All posts tagged the-weekend-australian

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘The Dark Net’ by Jamie Bartlett, November 2014

    A book review for The Weekend Australian in November 2014, republished below in its entirety.

    Jamie Bartlett’s The Dark Net delves into internet’s murky depths

    'The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld' book cover by Jamie Bartlett, reviewed by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian, November 2014Beneath the surface of the well-trod online paths characterised by familiar corporate names — Google, eBay, YouTube, iTunes — mainstream news and entertainment portals lies a hidden layer: the “dark net’’, a shadier cousin of the comparatively generalist ‘‘cyberspace’’. It cannot be accessed by traditional web browsers, only via anonymising software called Tor, an acronym for The Onion Router, a cute nod to the network’s technical complexity.

    In his introduction to The Dark Net, British author Jamie Bartlett describes this online realm as “a place without limits, a place to push boundaries, a place to express ideas without censorship, a place to sate our curiosities and desires, whatever they may be. All dangerous, magnificent and uniquely human qualities”.

    Yet the dark net is best known for enabling the development and proliferation of two shady human endeavours: marketplaces for illicit drugs and child pornography hubs, areas that Bartlett interrogates in some detail. However, the title of this book is a bit misleading: rather than peeling back the onion’s layers, Bartlett broadens his scope by examining the “myriad shocking, disturbing and controversial corners of the net — the realm of imagined criminals and predators of all shapes and sizes”.

    He begins by tracing the history of the internet, and how the ‘‘online disinhibition effect’’ led to incendiary behaviours such as ‘‘trolling’’ and ‘‘flaming’’. This section is enlightening and well written. Even though I’ve been a heavy internet user for nearly 15 years, I learned a lot.

    “Whether we like it or not, trolling is a feature of the online world today,” Bartlett concludes. “As we all live more of our lives online, trolls might help us to recognise some of the dangers of doing so, make us a little more careful, and a little more thick-skinned. One day, we might even thank them for it.”

    He takes a magnifying glass to idealistic encryption software and ‘‘cryptocurrencies’’ such as Bitcoin, as well as social networks devoted to inflammatory topics such as self-harm, anorexia and British nationalism. The tone throughout is more journalistic than judgmental: “For every destructive subculture I examined,” he writes, “there are just as many that are positive, helpful and constructive.”

    The Bitcoin chapter takes him to a techno-commune in Barcelona, where programmers code through the night, fuelled by the libertarian promise of the unregul­ated currency. But the author isn’t convinced: “… if everyone starts using Bitcoin, government’s ability to tax and spend will diminish: healthcare, education and social security will suffer. The things that hold democracies together, and provide support for the most in need. Societies cannot be broken and fixed like computer code, nor do they follow predictable mathematical rules. If genuinely anonymous communication becomes the norm, it’s inevitable that it will be used by criminals too.” Such caution is prescient: in August, the Australian Taxation Office published a paper stating its views on Bitcoin, including its intention to treat it not as a currency but as an asset, akin to property or shares — a move that has been criticised by Bitcoin proponents as shortsighted and ill-informed.

    The line about criminals quoted above is explored in depth, too, when Bartlett inadvertently stumbles across a child pornography website while browsing the dark net’s Hidden Wiki. “Once I’d opened my Tor browser, it took me two mouse clicks to arrive at the page advertising the link,” he writes. “If I had clicked again, I would have committed an extremely serious crime. I can’t think of another instance where doing something so bad is so easy.”

    This narrative thread takes him to the Internet Watch Foundation, an organisation devoted to removing online child pornography. At its offices in Cambridgeshire, no family photos are allowed on desks, part of an effort to keep private and professional lives separate.

    Bartlett, who is director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at London think tank Demos, also interfaces with illicit drug marketplaces such as Silk Road, receiving a small amount of cannabis through the postal system after paying for it with Bitcoin. Here his tone is one of academic distance: “Inside, the product was carefully sealed, the correct weight and, according to an expert friend of mine, appeared to be extremely good quality.”

    In the book’s most entertaining vignette, Bartlett sits in on a ‘‘camgirl’’ broadcast wherein three young women pleasure themselves and each other in exchange for cash tips from their thousands of global viewers. “The three of them are sitting on the bed in sexy clothes, arms around each other like a school gang,” he writes breathlessly. “I am sitting just off-camera, two feet away from the bed, a pad of paper and my laptop on my knees […] It all feels a little strange, to say the least.”

    Bartlett covers a lot of ground in The Dark Net without becoming bogged down in technical minutiae. Even experienced dark net users will find this book engrossing. He also refuses to buy into the hysteria about this online realm: “In the dark net, we can simply find more, do more and see more. And in the dark net we have to be careful, cautious and responsible.”

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld
    By Jamie Bartlett
    Random House, 320pp, $35

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, October 2014: Sounds Like Sunset, The Peep Tempel, Seekae

    Three reviews published in The Weekend Australian in October 2014.

    Sounds Like Sunset – We Could Leave Tonight

    Sounds Like Sunset – 'We Could Leave Tonight' album cover reviewed in The Australian, October 2014With We Could Leave Tonight, Sydney band Sounds Like Sunset has produced its third album since forming in 1997. It’s the first since 2005’s Invisible, and from the opening bars of ‘Second Chance’ it’s clear that the long time between releases was well spent.

    This is a superb collection of expertly crafted indie rock songs that strikes a fine balance between melody and melancholy. The production ensures that the band sounds much larger than the sum of its three components. Vocalist David Challinor often double and triple tracks his guitar parts to add a bed of woozy atmospherics and swooning, distorted tones beneath his straightforward chord progressions, while Tobey Doctor and David Hobson keep the groove on drums and bass, respectively.

    The effect is especially intoxicating on tracks such as ‘Open Up My Eyes’ and ‘Sunshine’, where a few bent guitar notes run beneath the entire arrangement. Elsewhere, ‘Somebody Like You’ is imbued with a killer synth line beneath a massive chorus of ascending power chords, while the gentler ‘Undone’ is built around acoustic guitar.

    Comprising nine tracks in 34 minutes, We Could Leave Tonight is a brief affair, but one that demands repeated plays: the album’s streamlined, propulsive nature ensures that not a second is wasted. Fans of shoegaze and noise-pop bands such as Dinosaur Jr and the Jesus and Mary Chain will find plenty to like here.

    Among a uniformly strong collection, final track ‘Find Your Way’ is the standout: an epic slow-burner that never quite resolves, it’s a winning nod to the showbiz maxim to always leave the audience wanting more.

    LABEL: Tym Records
    RATING: 4 stars


    Seekae – The Worry

    Seekae – 'The Worry' album cover reviewed in The Australian, October 2014The final song on this Sydney trio’s second album, 2011’s +Dome , hinted at a forthcoming artistic progression, as it contained something that had previously been shunned: the human voice. Seekae had established itself as a reliable purveyor of interesting electronica, coloured by cut-up samples, synthesisers and pulsating beats. Still, the chasm between +Dome and The Worry is surprisingly wide, as percussionist Alex Cameron’s vocals are now central in the mix. It’s a bold move and one that risks alienating the group’s fanbase. There are echoes of another Sydney electronic group in this decision: PVT added vocals to its 2010 release Church With No Magic, and it didn’t add to the quality of the songs. If anything, it detracted from their appeal.

    This was my initial response to The Worry: for the first 10 spins, I couldn’t get past the fact Seekae had seemingly reduced its originality by joining the masses of vocal-led acts. Ultimately, through sheer repetition, I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate the new direction. Other fans may not be as patient.

    Cameron’s voice truly impresses only on a couple of tracks, most notably on sweet centrepiece ‘Further’, where he’s accompanied by horn blasts. The high-BPM programming on ‘Oxen Calm’ is the album’s energetic apex, and it would have been nice to hear more compositions of this style and calibre. The Worry captures a band seemingly in the midst of an identity crisis, though thankfully its songwriting abilities remain intact.

    LABEL: Future Classic
    RATING: 3.5 stars


    The Peep Tempel – Tales

    The Peep Tempel – 'Tales' album cover reviewed in The Australian, October 2014This Melbourne-based three-piece trades in sharp-edged, dark-humoured rock ‘n’ roll, and its second album is a fine extension of its superlative debut. The Peep Tempel’s world is populated by broken and desperate men, and by peeling back layers of the male psyche the trio has collected another memorable set of songs. Loneliness, desperation and jealousy course through the veins of the characters inhabited by singer-guitarist Blake Scott.

    Six of the album’s 11 track titles contain first names, while plenty more pop up in the verses. This direct approach to songwriting works in the band’s favour: rather than taking the well-trodden path of keeping things vague to appeal to wide audiences, the Peep Tempel homes in on its lyrical targets with clinical precision. The listener thus becomes a neutral bystander asked to pick sides. It’s a curious and powerful effect best captured on first single ‘Carol’, where amid an urgent beat and stinging guitar tones Scott sings: “I don’t want to be so sanctimonious, I don’t want to be such a negative jerk / But I’m the one who’s been helping you through the divorce, Carol”.

    This emphatic plea of a rejected lover is an addictive listen, captured in four minutes — “I don’t think Trevor is good for you, Carol!” — and the album’s highlight, though the threatening mood and rollicking rhythm of third track ‘Big Fish’ comes close. (Sample lyric: “Take a beer from the fridge, have a seat, Danny / Your Jackie’s been telling tales”). With Tales, the Peep Tempel has improved its songwriting smarts while amping up the tension.

    LABEL: Wing Sing Records
    RATING: 4 stars

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

    Four reviews published in The Weekend Australian in September 2014.

    Richard In Your Mind – Ponderosa

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

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

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

    LABEL: Rice Is Nice
    RATING: 3.5 stars


    Royal Blood – Royal Blood

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

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

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

    LABEL: Warner
    RATING: 3 stars


    Die! Die! Die! – S W I M

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

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

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

    LABEL: Black Night Crash
    RATING: 3 stars


    Velociraptor – Velociraptor

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

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

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

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

    LABEL: Dot Dash/Remote Control
    RATING: 4.5 stars

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

    Three reviews published in The Weekend Australian in August 2014.

    Hilltop Hoods – Walking Under Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    LABEL: Golden Era/UMA
    RATING: 3 stars


    Firekites – Closing Forever Sky


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

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

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

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

    LABEL: Spunk
    RATING: 4 stars


    Shihad – FVEY

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

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

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

    LABEL: Warner
    RATING: 4 stars

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

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

    Scott Spark – Muscle Memory

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

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

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

    RATING: 4 stars


    Sia – 1000 Forms of Fear

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

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

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

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

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

    LABEL: Monkey Puzzle/Inertia
    RATING: 4 stars


    Jonathan Boulet – Gubba

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

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

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

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

    LABEL: Popfrenzy
    RATING: 3.5 stars

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

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

    Future Islands – Singles

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

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

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

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

    LABEL: 4AD/Remote Control
    RATING: 4 stars


    Astronomy Class – Mekong Delta Sunrise

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

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

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

    LABEL: Elefant Traks
    RATING: 4.5 stars


    DZ Deathrays – Black Rat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    LABEL: I Oh You
    RATING: 3.5 stars

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

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

    The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    LABEL: Inertia/Secretly Canadian
    RATING: 5 stars

  • 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.


    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.

    RATING: 4 stars


    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


    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


    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 story: ‘Tales Of The City’, August 2010

    A story for The Weekend Australian’s Review: a profile of Brisbane author and journalist Matthew Condon [pictured below], framed around his latest book, Brisbane. An excerpt from the published story is below.

    Brisbane author and journalist Matthew CondonTales of the City

    by Andrew McMillen

    Matthew Condon’s literary ‘love letter’ to Brisbane is set to reignite debate about the Queensland capital’s historical origins.

    HOW does one write a book that captures a whole city? This is the question that confronted Queensland writer Matthew Condon, who describes the opportunity to write Brisbane, the second book in publisher NewSouth’s series devoted to Australian capital cities, as the “singular most simplistic, liberating brief that I’ve ever received”.

    Commissioning editor Philippa McGuinness told Condon to approach the book any way he wished, “which on the one hand is brilliant”, says the author, “but on the other, when you come down to writing [it], trying to put your arms around an entire city, it was very difficult. I deliberated for months and months: how do you go about it? Then I decided that it really is impossible to do it thoroughly. It would be endless. The city is organic. It’s constantly shifting and changing. So I had to give myself limitations.”

    Eventually, Condon decided to ground his book in an examination of the location where explorer John Oxley first landed on the Brisbane River in 1824. “I decided, ‘Look, I’m going to go to where X marks the spot, where Oxley came ashore. That’s the Caucasian history of the city. I’ll start there, and I’ll see where it takes me’.” Notebook and camera in hand, the author visited the granite monument. Located at North Quay, which was erected to celebrate the centenary of Oxley’s landing, he says “it’s possibly the most unimaginative foundation stone of any city in the Western world . . . I stood there with the traffic roaring on both sides, and something about it struck me as wrong.”

    Full story available on The Australian’s website.

    If you have any interest in the story behind the Queensland capital, I highly recommend checking out Condon’s Brisbane.

    This was a particularly enjoyable feature to write, as Matthew is one of my favourite feature writers – I hold his work for The Courier-Mail’s QWeekend magazine in high regard.

  • Discussing ‘Lonesome Highway’

    Let me tell you about ‘Lonesome Highway‘, my first feature for The Weekend Australian‘s ‘Review’ arts + culture lift-out. The story – which you should read (or glance at) here before continuing – discusses the challenges faced by Australian country musicians in 2010.

    'Lonesome Highway' by Andrew McMillen, The Weekend Australian Review, 6 February 2010

    I spent the week beginning Monday, 18 January 2010 playing the part of ‘freelance writer without work’. I was pitching stories every day, and none of them were sticking. By Friday – after alternating between liaising with editors, and catching up with some friends in the Brisbane music scene – all I had was an approval to interview a hip-hop act for an online publication.. who don’t pay for online content, as I learned soon thereafter.

    Earlier that week, I’d sent a Dirty Three/Laughing Clowns tour-related pitch to the editor of the Weekend Australian’s ‘Review’ arts and culture lift-out. I’d been email-introduced to her by a helpful fellow editor at The Australian a few months ago, when I was pitching the idea of a story around the Robert Forster book launch/conversation at Avid Reader. (That one didn’t stick either, obviously.)

    Fevered as I was in my determination to get a story idea – any story idea! – accepted, I sent that D3/Clowns pitch and promptly forgot about it. I’d prefaced it with a reminder stating that I’m a writer for Rolling Stone, jmag, etc, and that we’d last emailed in November.

    At 4pm on Friday, 22 January – generally despondent, after a week of work with few returns – the editor of ‘Review’ called me. That’s 5pm local time from her office in Sydney, owing to daylight savings.

    “I’ve got a problem,” she began.

    “Oh?” I replied, wondering a) what I might have done to cause a problem, and b) whether I could perhaps solve said problem.

    “I need a story on Australian country music following the conclusion of this year’s Tamworth Country Music Festival. My regular music writer’s just gone on leave. Would you feel comfortable taking on this story?”

    I paused for several seconds. “…you know I’m mostly a rock writer, right? For Rolling Stone, and stuff?”

    She confirmed, and reiterated the question. The story was due on Wednesday; as in, five days’ time. Word length unspecified; it could be 1,200, or it could be 2,000. I inhaled, and accepted the challenge.

    Immediately I pictured myself frantically pushing a library ladder around towering bookshelves that represent the contact details of everyone I’ve ever met. “Which of these people knows something about country music?” I yelled, in my mind. I sure didn’t.

    In a gesture that would be repeated throughout the time I spent researching, writing and editing the story, the editor took her time to provide me with some suggested paths of research, historical background, and narrative guidance.

    As soon as I hung up, I emailed dozens of my contacts within the music industry, searching for anything resembling a lead with regard to country music-related interview subjects. I put the call out on to my friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter. And for the first time, I used a site called SourceBottle, which allows journalists to request sources within a wide range of industries and subject matters.

    To my surprise, helpful responses began appearing in my inbox as fast as I could send out requests. My contacts introduced me to experts on the subject. My friends on social networks tipped me off to artists and their managers. And SourceBottle delivered some great offers from watchful PR professionals, who were keen to have their clients represented in a story.

    So began a crash course in researching the current players in Australian country music. I read stories filed from the Tamworth festival by The Australian’s regular music writer, Iain Shedden, who I’d interviewed a few months earlier for One Movement Word. I wrote an outline of what I planned for the story to cover, and warmed up with some phone conversations over the weekend. I spent Monday on the phone to country musicians, radio announcers, artist managers, alt-country artists, schoolteachers, historians and record label staff.

    All told, I conducted 18 interviews, throughout which I scribbled notes in preparation of listening back to the recorded audio. Tuesday – the 26th, Australia Day – was spent shaping what I’d learned from the experts into a coherent story.

    While interviewing, a frequently-recurring topic prompted me to pay more attention to the apparent dearth of  media opportunities available to country musicians. Ultimately, this would become the focal point of the story: what was imagined as a mere discussion on where the genre stands in 2010 morphed into a sympathetic piece highlighting the many challenges faced by country performers. As stated in the story, these are related to image, airplay opportunities, marketing, media attention, and even differences within the community.

    I submitted my first draft at 4am the next morning. Upon review, my editor suggested that a couple of follow-up quotes were required from Troy Cassar-Daley to describe the genre in his own words. And somewhere between fact-checking and quote-verifying, I’d forgotten to tighten the narrative structure, so my editor reshaped the piece to improve its flow.

    Upon confirming her final edit, the biggest story of my career was out of my hands. It wouldn’t appear in print for 10 days. (The cover from the February 6 issue of ‘Review’ is below right.)

    The Weekend Australian 'Review', February 6 2010It was the most exhilarating journalistic experience of my life. Five days focussed on researching and synthesising the story of a centuries-old art form into around 2,000 words. What a challenge. I’m so glad I accepted it. It even resulted in my first live-to-air radio interview for ABC Mid-North Coast the day before the story was published. (At the time of writing this, I’ve not yet listened back to it, owing to embarrassment…)

    In a way, the whole experience – the initial unexpected, but not unplanned-for phone call, the willingness on the editor’s part to take a chance with me – justified the time and effort I’ve dedicated to my writing since I changed my mindset and became serious about pursuing it as a career.

    Looking back, it seems that this occurred sometime in June 2009. I’m simply thrilled that eight months later, I’ve been published in The Weekend Australian, one of the country’s biggest newspapers. Awesome. If you have any questions relating to this story, I’ll try to answer them in the comments.

    Thanks to the following people who helped with the story.

    Interview subjects: Troy Cassar-Daley, Adam Harvey, Graeme Connors, Amber Lawrence, Anne Kirkpatrick, Joy McKean, Felicity Urquhart,  Luke Austen, Chris Pickering, Roz Pappalardo, John Elliott, Geoff Walden, Nick Erby, Bill Page, Aneta Butcher, Cheryl Byrnes, and Scott Lamond.

    Contact sources, miscellaneous inspiration: Stephen Green, David Carter, Craig Spann, Deb Suckling, Ed Guglielmino, Rick Chazan, Nick O’Byrne, Alison Brown, Dan Stapleton, Deborah Jones, Rachael Hall, Tim Lovett, Blair Hughes, Paul & Deb McMillen, and Matt Weller.