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  • The Vine interview: Gareth Liddiard of The Drones, February 2013

    An interview for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    The Drones: “I’m not addicted to love”

    Gareth Liddiard of The Drones, interviewed by freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, February 2013

    It’s a busy time for Melbourne rock band The Drones – or so I thought. When singer/guitarist Gareth Liddiard (main photo, far left) calls in early February, their sixth studio album I See Seaweed is less than a month away from release, and the second All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP) festival to take place in Australia – curated by Liddiard and his bandmates – is but a fortnight away. Yet the singer is lazily strolling around at his home in the Victorian bush, oil can in hand, searching for strong mobile phone reception. A picture of calm.

    I’m being slightly disingenuous in this depiction, of course. Late in our half-hour interview, it emerges that Liddiard’s had little time to himself lately. While their ATP curating duties have long since finished – judging by what I hear today, it seems there’s little more required of The Drones beyond showing up next weekend, shaking some hands, plugging in, and playing some songs – completing I See Seaweed has been a full-time concern of late.

    It shows in the songs. I’ve played the eight-track album perhaps 25 times by the time Liddiard and I speak, and I’m convinced it’s a contender for their best yet. Our conversation contains in-depth discussion around songs that, at the time of writing, you won’t have heard. Album spoilers aside, Liddiard offers a typically expansive conversation that touches on space-bound canines, alternative ideas to programming festivals, The Drones’ newly-confirmed fifth member, and experimenting with topless photography.

    The lyrical themes of I See Seaweed are as varied as ever; it seems that nothing’s out of bounds for you. How do you decide what to write about?

    It’s more what not to write about. Some things are boring, and they’re done to death, so I steer clear of them, really.

    For example?

    Any sort of clichés. I don’t pick cotton; I’m not addicted to love. You know what I mean? Some things have been done before, so I try not to do that.

    I’m just trying to think whether I’ve ever heard a Drones love song before. I don’t think I have.

    There are love songs, but they’re not really obvious. It would be retarded if we did love songs, because I’d either get into trouble from the bass player [Fiona Kitschin, Liddiard’s partner] for being in love with someone who isn’t her, or if I wrote a love song about her, imagine me showing her the chords and telling her how to play it! That’s really wrong.

    Point taken. You mentioned avoiding clichés; has that always been something you’ve aimed to do? Has this changed since [2002 debut album] Here Come The Lies?

    I’ve always tried to avoid it, but I wasn’t always successful. I wasn’t always aware that some things were clichés. It’s self-awareness, that’s all. And being self-critical, I guess. Everyone has their blind spots, but you’ve got to work on those. Some people go, “check this out, man!” as if it’s some amazing thing, but they’ve just copied someone else. They have this enormous blind spot.

    I think the best example for all that is something like American Idol, or Australian Idol. There’s some severe fuckin’ blind spots going on there; people who aren’t self-critical at all. They think they’re good at what they do, but they’re not. If they just rationalised it – or if they used rational thought – they would see where they’re going wrong. But often that’s painful to do.

    I don’t find any clichés in your writing. Certainly not in the last few albums.

    Like anyone, I fuck up. I just try. I like it; it’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s like science. I’m sure a lot of scientists would be a wee bit striking [in their approach] when they initially put their hypothesis out there. People shoot ‘em down. But I’m sure there’s a large part of them that would be excited to see where they went wrong.

    It’s all about the truth; it’s getting close to the truth. They’re trying to find out what the hole is. I’m just trying to figure out what I’m capable of. I mean, I’ve got limits. I’m just using up everything within my limits to make music that’s interesting. Because I want to hear interesting music. That’s all that is.

    For the full interview, visit The Vine.

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, February 2013: PVT, Foals, My Bloody Valentine, Hungry Kids of Hungary

    Four album reviews for The Weekend Australian, published in February 2013.

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    PVT - Homosapien

    PVT - 'Homosapien' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, February 2013Three stylistic decisions have shifted Sydney act PVT – formerly known as Pivot – from a great band to a good one.

    Church with No Magic, from 2010, saw the trio add lyrics for the first time, largely abandoning guitar and bass in favour of synthesisers, and downplaying live drums in favour of electronic beats.

    Their fourth album, Homosapien, extends these three traits even further: the majority of the album is arranged and played electronically. Richard Pike retains the vocal duties he assumed on Church. His voice is powerful and well-suited to this music, but the content is dubious: many choruses consist only of one phrase, repeated.

    There are flashes of lyrical brilliance, as in the evocative first lines of ‘Electric’: “I left my heart on the railroad track, it’s still waiting for the next train/ I didn’t clock into work today, now all my work is in vain”). Pike’s brother, Laurence, is one of the most distinctive drummers in this country, yet his stick work here is either restrained or replaced by a drum machine.

    The band’s strength is in its electronic backbone, arranged by Dave Miller. The songs are clear, without many overdubs, and there are a handful of great moments: ‘Love & Defeat’, with wall-to-wall bass synths offset by a glorious, cutting melody, and the title track, which is the album’s only guitar-led track.

    The 2008 instrumental album O Soundtrack My Heart remains the band’s crowning achievement, a thrilling combination of rock muscle and electronic beauty. Homosapien is the sound of these three men running in the opposite direction, with mixed results.

    Label: Create Control
    Rating: 3 stars

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    Foals - Holy Fire

    Foals - 'Holy Fire' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, February 2013By merging dance-floor beats with finicky guitar theatrics on their 2008 debut album, Antidotes, this British band emerged with a singular vision.

    The result was one of the most compelling recent contributions to the math-rock subgenre. Total Life Forever (2010) saw the quintet leaning more towards indie pop, experimenting with atmospheric tricks, and pushing Yannis Philippakis’s voice higher into the mix; handy, as he has both striking tone and unique phrasing.

    Holy Fire finds the band consolidating this new-found pop aesthetic while accentuating the intricate percussive and guitar interplay that first set them apart. Still in their mid-20s, Foals are almost old hands at this game. Production by British duo Flood (U2, Smashing Pumpkins) and Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, the Killers) certainly works in the band’s favour, as the album sounds a million bucks.

    There’s plenty to like about the first two singles – the metallic chorus riffs of ‘Inhaler’ and the sheer joy of ‘My Number’, their poppiest song yet – but, like Total Life Forever, this is a collection to be enjoyed as a whole.

    Some of the band’s finest work appears on the second half: notably the stirring strings that run through ‘Milk & Black Spiders’ and the staccato bombast of ‘Providence’. Even long-favoured studio techniques, such as double-tracking and adding reverb to Philippakis’s vocals, continue to sound fresh against the innovative ideas laid down by his bandmates.

    Holy Fire opens with a storming, four-minute instrumental, ‘Prelude’, that works well as a statement of intent; the following 10 tracks do nothing to erode that mood. At a touch under 50 minutes, that’s quite an achievement.

    Label: Warner
    Rating: 4 stars

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    my bloody valentine - m b v

    my bloody valentine - 'm b v' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, February 2013It takes a long time to make music sound as good as m b v does. About 22 years, in fact.

    The last time my bloody valentine released new music was in 1991 and Loveless, the Irish quartet’s second album, remains the high-water mark of the “shoegaze” alternative rock movement.

    A thrilling listen from top to tail, Loveless contained some of the most unbelievable guitar sounds heard then or since. It’s had all sorts of adjectives thrown at it through the years but the most appropriate is “peerless”.

    And so, m b v, a nine-track album sneak-released online in early February, took by surprise many of the band’s fans.

    Topping the last effort is a practically insurmountable feat, yet this collection must inevitably be compared with the band’s last. So, in short: no, m b v isn’t quite as earth-shattering as Loveless, but it’s still very good, and well worth your attention.

    The guitar tone and phrasing are phenomenal: the second track ‘only tomorrow’ (the band insists that their name, album and song titles are all to be written in lower case) is one of the band’s finest creations, a real marvel of layering and repetition.

    As with Loveless, the drums, bass and vocals are all secondary in importance to the guitars, which sound so sharp they might cut you in half if you turn the sound up loud enough. And you should. The band’s entire existence is practically an exercise in volume control. ‘in another way’ is the best song here; a modern update to Loveless‘s classic final track, ‘Soon’, if you will.

    There’s only one disposable track, the synth-led ‘is this and yes’. The rest? Peerless, still.

    Label: Independent
    Rating: 4.5 stars

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    Hungry Kids Of Hungary - You’re A Shadow

    Hungry Kids Of Hungary - 'You're A Shadow' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, February 2013Hungry Kids of Hungary’s 2010 debut, Escapades, gave a strong portent of the songwriting and musical ability lurking within.

    To its credit, You’re a Shadow supersedes the Brisbane pop quartet’s debut in every way. The band’s greatest asset is that each member is a master of their instrument. There’s no weak link; no bassist playing tired lines, no drummer tapping out predictable beats. Every note is chosen for the purpose of serving the song.

    That may sound banal but in the context of indie pop it’s rare and remarkable to encounter such consistent innovation in the musicianship. For most bands, it’s enough to hit on a memorable vocal melody or guitar riff, and ride the hook out for three or four minutes. Not Hungry Kids.

    These 11 songs crackle with verve. It’s clear these four have thrown everything they have into You’re a Shadow and the results speak for themselves. There’s not a weak track here. At a touch under 40 minutes, it’s a lean collection but the ideas on display never outlast their welcome. This is another sign of the

    band’s maturity: don’t overplay, don’t overwrite, don’t oversing. Guitarist Dean McGrath and keyboardist Kane Mazlin share vocals and writing duties. Their first co-write, ‘When Yesterday’s Gone’, is the finest song here: a simply beautiful four-minute jam about mourning lost time. ‘Memo’ is a close runner-up; the way it segues flawlessly from the previous track ‘Colours’ is a nice touch, but the interplay between Ben Dalton’s bassline and Mazlin’s delicate key phrasing is spectacular. Indie pop music doesn’t get much better than this. Highly recommended.

    Label: Stop Start
    Rating: 4.5 stars

  • The Vine live review: Big Day Out Gold Coast, January 2013

    A festival review for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Big Day Out 2013
    Gold Coast, Parklands
    Sunday, 20 January 2013

    Big Day Out 2013 Gold Coat review by Andrew McMillen for The Vine. Photo credit:: Justin Edwards

    It’s comforting to walk back into these festival grounds. I’ve barely given this event a moment’s thought in the preceding months, yet I know instinctively that I’m in for an entertaining day. This is what the Big Day Out has been synonymous with for 20-plus years: putting on a reliably good fucking show. In last month’s Rolling Stone, festival co-founder Ken West said that if this year’s tour goes wrong, the game’s essentially over. No more BDO. Was he exaggerating? Shouldn’t that be the case every year: don’t sell enough tickets, don’t make enough money? Yet as the venue fills throughout the day—this show hasn’t sold out, though they seem to have come awfully close—the stakes seem, strangely, lower than ever. It’s an eclectic, strong line-up led by one of the most popular rock bands in the world. What could go wrong?

    Before we get there, though, there are ten or so hours of live music to experience. Some of it good, some of it not. triple j Unearthed winners Jakarta Criers fall firmly into the former camp. They’re not doing anything particularly fresh or original within the confines of rock music, but the songs are good. So’s the musicianship and stage presence. They combine ‘Wicked Game’, ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Gone Away’ into one mega-cover, which is a kinda cheap tactic but handled well, so the young Brisbane quartet score points. They play before several hundred applauding people today. I think they’ll be just fine. A career rock band in the making; a Birds Of Tokyo with balls, perhaps.

    Melbourne quartet ME are impressive, despite the bad band name. With a debut album out next week, they’re a tight live unit thanks a couple of years touring overseas. (An interesting take on the well-trodden path to indie rock success in this country.) If you’ve never heard of them, you’re forgiven: they’re playing the main stage, yet among the hundred or so initially paying attention to the band, it appears only a few dozen know what to expect. ME are an operatic rock band, essentially: somewhere near Queen and recent Muse — the four-piece write some of the most shameless arena rock you’ve ever heard. It’s awesome. It’s so transparent, what they’re doing, that you can practically see their internal organs. Yet it works so well. Falsetto vocals. Excellent guitar work. Powerhouse drumming. Good songs. I can’t look away from a chubby fat guy in a white shirt near the front, who spends a few minutes playing the most intense, unselfconscious air guitar I’ve seen. That dude sums ME up. You should check them out.

    Evil Eddie sucks terribly; real lowest common denominator stuff. Every Australian hip-hop fan discovers Butterfingers at some stage, and likely has a laugh at the funny/crude lyrics, but that shit’s just like the candy bar the band named themselves after: ultimately, bad for you. Eddie fronted Butterfingers, and he’s pulling the exact same shapes solo. It’s embarrassing; Australian hip-hop has come so far since Butterfingers were first amusing, yet here’s more of the same. He closes with two recent singles, ‘(Somebody Say) Evil’ and ‘Queensland’; the former is by far the worst thing I hear today. Just awful. I’ll note that there are hundreds of people jiving away before the Lilypad stage, so he’s evidently still mining fertile ground.

    Sampology, on the other hand, rules. I walk into the Boiler Room while he’s mashing up footage of the Wiggles in that fucking Coles ‘down down, prices are down’ ad while a much better song plays over the PA. That’s what the dude does: he DJs, skilfully, while cleverly-edited visuals play on the screen behind him. It’s compulsive viewing and listening; worth watching purely to see what he samples and mashes next. We dance while watching looped snippets of Free Willy and The Hangover, among loads of pop cultural touchstones that each get a cheer as they appear. Perfect festival fodder. Deserves a standing Big Day Out booking.

    The sum of my notes taken while watching Gary Clark Jr.: “CLASSIEST MOTHERFUCKER”. That’s really all there is to it. He’s a 28-year old Texan singer/guitarist who put out his major label debut in late 2012, Blak and Blu. Clark can sing, but it’s the guitar wailing we’re all here for. Fronting an incredibly tight four-piece band, Clark exhibits perfect guitar tone and phrasing. It’s such a pleasure to watch a master at work, and that’s just what Clark is. People keep throwing around the ‘H’ word in this context, referring to a legendary guitarist. It’s not really fair, but it’s basically true. This is one of the best sets I see today. All signs point to a healthy career shredding for a living, blowing minds like he does mine. If you get a chance to see this man play guitar, don’t hesitate. Please.

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

  • The Vine feature: ‘A Guide To Cannabis Law In Australia’, December 2012

    A feature for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    A Guide To Cannabis Law In Australia

    “Marijuana Use Most Rampant in Australia,” read a New York Times headline in January 2012. Cannabis – marijuana, weed, pot, hash; whichever other name you prefer – remains the most widely used illicit substance in Australia today by a big margin. Approximately 1.9 million Australians aged 14 years and over have used cannabis at least once during the past year; more than a quarter of a million smoke cannabis every day, according to data compiled by the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC). Keep in mind, too, that these figures were taken as part of the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey; plenty more users were either unaccounted for, or chose to lie about their drug usage, so the true figures are probably even higher. This reality can be viewed one of two ways, depending on your personal politics.

    Either: it’s great that so many Australians enjoy the occasional puff, as its illegality is an arbitrary hangover from conservative generations past, and its negative effects are significantly less serious than those incurred by alcohol abuse or tobacco addiction.

    Or: it’s outrageous that so many Australians smoke up, as cannabis is a devil weed whose availability should be pushed further underground lest its psychological and subversive effects further corrupt otherwise sensible citizens.

    Illicit drug use is not a topic that attracts moderate views. Weaned on the powerful moralising of media sensationalism, political cowardice, and harsh words from the police force, many Australians are raised to believe that drugs are bad; the province of losers and law-breakers.

    Progressive views are slowly prevailing across the Western world, though, as many realise that the Nixon-led ‘war on drugs’ – which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011 – did very little to break the cycle of power, violence and addiction that has forever plagued illicit drug culture. (For a succinct primer on the topic, my brother Stuart McMillen recently published a 40-page comic, ‘War On Drugs’, which outlines why drug prohibition hasn’t worked.)

    Immediately following the 2012 Presidential Election results in November, cannabis users worldwide rejoiced at the surprising news that two states in the war-on-drugs heartland, Colorado and Washington, had voted to legalise recreational use under state law. Colorado users will be able to grow up to six plants; in Washington, users will buy from state-licensed providers, and the sale of cannabis will be taxed and regulated, much the same as alcohol and tobacco already is. If you’re over 21, the drug will be legal to sell, smoke and carry – as long as you don’t drive while high.

    Australian pot smokers wondered whether they might see a similar decision – if not soon, then at least in their lifetimes. TheVine snooped around on your behalf, with a view to determine Australia’s current cannabis laws on a state-by-state basis and look to its future legal status.

    Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, points out that Australian states don’t have ballot initiatives like the one that led to the recent weed votes; in fact, most US states don’t. “Australia will not see ballot initiatives on taxing and regulating cannabis like Colorado and Washington states,” Wodak tells TheVine. “Our cannabis reforms started in the 1980s in South Australia. We have had two decades of creeping liberalisation of our cannabis laws at the state/territory level. I think this process will accelerate now, but that it will still take a couple of decades before Australia taxes and regulates cannabis in all states and territories.”

    Legal weed in Australia? “It’s now inevitable,” continues Wodak. “There are so many contradictions and issues undermining cannabis prohibition. Sooner or later, the bosses of one or the other major [political] parties will realise that it is in their interest to get there first. But all social policy reform is slow.”

    To illustrate, Wodak points out that 2012 is the 40th anniversary of South Australia becoming the first state to begin reducing the emphasis on the criminal law in relation to homosexuality. Jailing someone on the basis of the sexuality is a social policy that looks completely abhorrent and archaic nowadays. “I might be wrong,” he says, “but I think taxing and regulating cannabis will be slow to happen in Australia, and we will first go through many stages of watering down our criminal laws.”

    So what is the current state of Australia’s cannabis possession laws? The answers might surprise you. As The New York Times put it earlier in 2012: “The prevalence of marijuana use in Australia is widely accepted, if not openly condoned, and at least three states have moved to decriminalise the possession of small quantities for personal use.”

    For the full story, visit The Vine.

  • The Vine interview: Maynard James Keenan of Puscifer, December 2012

    An interview with Maynard James Keenan for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Interview – Maynard James Keenan of Puscifer: “You can’t please everybody”

    Don’t ask about Tool. Don’t ask about A Perfect Circle. Definitely don’t ask when Tool’s next album – their first since 2006’s 10,000 Days – is due. These are the publicist-stated rules of engagement when interviewing Maynard James Keenan, frontman of those two bands and also Puscifer, a “multimedia project” that encompasses music, film, performance, wine and clothing, and has released two albums so far: 2007’s V Is For Vagina and 2011’s Conditions Of My Parole. Keenan is touring the Puscifer show outside of North America for the first time in February 2013, with three Australian theatre shows booked around his commitments with A Perfect Circle at Soundwave Festival.

    These interview restrictions open up lines of questioning largely outside of Keenan’s music, which has enthralled millions of hard rock fans since Tool’s first LP, Undertow, was released nearly 20 years ago. The singer owns and operates Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars in Arizona, where he’s lived for 17 years. Winemaking would be a gimmick – a distraction from his enormously popular musical outlets – if only Keenan wasn’t so damn serious about it. Multi-million dollar start-up costs aside, the business was built with a view to be sustainable, and Keenan says he has met this goal. A remarkable achievement, considering that Arizona had no wine reputation to speak of prior to Keenan’s involvement. Such is the pulling power of the man, perhaps, but it also helps that the wine is fantastic.

    Hello Maynard. Where are you calling from?

    The bunker. [At the Caduceus winery]

    Australia was the first country to import your wine: I’ve met the two guys behind [Caduceus wine importers] Sip & Listen here in Brisbane. I’m guessing that exporting was always on your list of goals, but were you surprised the Australian opportunity came up as soon as it did?

    I guess so. We don’t really have a lot of volume, so that we had enough to actually export was a surprise. It was good timing; we had a little extra.

    Australians will also be the first outside of North America to see Puscifer tour. Why is that? 

    The opportunity came up. It’s a tough project to get out of the country because of all the extra stuff we put into the performance. It had to be the right scenario, the right situation for us to be able to afford to do it.

    You said in [2010 documentary] Blood Into Wine that touring becomes more gruelling on your body as you get older. How do you take care of yourself, and your voice, while on the road these days?

    Just like anybody else would: just pace yourself, get good sleep.

    Is that different to what you were doing when you were touring in your 20s and 30s?

    Well, you know, back then you have a little more resilience, and you can kinda push it a little harder, move a little faster. You don’t necessarily have to pay attention to maintenance much.

    I get the impression that all of your musical output these days – touring, releasing music – is done primarily to fund your wine business. Am I way off the mark?

    Hmm… no. I think the touring is just because we like to play music and we like to perform. The wine business – it takes care of itself. Of course, there’s a lot of initial investment, from prior touring. I used a lot of that money to get it going, but that was instead of buying a Ferrari.

    So after the initial start-up cost, the ongoing costs aren’t so great?

    Yeah, I mean, it’s barely paying for itself, but it is sustaining itself. The point of even doing it was to establish a sustainable endeavour.

    Do you feel that reorganising your life around the wine business has had a positive effect on your art so far? 

    I would think so, yeah. It’s in tune with where I am. So if your art is, in theory, you expressing your take on the world, or your place in it, or your interaction with it, then I guess, yeah, it’s more in tune.

    Do you find it freeing to create music around the wine season, or restrictive?

    I haven’t really found anything that was restrictive. I kinda schedule things as I schedule ‘em. There’s a timing involved with harvest, so a lot of stuff has to take a backseat during that period of time, but it’s not like I’m writing every day.

    Which is more satisfying: completing a recording session, or finishing a wine harvest?

    I think they both stroke you in a different spot.

    For the full interview, visit The Vine.

    Further reading: my first interview with Maynard, in late 2010 ahead of Tool headlining the 2011 Big Day Out.

  • The Vine live review: Harvest Festival Brisbane, November 2012

    A festival review for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Harvest Festival
    Botanic Gardens, Brisbane
    Sunday 18 November 2012

    Arguably the hardest part of arranging a music festival is securing a headline act so superior that they simply can’t be followed. For the second year in a row, Harvest has achieved this. Sigur Rós are a delight: challenging, brave, and pure. Like Portishead last year, their main stage set is a sterling example of how to end a day filled with remarkable music. It’s a true spectacle, carefully structured to include peaks and troughs and the band work at eliciting a wide spectrum of emotions. There’s a real art to this, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by the thousands gathered before the Riverstage: a silent and attentive audience hangs on every note played.

    Before meeting the day’s peak, though, we find ten hours of solid entertainment bisected by a half-hour break in proceedings, owing to a storm cell menacing inner-city Brisbane. Organisers make the seemingly rash decision to evacuate the entire festival grounds – the first time I’ve heard of this happening in Brisbane – but in hindsight it’s a good call, at least from a public liability perspective. Hail and heavy rain lash the Botanic Gardens while thousands seek cover within the neighbouring university grounds, trading cigarettes and stories.

    During the storm I stand beneath a QUT building, adjacent to a construction site filled with plenty of objects which could easily become deadly in high winds. That doesn’t eventuate, though, and we’re all invited back inside at 6.30pm. A voice from the Windmill Stage coaxes us, urging us not to run, telling us that there’s room for everyone. Indeed. The situation is handled smoothly and professionally, all things considered.

    It rains intermittently throughout the day, starting one song into The War On Drugs’ set. This is not particularly interesting; most of the crowd came prepared with ponchos, given that the city was assaulted by severe storms the day before. (I won’t mention the weather again. Promise!) I love War on Drugs’ stage manner: the Philadelphia indie rock four-piece are calm, unpretentious and confident – it appears that nothing else concerns them right now. Their positive attitude is contagious. How much of the crowd is here because of their name alone? There seems to be few serious fans among the hundreds watching, yet they’re met with wide applause. They comply with a request for ‘Buying The Farm’from diehards down the front; in the closing moments, frontman Adam Granduciel removes and retunes a broken guitar string in 90 seconds flat. I’m impressed. It’s a strong start to the day.

    The Dandy Warhols are suited to the main stage when playing their singles, mostly taken from Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia; when indulging in slower, lesser-known material – including three plodders from 2012 release This Machine - they’re less appreciated. It’s a balance between crowd-pleasing and pleasing themselves, I guess. Their June 2011 show at The Tivoli was one of the best I saw last year. This feels a little flat in comparison. Silversun Pickups do too: the bass is nearly inaudible for the first few songs, Brian Aubert’s guitar parts are a little sloppy, yet his voice is spot-on. Drummer Chris Guanlao windmills his hair throughout the entire set, which draws material from their three albums. I’m a big fan of this band – Neck Of The Woods is one of my most-played albums of this year – but this performance feels far from their best. They namecheck Valley Fiesta, where Aubert tells us they played their first show outside of the US in 2007, and end strongly with ‘Lazy Eye’.

    Mike Patton is at home on the main stage, leading an orchestra through Italian pop songs. It’s a highlight because it’s so different from every other performance today. The Mondo Cane album is fantastic, and it’s a pleasure to see Patton working the songs in person, ever the genial frontman. The music is elegant, majestic, and all of those adjectives. It’s great that Harvest decided to book them: it wouldn’t have been cheap to hire, rehearse and tour that orchestra, nor is there a huge audience on the hill watching it take place. But damn, it’s fantastic. The Black Angels played a blinder headline set at The Hi-Fi last year, yet their performance on the smaller Big Red Tractor Stage is no knockout. While they play, I think about the quality of the Harvest 2012 line-up, and how there are few overlapping genres. This Austin-based psychedelic rock act play it cool, showing little emotion or enthusiasm before the hundreds-strong crowd. “You guys have been great,” singer Alex Maas says at the end of their set, and it’s hard to tell if he’s being serious.

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

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, November 2012: Spencer P. Jones, Crystal Castles

    Two album reviews for The Weekend Australian, published in November.

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    Spencer P. Jones and The Nothing Butts - Spencer P. Jones and The Nothing Butts

    For Australian rock fans, this supergroup is a match made in heaven: two members from Beasts of Bourbon and two from The Drones combining to make a beautiful racket.

    On the group’s self-titled debut, the best of both bands can be heard: smart lyricism, enviable energy, finely tuned ears for melody and fantastic guitar sounds.

    Drones leader Gareth Liddiard doesn’t sing here, but his sonic fingerprints are all over these nine tracks: spiralling natural harmonics, whammy-bar flexes and overwhelming klaxon-call effects in the coda of ‘Freak Out’. Removed from the context of his masterful songwriting – Jones is the only lyricist here – it’s apparent exactly how exceptional and valuable Liddiard’s guitar playing is: no other rock guitarist in the world sounds like he does. The noise is enthralling.

    ‘When He Finds Out’ is the centrepiece, filled with unsubtle innuendo and stretched across eight gripping minutes: “Blood is thicker than water, your father screams and shouts / I shudder to think what he’ll do when he finds out,” sings Jones, while James Baker’s hi-hat bounces out an uneasy rhythm and Fiona Kitschin’s sparse bass notes add to the mystique. There’s no humour here, just unresolved tension: the extended guitar freak-out is effectively a stand-in for a violent confrontation. Fearsome stuff.

    Elsewhere, titles such as ‘When Friends Turn’ and ‘Duplicity’ hint at the headspace Jones was in while writing. Not a second is wasted: at 39 minutes, the album feels tantalisingly brief and demands repeated listens. This is an absorbing and cathartic collection of songs performed by four accomplished musicians. Not to be missed.

    Label: Shock
    Rating: 4.5 stars

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    Crystal Castles - III

    The third full-length album released by this young Canadian electronic duo lacks the immediate sonic punch that made their first two albums such compelling listens.

    It’s their darkest set yet, but that isn’t such a bad thing. It shows that producer Ethan Kath and vocalist Alice Glass seek artistic growth, and that they’re not content to stay within their comfort zone.

    With their 2008 self-titled debut, Crystal Castles emerged with a fully formed sound that merged synth-led pop ideals with ugly, distorted chiptune sounds, born from Kath’s experimentation with bending circuitry. The music they produced was unique four years ago and remains so.

    As with previous releases, the vocals on III often take on an eerie quality, as Glass rarely sings without the aid of pitch-shifting effects. Those few phrases that are allowed to penetrate through the wash of sound are stark and blunt: “Catch a moth, hold it in my hand / Crush it casually,” she sings sweetly on ‘Affection’, yet the song ends with a cold, cyborg-like voice stating: “We drown in pneumonia, not rivers and streams.”

    This merging of man and machine seems to be one of Crystal Castles’ main goals and they’re bloody good at it; most of the time there’s little sense that human beings had a hand in creating this work. They did, of course, and they undoubtedly worked hard, yet III gives off no sense of struggle. This isn’t their most accessible release – that is 2010′s II – but it’s still a fine extension of their effortless sound, at once beautiful and ugly; intentionally flawed, yet polished to near-perfection.

    Label: Shock
    Rating: 3.5 stars

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, October 2012: Collarbones, Tame Impala, The Key Of Sea

    Three album reviews for The Weekend Australian, published in October.

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    Collarbones – Die Young

    What we have here is an original and compelling take on pop music viewed through the lenses of electronica, R&B and hip-hop.

    Duo Collarbones – Adelaide-based Travis Cook, and Sydney local Marcus Whale – don’t care much for genre constraints. It’s the best thing they’ve got going for them. Musical innovation is truly rare; there’s no one in Australia writing material like this. Their point of difference is technology-enabled: each track is built on intricate collages of instrumental samples cut, copied and pasted on laptops. Whale’s voice, by turns soulful and ethereal, narrates these stark soundscapes.

    It’s a concept album, of sorts: the lyrics focus on adolescent love and fallen pop idols. The title track is a fine example of the unconventional Collarbones songwriting style: over a lazy backbeat, what sounds like stringed instruments are sped up, slowed down and mashed together to beguiling effect. A verbose verse by Melburnian rapper HTML Flowers contrasts well against Whale’s clear voice.

    The following track, ‘Too Much’, is backed by Cook’s booming, bass-heavy beat; Whale unironically embraces a big, melodic, 1990s-era boy band-style chorus. It could easily be a radio hit. The approach would be a gimmick if the songs weren’t so good.

    The duo’s debut album, last year’s Iconography, was an intriguing introduction but an unsatisfying collection in whole: too many half-sketched ideas, too few proper songs. Die Young is a fully realised follow-up, one that sees the pair living up to their potential. It may be one of the stranger pop albums you’ll hear this year, but you won’t regret your time spent with these 10 fine tracks.

    Label: Two Bright Lakes

    Rating: 4 stars

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    Tame Impala - Lonerism

    The trouble with releasing a killer debut album is that it’s much harder to impress with the follow-up.

    This is the situation in which Perth-based quartet Tame Impala finds itself, two years after Innerspeaker, a standout collection of retro-tinged rock songs written and produced almost entirely by singer Kevin Parker.

    That formula hasn’t changed on Lonerism: the young maestro again handles vocals and all instrumentation (in concert, he’s assisted by three bandmates). The main point of difference is that these 12 tracks were recorded in several locations while the band toured the world. And it shows: compared with Innerspeaker‘s lush, enveloping production, there’s much less cohesion between ideas here.

    Stylistically, Parker has added swaths of synthesisers to Tame Impala’s celebrated psychedelic rock tones. These sounds fill out the space between intricate basslines, clattering percussion, psychedelic guitars and Parker’s spaced-out, aloof voice. Heavy piano chords form the basis of first single ‘Apocalypse Dreams’, while follow-up ‘Elephant’ is built on a pulsating rhythm that leads into a glorious, snaking guitar solo.

    Although Innerspeaker was stacked with stand-out tracks, the same can’t be said for Lonerism, which contains just a handful; ‘Mind Mischief’ and ‘Keep on Trying’ are among the best here.

    There’s the aforementioned trouble again: once a reputation for strong songwriting has been established, anything less than great is disappointing. Lonerism doesn’t elicit that particular emotion — it’s a good record, after all — but it does hint at better things to come. With Parker’s brilliant imagination, musical abilities and resourcefulness, it seems that anything’s possible.

    Label: Modular

    Rating: 3.5 stars

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    Various Artists - The Key Of Sea Volume 2

    Some might say rock musicians are more readily associated with egotism than altruism, yet this collection is the second in a series that seeks to buck that stereotype.

    By pairing well-known Australian artists with refugee musicians, the project’s organisers, civil rights advocate Hugh Crosthwaite and Nick O’Byrne from the Australian Independent Record Labels Association, hit on a winning idea with the release of Key of Sea Volume 1 in 2010.

    Like its predecessor, Volume 2 is a fine snapshot of contemporary Australian music. Pop, rock, hip-hop, jazz and folk musicians rub up against one another; disparate musical ideals working in tandem towards a common goal of sharing untold stories.

    The Australian collaborators are names Triple J listeners will recognise, with a handful of elder statesmen (Paul Kelly, Kim Salmon, David Bridie) thrown in. The refugee collaborators add their cultural influences to each composition: traditional Kurdish stringed instruments, bouzouki and Filipino choir masters all make delightful appearances.

    Darwin-based electronic soul duo Sietta teams with Pacific Island group Sunameke on ‘Open Hands’, which explores the concept of mixed races and cultural diversity; at the other end of the musical and thematic spectrum, Salmon pairs with radio presenter Waleed Aly to write ‘No One Cares’, a noisy rock tune with sardonic lyrics featuring the bureaucratic doubletalk associated with seeking asylum in this country.

    All 11 songs work well: there are a couple of bona fide pop hits in ‘Silence of the Guns’ (led by Jinja Safari) and Clubfeet’s ‘Islands’. The diversity of sounds and stories is reason enough to lend your ears to The Key of Sea. That the songs are compelling and polished is a bonus.

    Label: MGM
    Rating: 3.5 stars

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘Gaysia’ by Benjamin Law, September 2012

    A book review for The Weekend Australian, published on 8 September 2012. The full review appears below.

    Revealing journey through gay Asia

    After exploring his upbringing in the 2010 comic memoir The Family Law, Benjamin Law turns to another topic close to his heart. An Australian of Chinese ancestry, he sets out to explore attitudes to homosexuality in seven Asian countries.

    Gaysia is Brisbane-based Law’s first attempt at book-length journalism and it consolidates him as one of the most surprising and entertaining voices in Australian nonfiction writing.

    On the first page, he writes: “Of all the continents, Asia is the gayest.” Given it’s populated by close to four billion people, he goes on, “doesn’t it stand to reason that most of the world’s queer people – lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and transsexual folk – live in Asia too, sharing one hot, sweaty landmass and filling it with breathtaking examples of exotic faggotry?”.

    This balancing of of blunt humour and interesting information is one of Law’s strengths. Each chapter deftly combines reportage with historical facts.

    For example, Law strips off at a clothing-optional gay resort in Bali while interviewing the owner, who discovered this gap in the tourism market in the 1990s. The result is a strong narrative with one foot in the present, the other in the past.

    Given the topics at hand – nude resorts, prostitution, Thai ladyboy beauty contests, to name three – there’s lots of room for graphic descriptions, and Law revels in it. He’s clearly at home writing about our sexual urges and bodily functions.

    From male hookers in Burma begging him to share his penis size to witnessing an awkward threesome through his neighbours’ curtains, he has masses of material to work with.

    There is a serious side to Law’s investigations. The Burma chapter is particularly affecting. Law interviews widely while exploring the prevalence of HIV. The final anecdote is brutal: a desperate, 22-year-old prostitute – who had no knowledge of the virus until she tested positive – asks Law whether he can help her. To the author’s shameful realisation, his answer is no.

    Gaysia is more a window on to a troubled world than a travelogue. The stories Law tells, the problems he discusses, are ones rarely explored in-depth by the Australian media. Some solutions are simple – cross-cultural sex education and widespread distribution of condoms, for example – yet many are not.

    Much of the tension in this book comes down to differing social mores. In Japan, where drag queens are a constant fixture on television, Law notes that “so much of queerness seemed to be a performance for straight people”.

    Yet he contends few seem to understand that homosexuals exist in reality, away from TV cameras. “As long as they’re invisible, they’ll be tolerated,” a gay bar owner tells him.

    Several chapters highlight those who view homosexuality as a “bad mental habit”, to quote Baba Ramdev, a yoga instructor whose Indian followers number more than 80 million people.

    In recent times in China, homosexuals were prescribed self-flagellation techniques (a rubber band on the wrist, to be snapped whenever a homosexual thought was had) electroconvulsive therapy and even, in one sad case, a cocktail of conflicting psychotropic drugs that resulted in irreversible neurological damage.

    Law presents these instances of misunderstanding, persecution and outright homophobia matter-of-factly, without drawing his own conclusions.

    In Malaysia he meets Christian and Muslim fundamentalists who treat homosexuality as “an affliction that can be cured”. When questioned by them, Law plays the neutral journalist, perhaps a little too well: he doesn’t reveal his sexual identity.

    Yet by keeping quiet and quoting his sources faithfully, Law certainly gives them enough rope.

    Highlights of this book include Law’s account of the madly detailed lengths Chinese lesbians go to when arranging fake marriages, so as to please parents on both sides; his immersion in the hysteria surrounding an annual ladyboy beauty contest watched by 15 million Thais; and a chance meeting with an excitable yet closeted Indian man on a 30-hour cross-country train trip. (Law generously transfers his gay porn stash to his new friend’s laptop.)

    Gaysia is a book of powerful, enlightening stories on a fraught topic, told with care, empathy, grace and good humour.

    Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East
    By Benjamin Law
    Black Inc, 288pp, $29.95

     

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, September 2012: The Presets, We All Want To, Sugar Army

    Three album reviews for The Weekend Australian, published in September. The first is a feature review of 490 words; the other two are regular 260-worders.

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    The Presets - Pacifica

    Four years between albums is plenty of time for younger competitors to snatch the crown from Australia’s electronic music kings.

    The Presets’ top spot was earned after 2008′s Apocalypso, which spawned multi-platinum sales, ARIA awards and one world-conquering single in ‘My People’.

    Now in their mid-30s, Sydney-based Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes have exchanged nightclubs for parenthood. One may assume they’ve lost touch with the culture that spawned this synth-and-drums duo and their stunning 2005 debut, Beams.

    All doubts are vanquished within the first few bars of the first single, ‘Youth in Trouble’. The six-minute track is built on an insistent bass pattern, on top of which Hamilton – in typical piss-taking vocal style – parodies the media-led hand-wringing on behalf of Australian parents.

    “Up out all night in bright-lit wonderland . . . With a music taste abominable / Man, I’m worried sick for youth in trouble.” The layered irony is wonderful: moments later, the track fills with the kind of electronic noise and subterranean bass that’d piss off parents when played loud. As it should be.

    This track is a departure from the clear, concise vocal hooks that have characterised the Presets’ past hits. It’s a perfect album opener because Pacifica bears little resemblance to their previous two releases. These 10 tracks are more electronica than dance music; to use an obvious party-drug analogy, it’s more 5am comedown than 1am peak. At first, Pacifica‘s incongruity is a tough pill to swallow.

    The lack of obvious singles is troubling — the sea-shanty-like ‘Ghosts’ is the most accessible track here — as is the apparent dearth of vocal and melodic hooks. This jars with popular understanding of who the Presets are, and what they represent. It takes me about six listens to accept this record for what it is, not what it could have been if they had continued to follow their own songwriting formula. Impatient, dismissive fans will miss out on the Presets’ most accomplished and mature album yet.

    Pacifica sees the pair bower-birding from a wide range of aural sources: shades of dance titans Underworld and Sonicanimation are occasionally detectable, as well as more modern electronic acts such as Crystal Castles and the Knife.

    The latter influence is particularly strong in track seven, ‘Adults Only’, which sees Hamilton pitch-shifting his vocals to a deep tone, as if trying to obscure his identity. This song is the album’s emotional and artistic peak; a punishing acid-house pastiche led by stuttering, hornet-swarm synths.

    Inspired by John Birmingham’s Leviathan, Hamilton’s dark lyrics take in Sydney’s murderous past and uncertain future: “Children don’t you know that we’re living in a city that’s built on bones?” he sings in the chorus; later, he mentions frail old ladies dying afraid and alone while surrounded by yuppies, small bars and coke.

    Ultimately, Pacifica is the sound of two men who understand Australian pop culture better than anyone. ‘Zeitgeist’ is a dirty word, but there’s no doubt the Presets have produced a record that sounds simultaneously of-the-moment and futuristic. The crown remains intact.

    LABEL: Modular/UMA
    RATING: 4 stars

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    We All Want To – Come Up Invisible

    This is a messy album in the best way possible. The music created by Brisbane four-piece We All Want To swings back and forth between charming indie pop and rock with jagged edges.

    Led by a pair of singer-guitarists in Tim Steward – who also fronted 90s-era Brisbane noise-pop act Screamfeeder — and Skye Staniford, the interplay between the two is the chief highlight here. Both are accomplished writers with a knack for clever wordplay and memorable melodies.

    They opt for some artistic decisions that simply wouldn’t work in less capable hands – like opening the album with a sprawling, seven-minute track that features an off-key recorder solo — yet these four pull off such curiosities with style. The band’s self-titled debut, released in 2010, was a solid set containing a pair of stand-outs in ‘Japan’ and ‘Back to the Car’.

    It’s a similar story here: special mentions belong to Steward’s compelling, life-spanning narrative in ‘Where Sleeping Ends’; and ‘Shine’ by Staniford, which begins with subdued instrumentation and ends with a whirlwind of beautiful harmonies. There are no ongoing lyrical themes to speak of, nor is there much sense of cohesion between these 11 tracks, but these absences don’t matter: there’s not a weak track here. This collection is accomplished, unpretentious and unassuming.

    We All Want To is no spring chicken. Steward has been playing live for more than two decades and this is the 11th album he has been involved in. Come Up Invisible is a nod to the virtues of banking on earned musical wisdom and experience.

    LABEL: Plus One Records
    RATING: 3 ½ stars

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    Sugar Army - Summertime Heavy

    Through change comes artistic progress. On its second album, Perth-based rock act Sugar Army has streamlined the sound out of necessity: the band’s bassist joined fellow Perth group Birds of Tokyo, reducing the quartet to a trio.

    Yet this departure has helped to hone Summertime Heavy into a set of compact, driving rock songs. Sugar Army’s 2009 debut, The Parallels Amongst Ourselves, was memorable but a touch overlong; half the tracks were great, the others less so.

    Here, the band has scaled back the atmospheric production in favour of muscular songwriting, and the results are impressive. Sugar Army’s sound evokes Los Angeles act Silversun Pickups in that the guitar phrasing, bass lines and drumbeats are all independently interesting.

    This clever musical interplay, coupled with Patrick Mclaughlin’s distinctive voice, ensures they’re a near-perfect unit. Mclaughlin has a unique turn of phrase, too: “Once the mind’s made up / Nothing comes in, and nobody gets out”, he sings in ‘Small Town Charm’, which nails the realities of some regional mentalities.

    In standout album closer ‘Brazen Young’ he continues his fascination with female-led narratives first noted on their debut. These are lean, well-written songs delivered forcefully and urgently.

    The band is versatile, too: the title track is built around a pretty acoustic guitar progression and a chanted motif (“Summertime heavy is taking its toll”), while the appearance of a wood block in ‘Hearts Content’ is both unexpected and welcome. As the Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster has said, the three-piece band is the purest form of rock ‘n’ roll expression. That holds true here.

    LABEL: Permanent Records
    RATING: 3 ½ stars