All posts tagged Review

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, December 2016

    I reviewed 14 albums for The Weekend Australian in 2016. Many of them were great, but the only five-star rating I awarded was to the below album, which was released in April. The full review follows.

    Halfway – The Golden Halfway Record

    It makes sense that artists get better with age, for with age comes experience and thus a greater palette of colours with which to paint becomes available. Yet in popular music — in rock ’n’ roll especially — the common narrative arc is for young bands to burn brightly with their early releases before eventually losing some of the energy, hunger and joy that brought them together to make music in the first place.

    There are exceptions to this trend, of course, and Brisbane band Halfway is one of them. The Golden Halfway Record is the fifth album that this eight-piece band has released, and it is the third album in six years on which the band has exceeded its own high standards. Any Old Love earned 4½ stars on this page in 2014; it was a near-perfect collection of songs that prompted me to describe Halfway as one of Australia’s best rock bands.

    And after careful consideration I can only conclude that this album is perfect, and that there can be no doubt that Halfway is among a handful of the most talented and consistent acts in operation. It’s a major statement to make about a band that most Queenslanders haven’t heard of, yet alone those who live in the country’s south and west, but all of the evidence can be heard in this sensational 11-song set.

    Book-ended by a dramatic intro and outro, The Golden Halfway Record offers yet another significant stylistic leap for the performers and particularly for the primary songwriters, guitarists John Busby and Chris Dale. The progression from 2010’s An Outpost of Promise to Any Old Love was pleasing and commendable, but this is something else. Heard here is a band at the peak of its powers, to use a critics’ cliche, yet the most scarily impressive aspect of this ascent is that the octet may have only just passed base camp. One can only imagine the summit Halfway yet could reach.

    The trouble with writing, recording and releasing a perfect album, of course, is that the task becomes even harder next time. But that’s for the band to worry about, not us. We listeners get the pleasure of living inside such exquisitely crafted rock songs. The album as a whole is so well plotted and paced that to pick single moments feels barely adequate, but to name just one, fifth track ‘Welcome Enemy’ is a new high-water mark.

    It pulses with an effortless wisdom and depth that belies how hard it is to write music so affecting with the same old ingredients available to every rock band in the world. From front to back, The Golden Halfway Record is exactly what its title describes. It arrives with the highest possible recommendation, and an insistence that if you’ve ever enjoyed the combination of guitars, bass, drums, keys and vocals, you simply must hear this.

    I also reviewed the below albums for The Weekend Australian in 2016. They are listed in chronological order, with the publication date and my rating noted in brackets.

     

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews, December 2015

    I reviewed a handful of books for The Weekend Australian in 2015. Most of them were very good, but my review of the book I enjoyed most – published in November – is included in full below.

    The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships by Neil Strauss

    'The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships' book cover by Neil Strauss, reviewed in The Australian by Andrew McMillen, 2015In the opening pages of Neil Strauss’s 2007 book The Rules Of The Game, the dedication reads: “To your mother and father. Feel free to blame them for everything that’s wrong with you, but don’t forget to give them credit for everything that’s right.”

    Eight years later, Strauss — an American author who came to prominence as a journalist for Rolling Stone and The New York Times — has published The Truth, which is dedicated to his own mother and father. “They say a parent’s­ love is unconditional,” he writes. “Let’s hope that’s still true after you read this book.”

    The Truth comes a decade after The Game, which tracked his journey from dateless no-hoper into master ‘‘pick-up artist’’. The multi-million seller is often maligned and mis­understood as a manual for dateless no-hopers looking for cheat sheets on how to attract the opposite sex, yet The Game is a powerful narrative of transformation which ends with Strauss giving away single life after finding love.

    This new book begins with Strauss cheating on his girlfriend — a different woman to the one he met at the end of The Game. What follows­ is a thorough exploration of the inside of his skull, and how his behaviour toward women has been shaped by his parents’ toxic relationship: a hypercritical, overprotective mother and an aloof, distant father who spent his whole life browbeaten by his wife. It’s a superb­ set-up to a long book, which quickly becomes a compulsive read powered by questions of how Strauss can escape his warped childhood and regain the trust of his scorned partner.

    The narrative covers four tumultuous years of Strauss’s life, through sex addiction therapy and a temporary reconciliation with his partner, followed by the supposed freedom of alternative relationships, such as an attempt to live with three sexual partners concurrently. He is aware of how this all sounds to anyone familiar with The Game: he encounters a man at sex addiction therapy who points out that “a book about learning how to meet women is destructive, and a book about learning how to stop meeting them would be good for the world. And ironic”.

    What sells the story is Strauss’s writing, which is never less than engaging, and frequently­ funny, heartfelt, or both. His observ­ations are astute and poignant: when attending a conference for polyamorists — people with more than one lover — and feeling awkward around a bunch of naked strangers, he notes: “Loneliness is holding in a joke because you have no one to share it with.”

    Like The Game, The Truth might be miscateg­orised under ‘‘self help’’ in bookstores, because the questions Strauss grapples with are universal: how to find love, maintain a relationship, and manage sexual attraction to others without jeopardising what you have built with your partner. Like his past few books, it is written in a first-person perspective, yet the lessons he learns during his journey can be understood and appreciated by many. This is a clever gambit­, and part of the reason that his writing appeals widely, as any attempt to directly instruct­ the reader would dampen its impact.

    Throughout the book, Rick Rubin — a famousl­y bearded record producer who has worked with many great musicians, from Jay-Z to Slayer — pops up as both wise counsel and exasperated onlooker to the author’s behaviour. Similarly, a therapist Strauss meets while being treated for sex addiction provides regular guidance and perspective, and occasionally she and Rubin appear in the same scene. All of the characters Strauss draws are three-dimensional and believable, including a few fellow sex addicts who have their own dysfunctional relationships and attitudes toward faithfulness.

    The two individuals who come under the most scrutiny are the author’s parents, however — hence the dubious dedication at the book’s beginning. Now 46, Strauss has been trying his whole life to please his strict, punishing mother, who frequently confided in her son how much she hated her husband. During therapy, he discovers that there’s a name for this sort of thing, where a mother is emotionally dependent on a child and has intimate discussions that should be had with a spouse: emotional incest.

    Learning that his mother wants to be in a relation­ship with him blows Strauss’s mind, naturally, but also helps him to understand why he’s been unable to live in a healthy, long-term relationship. The toxic environment in which he was raised coloured his romantic experiences in adolescence and adulthood. He became more dysfunctional after learning how to seduce­ women in his 30s.

    “My whole life, I’ve been fighting against love for my freedom,” he realises at about page 300. “No wonder I’ve never been married, engaged­, or even had a love that didn’t wane after the initial infatuation period.”

    Strauss is an incisive writer, and his struggle in these pages has to have been the toughest assignme­nt he’s ever taken on. It’s certainly his best and most important work to date. “For me, the best way to understand what actually transpired in any given situation is to write about it until the truth emerges,” he notes at one point. Writing this book can’t have been easy, yet the real genius of his work is the multiple layers at which he engages the reader.

    Just as The Game is often misunderstood as a straightforward seduction guide, The Truth could be misrepresented by those who seek to pursue alternative sexual relationships. As with the book he published a decade ago, though, the destination is more important than the journey, and where Strauss finds himself at the end is a much happier place than where he began.

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

     

  • 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 sandsqld.com

  • The Vine live review: Soundwave Festival Brisbane, February 2014

    A festival review for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Soundwave Festival
    RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane
    Saturday 22 February 2014

    Gwar at Soundwave Festival 2014 in Brisbane, reviewed by Andrew McMillen for The Vine. Photo credit: Justin Edwards

    Ah, the dangers of printing festival programs weeks ahead: at least four of the bands listed today have cancelled for various reasons, which means that the timetables inside the 82-page colour booklet are completely unreliable. As we walk into the venue there’s a guy on a megaphone advising everyone to download the phone app, which is a nice PSA, but I do wonder how many punters who don’t visit Australian music websites or lurk social media still expect to see Megadeth, Newsted, Whitechapel et al today. The visual design for this year’s Soundwave is sumo-themed, and in the program there’s a message from the promoter, written first in Japanese then in English underneath: “Rockers of Australia unite. Respect & look after each other! Head of cabbage, A.J Maddah.” 

    Fittingly, the first act I see comprises eight men in camouflage costumes, demonic masks and clown-like face paint. On their first visit to Australia, Ohio band Mushroomhead fulfil my wishes by playing ‘Sun Doesn’t Rise’ and ‘Solitaire Unravelling’ up front. They attract a decent early crowd and I’m glad I saw those two songs before jetting to the main stage for Biffy Clyro, who have added a guitarist and keyboardist since I last saw them a few years ago. But then, the Scottish trio — now bona fide arena rockstars in the UK — have been writing songs with stadiums in mind for the last couple of albums, so it’s no surprise that they turn in an excellent set. Material from their two most recent albums fills out their 45 minutes, but I’m most pleased to hear Puzzle track ‘Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies’. They drop the news that they’ll be visiting again in September, to cheers from the devoted few hundred who catch one of the day’s better sets.

    “That’s a fucken awesome backdrop,” I hear one bloke say to another while we wait for Testament. “I’d love to have it as a tattoo,” his mate replies. It is a pretty fucken awesome backdrop: an illustration of a big-bearded bastard, ten metres across, with multiple horns erupting from the skull and facial expression set to ‘severe’. There’s lightning in the background, too. Awesome tattoo ideas aside, I’m mostly here because a friend swears that Testament are one of the best thrash metal bands ever.

    Look, Craig, you’ve got a point. Frontman Chuck Billy regularly uses his microphone stand as an air guitar and his commitment to the cause is incredible: his chord progressions and solos mimic the two guitarists’ actual work, and he even has giant novelty guitar picks that he strums for a while before tossing into the crowd. He’s an adorable, avuncular figure who constantly grins and sticks his tongue out at the crowd, thoroughly enjoying his job. Metal is often treated with such po-faced sincerity that it’s easy to forget how ridiculous it all is, at its core. These guys give the impression that they’ve never forgotten.

    Which is a nice segue into Gwar [pictured above] on the same stage, whose singer sports a dildo that spurts fake blood onto the crowd. He and his bandmates are all wearing outrageous, spiked costumes and earnestly playing their instruments as if it’s just another day at the office. A couple of songs in, a Tony Abbott character walks out on stage and begins telling the band that they’ve got to finish up; that their behaviour is not on. He is immediately decapitated by the lead singer’s sword, and his spinal column begins pissing blood onto the crowd while a muscular, shirtless stagehand keeps a grip on Abbott’s hips so that he doesn’t blast the band in the face with the gunk. I am now on their side completely.

    For the full review and photos, visit The Vine. Photo credit: Justin Edwards.

  • The Vine live review: Laneway Festival Brisbane, January 2014

    A festival review for The Vine, co-written with Matt Shea. Excerpt below.

    Laneway Festival 2014
    RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane
    Friday 31 January 2014

    The Vine live review: Laneway Festival Brisbane, January 2014, by Andrew McMillen. Photo credit: Justin Edwards

    We sent our music men Andrew McMillen and Matt Shea along to Australia’s first Laneway Festival of 2014 at the RNA Showgrounds in Brisbane on January 31. This is their story, just please be advised the following contains tales of creepy stalking, swearing and mid-strength Mexican beer….

    Andrew McMillen: How do you sell tickets to music festivals? Amid reports of a horror 2013 for promoters throughout the country, with cancellations, downsizing and low attendances almost across the board, the answer to that question has remained the same as it ever was: book bands that people want to pay good money to see. It’s simple in theory but tricky in practice, with a good deal of gambling and gamesmanship required many months in advance. In this sense, Laneway has struck a vein of pure gold in 2014: their line-up is stacked with in-demand artists, many of whom performed strongly at a certain music poll that aired five days prior to the touring festival’s traditional first Australian show in the Queensland capital.

    Matt Shea: My question is, how do you improve upon the Brisbane leg of Laneway, which was one of the best festivals to blow through the city in 2013? You upgrade the line-up for starters. If last year’s roster of artists was impressive, 2014 is a clean home run with the inclusion of superstars Haim and Lorde, a strong slug of rap courtesy of Run the Jewels, Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt, and an almost never-ending list of support players: Daughter, Four Tet, Kurt Vile, Warpaint, and god knows how many more. The festival app’s planner is pretty much useless. There are clashes everywhere. Thanks, arseholes.

    That’s from the audience perspective. From promoters Danny Rogers and Jerome Borazio’s perspective, you increase capacity. Which, given the ample space available at Brisbane’s RNA Showgrounds, makes a lot of sense. But does it make sense for Laneway?

    Laneway’s submission to do the same in Sydney was rescued by an eleventh hour plea from Michael Chugg — who co-promotes the festival — when he told Leichardt Council that no other Australian music festival quite has the same capacity to connect with music fans. But by bumping up the numbers, Rogers, Borazio and their collaborators are of course risking such a hard-won note of distinction. In it’s first year in Melbourne back in 2004, the gents were cheerily selling tallies and inviting their parents along. In 2014, we’re talking something much more widescreen.

    To accommodate the extra numbers, the RNA Showgrounds setup has been re-jigged. The Carpark Stage (better than it sounds) is no longer the place to see the biggest acts. Instead, it plays second fiddle to the Alexandria Street stage, which in a daring move during Brisbane’s monsoon season, is completely open to the elements.

    And those crowds don’t go unnoticed. Whereas in 2013 it was easy to get around, this year you often find yourself caught in great swathes of people, many of them careening into each other as sticky weather and over imbibing combine to nasty effect. After a while you find yourself wondering if this is what Laneway is all about. I’m not so sure.

    Andrew: Fittingly, the site is busy within a few hours of gates opening, as must-see acts have been scheduled from the early afternoon onwards. Up first, King Krule is a swing and miss at the Carpark Stage: the English songwriter is interesting on record, but unengaging in the flesh. To my dismay, a quick scout around the three other stages yields no alternatives, which seems like surprisingly poor organisation for so early in the day. King Krule delivers that rare, unedifying type of set that turns me off a band that I already liked. Adalita at the Alexandria Street stage is the exact opposite: alongside her three accomplices, she reminds me that I need to spend more time with her 2013 album All Day Venus. Their performance of the title track is the first great song I hear today, thanks to a monstrous extended outro. “I’ve got a touch of bronchitis,” the singer says. “But I’ll do my best. Fuck that excuse!” It’s clear during a solo reading of ‘Heavy Cut’ that her voice isn’t doing quite what she’d like, yet Ms Srsen powers through anyway. Heroic.

    A few songs into Adalita’s set, I clock the unmistakeable visage of triple j Music Director Richard Kingsmill standing before me, clutching a brown jacket and wearing a navy shirt, blue jeans and orange shoes. He shields his bespectacled eyes from the glaring sun and adopts a power stance, rocking his right leg to the beat of the bass drum with crossed arms.

    Richard Kingsmill watching Adalita at Laneway Festival 2014. Photo by Andrew McMillen

    The more avid conspiracy theorists of the Australian music scene would have us believe that Kingsmill ultimately decides which bands have careers in this country and the circumstances in which they succeed. No one man should have all that power, they posit, to crib a Kanye line. I watch him rub his chin and lean into the power chords that blast through the speakers. Momentarily, an enthusiastic blonde girl jumps onto a male friend stood before Kingsmill; he takes a swift step back in response, but it appears that the spell has been broken. The man with the golden ears flees in haste, as if he just remembered he had somewhere else to be.

    By sheer coincidence I clock him again at set’s end, over by the food stalls while I buy a cup of lemonade. He’s using chopsticks to eat from a cardboard box while chatting to a fellow radio presenter. Since I have nothing better to do, I follow him to an indoor stage sponsored by an energy drink company. Tracking an individual through a crowd of hundreds is a new thrill; I feel like Jason Bourne or some shit. It’s so loud in here that I apply earplugs immediately. Kingsmill doesn’t. I’m leaning against a steel barrier before the sound desk, watching him watching… I don’t even know who. It doesn’t matter.

    I have spoken to him before, once, years ago, for a version of the played-out “Does triple j have too much power and control over the artistic fates of music in this country?!?!” story that was resurrected in the Fairfax press earlier this month, to much navel-gazing and hand-wringing among those who care about such things. Then, as on the air, Kingsmill struck me as an unashamed music geek; an obsessive who just so happens to be paid to be immersed in the art that he loves. Nothing I see here diminishes that impression. Ten minutes later, I stalk him back out to the Alexandria Street stage, where Vance Joy has attracted a huge crowd.

    For the full review and photos, visit The Vine. Top photo credit: Justin Edwards.

  • The Vine live review: Falls Festival 2013 Byron Bay, January 2014

    A festival review for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Falls Festival 2013
    North Byron Parklands, Byron Bay
    Monday 30 December 2013 – Friday 3 January 2014

    The Vine live review: Falls Festival 2013 Byron Bay, January 2014, by Andrew McMillen. Photo credit: Tim da-Rin

    Mid-morning on the last day of 2013 and the second day of the inaugural Falls Festival in Byron Bay, a perky female staff member drops by our campsite with a clipboard and four questions for our group of thirteen to consider. On a scale of one to five, how would you rate getting to and setting up your campsite? One, we reply. How would you rate the camping amenities? Three. Not camping with your car? Zero. Overall camping vibe? Three.

    Clearly, our spirits are fairly low at this stage. For good reason: the day before, we had discovered that the supposed “short walk” between car park and campsite mentioned on the event website was a laughable lie; at least a kilometre separated our two locations, and when you’re carrying eskies, tents, gazebos, water and food supplies in the middle of a hot day, that’s no joke. It took our group at least three returns journeys on foot each, and around five hours before we were fully set up and able to collapse into chairs, exhausted. Quite the opposite of fun; instead, plenty of sweat, frustration and cursing.

    But music is the reason many of us are here, though there’s also an ‘arts’ component to the festival that’s largely confined to ‘The Village’, an eccentric section of the grounds that’s good for one stoned gawk and not much more. There are two main stages – the Amphitheatre, and the Forest – both of which offer fantastic views from wide and high angles. Local acts play between midday and midnight on a handful of smaller stages. The overall effect is one of overwhelming and occasionally disorienting noise. If you’re looking for silence, this festival is not for you: some form of music can be heard from seemingly every corner of the enormous grounds.

    The first act I see is Tom Thum, a Brisbane-born beatboxer who impresses a bustling Amphitheatre crowd with little more than his voice, microphone and looping devices. Having spent some time with Thum a few months ago while profiling him for Qweekend, I know his repertoire and abilities better than most, but I’m still bowled over by his talent like everyone else. This might be the purest musical experience I see all festival. A truly charismatic showman, Tom Thum possesses a unique and priceless musical brain. His half-hour set passes in the blink of an eye. I can’t imagine a human looking on his performance not being impressed or moved.

    The Roots (above) play the same stage later that night to bring in the new year; as much as I love them, their set feels like a major missed opportunity. Among only a handful of recognisable tunes – ‘The Fire’, ‘The Seed (2.0)’, ‘You Got Me’, ‘Proceed’ – they fall into the role of Jimmy Fallon’s house band far too easily, offering up a slew of covers (‘Jungle Boogie’, ‘Immigrant Song’, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’) and extended instrumental solos that drag rather than thrill. I’d liked to have heard more of the music that has made them widely respected masters of the genre. The entire hill moves to their music, of course, and it’s certainly a memorable way to see in 2014, but this group has written so many hip-hop classics – and visited this country so rarely – that what could easily have been an A+ night is instead a B.

    For the full review and photos, visit The Vine. Above photo credit: Tim da-Rin.

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, Sept – Nov 2013: Wolf & Cub, Jae Laffer, Mick Turner, Greta Mob

    Album reviews published in The Weekend Australian between September and November 2013.

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    Wolf & Cub – Heavy Weight

    Wolf & Cub - 'Heavy Weight' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, September 2013While Perth act Tame Impala has been flying the flag for Australian psychedelic rock since 2010, playing on American talk shows and at nearly every festival in the world, Adelaide quartet Wolf & Cub have been quiet.

    Following an excellent debut in 2006’s Vessels, their second album, 2009’s Science and Sorcery, was a stark disappointment.

    Heavy Weight, then, marks a return from the musical wilderness — four years away is a long time for any band, especially a mid-tier independent — and a return to form that will have Tame Impala looking over its shoulder. Joel Byrne (guitar and vocals) and Joel Carey (drums) are the two original members, but with the change in line-up comes renewed focus: 11 songs deep and no missteps to speak of, only a meandering and characterless two-minute coda to eighth track ‘See the Light that’ we could have done without.

    Elsewhere, ‘All Through the Night’ is a sprawling, urgent cut in the vein of Canadian indie rock band the Besnard Lakes; ‘I Need More’ is as streamlined a pop song as the band has produced, and in ‘Got a Feeling’ Wolf & Cub end Heavy Weight on an uplifting note, similar to how Californian rock act Black Rebel Motorcycle Club closed its most recent album.

    Embedded throughout these songs are smart basslines, tidy percussion and Byrne’s vocal hooks and impressive array of guitar effects. May their fine work here land them on US talk shows and global festival stages before too long.

    LABEL: MGM
    RATING: 4 stars

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    Jae Laffer – When The Iron Glows Red

    Jae Laffer - 'When The Iron Glows Red' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, October 2013As frontman of Perth-born pop act The Panics, Jae Laffer is well regarded for his songwriting quantity and quality.

    Best known for the ARIA award-winning third album, Cruel Guards, and its lead single, ‘Don’t Fight It’, the band has been firing since its 2003 debut album, A House on a Street in a Town I’m From.

    It’s unsurprising, then, that Laffer’s first solo release is just as accomplished as everything that came before. These are acoustic pop songs bolstered by warm instrumentation; the enterprising Laffer plays nearly every sound heard on the album besides drums and bass, the latter being handled by his Panics bandmate Paul Otway. It’s a potent chain of 10 tracks without a single weak link.

    The screaming saxophone in ‘Leaving on Time’ is a thrill, as is the lovely vocal duet with Angie Hart in ‘To Mention Her’. The best is saved for last, though: the chilling title track closes the album, and it’s right up there with the best songs that Laffer has had a hand in.

    Press materials suggest he was moved to write and record an album quickly; he desired spontaneity, to sing the words to the songs “while the ink was still wet on the page”. If the man can whip up 10 winning pop songs from scratch at speed, then other writers have reason to be quaking in their boots.

    That ability, coupled with his distinctive, laconic vocal style — long central to the Panics’ appeal — results in a truly rare bird. Highly recommended.

    LABEL: Dew Process
    RATING: 4.5 stars

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    Mick Turner – Don’t Tell The Driver

    Mick Turner - 'Don't Tell The Driver' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, November 2013New work by one of Australia’s most distinctive guitarists is always worth a listen, and usually worth dwelling on at some length.

    Don’t Tell the Driver slots neatly into the latter category. It’s the fourth album by Melbourne-based musician Mick Turner, who is one-third of the internationally acclaimed instrumental rock act Dirty Three. His laconic, meticulous style of playing is evocative no matter the context; a memorable quote by Bobby Gillespie, frontman of Scottish rock band Primal Scream, describes his six-string style as “the way that stars are spaced out across the sky”.

    Turner’s past solo releases have been tough to recommend due to their meandering, unfocused nature: his last album, 2003’s Moth, comprised 19 short, looped instrumental ideas. Here the guitarist has enlisted a diverse group of players to bolster the mix, and it works well: horns, piano, melodica, bass and drums drift in and out of focus but never overshadow the star of the show.

    Most notable is the addition of vocals on a few of the 11 tracks: Caroline Kennedy-McCracken’s softly sung words wrap nicely around the gentle rhythm of the title track, and opera singer Oliver Mann makes an unexpected appearance at the beginning of album standout ‘Over Waves’.

    That Turner has embraced a more traditional style of songwriting is to his credit. No one else plays guitar quite the way he does. Don’t Tell the Driver is recommended as his strongest and most accessible work to date.

    LABEL: Remote Control Records/King Crab
    RATING: 3.5 stars

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    Greta Mob – Let The Sunburnt Country Burn

    Greta Mob - 'Let The Sunburnt Country Burn' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, November 2013‘Yorta Yorta’, the opening track of this Sydney band’s debut album, is one of the most striking songs released this year.

    The narrator tells a story from his childhood of being caught trespassing while fishing in northern Victoria. When he pleads ignorance, stating his belief that the land belonged to the local indigenous clan – the Yorta Yorta people – he’s told that “There ain’t no more of them blacks alive / They started killing them back in 1835”. In his dream that night, the narrator witnesses a tribal elder’s brutal murder at the hands of a white farmer. The singer ends with an impassioned cry that echoes Midnight Oil’s ‘Beds are Burning’: “The truth be known, we don’t own this land / Let’s give it back to them”.

    This seven-minute tale is set to a rollicking rock backbeat; clashing guitars and mournful harmonica lines add to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the seven tracks that follow don’t come close to the opener. Greta Mob was formed by singer Rhyece O’Neill – who plays nearly every instrument here – and drummer Luke Millar two years ago; Let the Sunburnt Country Burn was recorded in a warehouse in Berlin, in Sydney, and in a shearing shed south of Mudgee, NSW.

    The album sounds fantastic, thanks to the natural reverb of those open spaces. Although this is an uneven debut, there are some great ideas. Greta Mob may soon join the Drones and the Kill Devil Hills, two independent acts that continually strive to make intelligent, evocative Australian rock music.

    LABEL: Greta Mob Music
    RATING: 3.5 stars

     

  • The Weekend Australian album review, July 2013: Karnivool – ‘Asymmetry’

    An album review for The Weekend Australian, published 20 July 2013.

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    Karnivool – Asymmetry

    Karnivool - 'Asymmetry' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, July 2013Never before has an album like this been released by a popular Australian rock act. Dark, deep and challenging, Asymmetry is the third album by Karnivool in eight years, and it sees the Perth quintet moving further away from the accessible, pop-like approach to songwriting that characterised its early releases in favour of intricate, unwieldy prog-rock suites.

    For this, the group is to be admired, as it certainly is not taking the easy way out by pandering to the sensibilities of its significant national audience. Taken in whole, as a 66-minute song cycle, it’s an interesting listen. The problem here is that the songs simply aren’t strong or memorable in isolation. “Interesting” is probably not the adjective these five musicians were aiming for, either.

    Better known as frontman for Birds of Tokyo, Ian Kenny is Karnivool’s most potent weapon. While this was certainly true on 2005 debut Themata and 2009’s Sound Awake, here, Kenny’s vocal hooks are frustratingly few and far between. Dominating the mix is the incessant sturm und drang of his bandmates, who appear to have become scholars of Swedish technical death metal band Meshuggah.

    Shifting tempo changes are the order of the day; aggressive and contemplative moods crash into one another, with little rhyme or reason. The overall effect is as messy and disorienting as the album artwork. Complexity for the sake of complexity soon numbs the ears, and even after repeated listens Asymmetry simply doesn’t make much sense.

    LABEL: Sony
    RATING: 2 stars

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, June 2013: QOTSA, Sigur Ros

    Two album reviews published in The Weekend Australian Review in June 2013.

    Queens Of The Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

    Queens of the Stone Age - '...Like Clockwork' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, June 2013The sixth album from this Californian hard rock band solidifies its reputation for consistency. Though founding singer-guitarist Josh Homme is the only ongoing member, he has become known for attracting a rotating cast of accomplished players since the band’s self-titled debut in 1998.

    This time he has re-enlisted master sticksman Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) to keep time, after first trialling this experiment for 2002’s Songs for the Deaf, widely regarded as QOTSA’s finest album. (It helped that the pair hooked up with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones in 2009, too, as Them Crooked Vultures.)

    As expected, it’s an inspired decision, one that sets the tone for yet another compelling collection. Songs such as ‘If I Had a Tail’ and ‘Smooth Sailing’ swagger with a momentum that only Homme and his comrades can muster. First single ‘My God is the Sun’ is the weakest of these 10 tracks; the real gold is buried towards the back.

    ‘I Appear Missing’ and the closing, title track exceed five minutes and hark back to the expansive suites that featured on the band’s excellent second album, 2000’s Rated R. Homme has long since learned that rock music is all about contrasts: atmosphere is just as important as breakneck chord changes.

    “One thing that is clear / It’s all downhill from here,” he sings in the album’s final lyric; he must be taking the piss because six hits and no misses is as remarkable a scorecard as you’ll find among bands of any genre.

    LABEL: Matador/Remote Control
    RATING: 4 stars

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    Sigur Ros – Kveikur

    Sigur Ros - 'Kveikur' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, June 2013There are bands with distinctive sounds, and then there’s Sigur Ros. These Icelandic gentlemen have produced seven albums, including Kveikur (pronounced ‘quaker’, meaning candlewick in the mother tongue); and with each successive release they further distance themselves from any other act, past or present.

    Formed in 1994, Sigur Ros has long been associated with the post-rock genre that favours sprawling, intricate compositions eschewing traditional verse-chorus structures. Kveikur is the group’s strongest album yet. It’s certainly Sigur Ros’s most accessible collection. Nine tracks, 48 minutes in total; only the closer, ‘Var’ (Shelter), is forgettable: a wordless, aimless dead-end of sunken, delayed piano notes and sighing strings.

    The other eight tracks are thrilling, powerful and inspiring. The nature of the cinematic sound, coupled with the band members’ Icelandic heritage, inevitably conjures mental images of snow-capped mountains and glaciers. Its winter release is ideal. Here, the former quintet is reduced to a three-piece for the first time. Jon Por Birgisson’s incomparable falsetto and bowed guitar playing practically defines this band; even his solo album, 2010’s Go, was virtually indistinguishable from the Sigur Ros catalogue.

    Only Georg Holm (bass) and Orri Pall Dyrason (drums) accompany him here, yet you’d never guess that based on the complexity of the production. Layered strings, clattering percussion and soaring sampled effects run through these songs, as best exemplified on second single ‘Isjaki’ (Iceberg). This is excellent music, unlike anything else on earth. For the uninitiated, Kveikur is the ideal starting point.

    LABEL: XL Recordings
    RATING: 4.5 stars

  • Rolling Stone album review: Midnight Juggernauts – ‘Uncanny Valley’, June 2013

    Midnight Juggernauts - 'Uncanny Valley' album reviewed in Rolling Stone Australia by Andrew McMillen, June 2013An album review for the July 2013 issue of Rolling Stone Australia.

    Midnight Juggernauts
    Uncanny Valley

    Melbourne outfit hit the bullseye on third full-length

    Midnight Juggernauts’ first two albums suffered from inconsistency, but there are no such issues here: Uncanny Valley‘s 10 tracks is packed with hooks. If anything, they’ve streamlined their approach, cutting the fat and boning up on the pop smarts that’ve been central to the Juggernauts’ appeal since their excellent debut, 2007’s Dystopia. Distinctive, sinister first single “Ballad of the War Machine” isn’t the strongest song here: that’d be the masterful finale, “Melodiya”, a stunning summary of the trio’s ability to marry shadowy dance music with elements of electronica, rock and pop. A fine way to close their most accomplished set yet.

    Label: Remote Control
    Rating: 4 stars