All posts tagged the-australian

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews, December 2016

    I reviewed 10 books for The Weekend Australian in 2016. Most of them were very good, but my review of the book I enjoyed most – published in August – is included in full below.

    Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

    In this outstanding book, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum decodes the relationship writers have had with word processing technology since the literary world began to shift from typewriters to the personal computer. If this subject matter sounds dry, happily it is anything but in the pages of Track Changes. Kirschenbaum, associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, takes on the topic with depth and an accessible prose style. The result should have broad appeal to a general readership and be of special interest to writers, for there is much here to excite the literary-minded.

    Kirschenbaum opens by referencing one of the pop cultural touchstones of our time: Game of Thrones — or, more specifically, A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy novels by American author George RR Martin on which the popular television series is based. As he told a talk show host in 2014, Martin chooses to write his books on a DOS-era computer with no internet connection, using an ancient program called WordStar. Describing this combination as his “secret weapon”, owing to its lack of distraction and isolation from any threat of a computer virus, the author also credits WordStar with his long-running productivity.

    By opening with the work habits of a megaselling author and then travelling back in time, chapter by chapter, to the emerging typewriter-based storage technology of the late 1960s, Kirschenbaum eases the reader into a dazzlingly rich and absorbing history. It is fascinating to note the reluctance with which computer-based word processing was first viewed by the publishing industry. Some writers were so wary of being outed as early adopters that they chose not to disclose their new toys to their employers, or even went to the lengths of having their finished manuscripts rewritten using typewriters before submission.

    Although screen size and small memory capacities caused early concerns and frustrations, it was not long before science-fiction writers, in particular, thrilled to the ability to gain greater control over their text, as well as being freed from the tedium of retyping work. Kirschenbaum quotes a Harvard physicist who came to a realisation in the early 80s: “We all knew computers were coming, but what astonishes us is it’s not the scientists but the word people who have taken them up first.”

    Once bestselling writers such as Stephen King, Isaac Asimov and Terry Pratchett adopted word processors and publicly noted the significant improvements in their productivity, it seemed there would be no turning back. As the technology matured, computers and their inner workings became a source of inspiration for writers, too: the likes of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which popularised the word ‘‘cyberspace’’, for example.

    Track Changes is based on five years of research and the author’s academic bent can be seen in the 80 pages of detailed notes that follow the narrative text, but never in the prose itself. This is a remarkable achievement. For a project that seems geared toward stuffiness, Kirschenbaum’s writing sparkles with well-chosen anecdotes and a keen sense of humour.

    His enthusiasm for the topic is palpable. After a section profiling thriller author James Patterson, whose occasional media nickname is ‘‘The Word Processor’’ — owing to his prodigious output, produced alongside a half-dozen close collaborators — he wonders what type of technology The Word Processor himself runs. “Surely it must be a mighty one!” Kirschenbaum suggests, before revealing the answer: “He works his stacks of manuscripts longhand. How perfect is that?”

    For the author, this subject is intertwined with his own experiences as a writer, naturally enough. It is dedicated to his parents, “who brought home an Apple”, and he notes in the preface that the book itself was written “mostly in [Microsoft] Word, on a couple of small, lightweight laptops”. The book is named for the incredibly helpful feature in Word that allows readers to see the revision history and minute variations between different versions of documents during the editing process. The origin of this feature is only addressed directly in the final chapter, where Kirschenbaum also writes:

    “Writers live with and within their word processors, and thus with and within the system’s logics and constraints — these themselves become part of the daily lived experience of the writers’ working hours, as predictable and proximate as the squeak of a chair or that certain shaft of sunlight that makes its way across the room.”

    As that illustrates, the author has a way with words, not just an appreciation for how they are processed. The final paragraph is a thing of immense beauty, too, and may bring a tear to the eye of anyone who has sat and watched as fingertip pressure applied to a keyboard instantly became words processed on a screen.

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

     

  • 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 Magazine story: ‘Roll On, Robot: Self-driving cars’, June 2016

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the June 18-19 issue. Excerpt below.

    Roll On, Robot

    Self-driving cars are fun, and they might improve safety, but are the regulators ready for them?

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Roll On, Robot: Self-driving cars' by Andrew McMillen, June 2016. Photo by Eddie Safarik

    On a midweek afternoon I’m standing on a busy street in inner-city Brisbane, watching traffic. The clock has just struck three, which means that school pick-ups are coinciding with tradies knocking off for the day from nearby construction sites. In a few minutes I’m passed by dust-flecked utes, sedans with baby boosters in the backseat, four-wheel drives, council buses, vans, motorcycles and hatchbacks. In control of each vehicle is a regular human driver – a fallible, distraction-prone entity with a limited field of vision.

    It could be any day, anywhere in Australia. But then a sleek grey car glides up to where I’m standing. If I wasn’t expecting it, I wouldn’t have heard it: the Tesla Model S is practically silent, powered by electricity stored in lithium-ion batteries rather than petrol. Its best trick, however, is hidden within the array of computer systems behind the dashboard, and it’s a feature that’s likely to change the nature of personal transport. In contrast to the other vehicles that have passed me this afternoon, this one has the ability to drive itself.

    The car’s owner, Jon Atherton, loves Tesla’s Autopilot feature. He recently engaged it at 4am one Saturday, soon after leaving his inner Brisbane home and merging onto the near-empty M1 motorway. For 75km or so, all the way to the Gold Coast, the car drove itself and its human cargo – Atherton and his 16-year old daughter, Minna – to swimming practice. From the driver’s seat he recorded a short video of the trip showing the car holding firm in a central lane and taking a slight corner at a steady speed of 103km/h. The steering wheel turns without Atherton’s touch. The footage, posted on Facebook, is at once eerie, futuristic and hair-raising.

    This technological shift towards automation presents a raft of challenging and complex issues for state and federal regulators. Adding to the complexity is the fact that Atherton woke up one morning late last year to find that the software system had automatically updated itself. Suddenly, Autopilot became a standard feature for tens of thousands of Tesla Model S owners across the world. How can state and federal governments regulate that kind of overnight innovation?

    ++

    I hop in the Tesla with Atherton that midweek afternoon and as we head north towards the airport he engages Autopilot with a subtle double-pull of the cruise control stalk located behind the wheel. In that moment, the trip shifts from test drive to joyride. It’s not until I witness his car driving itself, with my own fallible optical sensors, that the possibilities of this technology unlock in my mind.

    As we pass through the AirportLink tunnel at 80km/h, Atherton says, “It’s doing a pretty good job of keeping us safe, and balancing the distance between all of the things around us.” Just as a human would, I note. “The thing is, this computer is not distracted, or distractible,” he replies, looking me in the eye, hands off the wheel. “Even if somebody comes screaming up beside us, it’ll try to keep us out of trouble. If you started to show me a message on your phone, I could get distracted and veer off the road. But the car’s less likely to do that.”

    When Autopilot was first released, Atherton – a tanned, 50-year-old mobile app developer and entrepreneur – compared the feeling of handing over control to the software to relinquishing the driver’s seat to a learner driver. “I didn’t feel 100 per cent comfortable with something else being in charge,” he says. His anxiety soon passed when he saw how well the technology worked. That 4am trip to the Gold Coast in January is a perfect example. “It drove the whole way, and I didn’t touch the steering wheel or change the speed,” he says. “A couple of times cars pulled in front of us and it just slowed down, sat in the middle lane and cruised along.”

    At this stage, Tesla’s Autopilot cannot wholly replace a human driver: it requires well-painted line markings to locate the lane, its cameras can’t tell the difference between green and red traffic lights and it won’t obey stop signs – that’s still up to the human behind the wheel. Tesla advises against total hands-free driving and if a driver removes their hands, a display near the dash shows the message: “Please keep your hands on the wheel”. But essentially, the responsibility lies with the driver as to whether or not they do so.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Eddie Safarik.

  • 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 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

    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 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 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.

    LABEL: MGM
    RATING: 4 stars

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    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

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    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

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    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

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    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

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, February 2014: Warpaint, Halfway, Harmony

    Album reviews published in The Weekend Australian in February 2014.

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    Warpaint – Warpaint

    Warpaint - 'Warpaint' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, February 2014The music made by the four members of Los Angeles indie rock act Warpaint rarely contains hard edges.

    Usually, it’s the stuff of film dream sequences: ethereal, emotive and somewhat divorced from reality. This wistful aesthetic worked well on the band’s 2010 debut The Fool, and still does four years later.

    But it’s the seventh of 12 tracks here, ‘Disco//Very’, that’s most immediately striking. Powered by Jenny Lee Lindberg’s busy bassline and drummer Stella Mozgawa’s intricate cymbal-and-snare pattern, its opening lyric almost works as a band mission statement: “I’ve got a friend with a melody that will kill/ She’ll eat you alive.”

    These four are masters of mood and melody, and Warpaint is a fine document of that fact. Three years in the making, it’s an engrossing listen from the wordless opening track, ‘Intro’, right through to its plaintive closer, ‘Son’.

    First single ‘Love Is to Die’ is an instant earworm on par with The Fool single ‘Undertow’ in terms of sheer accessibility. As before, vocals are shared among Lindberg and guitarists Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman. In Australian-born Mozgawa the band possesses one of rock’s finest drummers, yet they’re not above paring back the percussion, as evidenced on sparse penultimate track ‘Drive’.

    It is to Warpaint’s credit that their second album is full of interesting and accomplished experiments rather than the comparatively simple emulation of initial success. While it is well worth the four-year wait, here’s hoping the band’s work ethic speeds up a little before the next release. Warpaint comes highly recommended.

    LABEL: Remote Control
    RATING: 4 stars

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    Halfway – Any Old Love

    Halfway - 'Any Old Love' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, February 2014Eight players make up Halfway, a rock band from Brisbane that injects banjo, pedal steel guitar, piano and mandolin into the genre’s usual instrumentation.

    The central lyrical theme on Any Old Love is evident in the title: almost all of the 13 tracks are love songs in one shape or another. Whether it’s the exploration of that emotion in its nascent stages (‘Honey I Like You’) or towards the end of a difficult relationship (‘Hard Life Loving You’), the prose is never less than honest and true.

    So, too, are the razor-sharp melodies conjured by these eight men, particularly album opener ‘Dropout’, a ludicrously catchy instant-classic that is at once familiar and unique. In a departure from the shared duties observed on 2010’s excellent An Outpost Of Promise, almost all of these songs are credited to John Busby, who shares vocals with fellow guitarist Chris Dale.

    Both possess soft, distinctive voices that sit snugly amid their bandmates’ driving groove. There is depth to the stories told here, too: “Bar stories and cautionary tales on the Central Western Line”, reads a subtitle in the liner notes, referring to the 780km Queensland railway system that runs from the state’s Emerald to Hughenden.

    There’s even a helpful glossary that lists 13 terms and names mentioned in the lyrics; clearly, a lot of thought has gone into this album, the band’s fourth. Any Old Love marks another accomplished entry into the growing catalogue of one of Australia’s best rock bands.

    LABEL: Plus One
    RATING: 4.5 stars

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    Harmony – Carpetbombing

    Harmony - 'Carpetbombing' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, February 2014“I know I smell like petrol; smell like I’ve been sleeping rough / Like I’ve got on everything I own, no matter what the heat.”

    An ominous spoken-word piece by Cold Chisel songwriter Don Walker, ‘The Closing of the Day’, is as memorable as album openers come. Accompanied by a lone guitar looping spectral notes, its function as calm-before-storm is perfectly executed.

    It leads right into ‘Water Runs Cold’, where the bass and drums make their first appearance and, within a minute, Harmony’s secret weapon cuts in: the stirring vocals of Amanda Roff, Quinn Veldhuis and Erica Dunn, which provide stark contrast to the full-throated roar favoured by guitarist and lead vocalist Tom Lyngcoln.

    It’s this juxtaposition of femininity and masculinity that first proved compelling on the Melbourne band’s self-titled debut album in 2011. On Carpetbombing, they’ve sharpened their songwriting. The result is a potent collection of bleak, beautiful songs that can be atonal at times, awash in dissonant chords and clattering cymbals. It’s in these moments that the gospel-style vocals are deployed like a floodlight into a pitch-black cavern. The effect is used sparingly, however; Harmony is far from a one-trick pony.

    Highlights include the peculiar, push-and-pull rhythm of ‘Diminishing Returns’, which concludes with a cutting guitar solo by Lyngcoln, and the six-minute epic ‘Unknown Hunter’, which may be the band’s most remarkable piece of work.

    Carpetbombing is not an easy listen. Its unique charm requires some immersion before being properly appreciated, and its unconventional song structures continue to surprise long after that uncertain first listen.

    LABEL: Poison City Records
    RATING: 4 stars