War on Drugs was formed in 2005 by singer-guitarist Adam Granduciel and Lost in the Dream is the band’s third album, yet as with its predecessor Slave Ambient (2011), many of its complex sounds were assembled piece by piece by the frontman. “I wanted to do something that showcased what the band had become without necessarily giving up control of the recording,” the 35-year-old recently told American website Grantland. “I feel like with this record, I wasn’t ready to do that yet.”

    A break-up left him alone in a big, empty house with the task of finishing this record, which sees the band teetering on the precipice between indie acclaim and mainstream acceptance. (The quartet visited Australia at the end of last year, playing day slots to modest crowds at Falls Festival and a handful of smaller headline shows.)

    Granduciel’s anxiety and depression during this period played their part in Lost in the Dream’s sonic footprint; despite the upbeat bravado of ‘Red Eyes’, many of the remaining nine tracks favour introspective, world-weary instrumentation and narratives.

    Sixth track ‘Eyes to the Wind’ is a fine example: at a key moment midway through the song, Granduciel sings “There’s just a stranger, living in me” in his sweet, distinctive accent, which sits perfectly amid strummed acoustic guitars and delicate piano runs. Album closer ‘In Reverse’ dwells in late-night self-examination — “Sometimes I wait for the cold wind blowing/ As I struggle with myself right now/ As I let the darkness in” — amid a buoyant chord progression and insistent backbeat.

    There is darkness on Lost in the Dream, as in life, but these moments ultimately are outweighed by hope. In sum, this is a striking statement from a visionary songwriter and his dedicated bandmates. It’s a masterful hour-long work whose strengths and charms are immediately evident yet whose secrets are buried deep.

    LABEL: Inertia/Secretly Canadian
    RATING: 5 stars