LIVE REVIEW: Beastwars @ Crowbar, Sydney

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Beastwars with Witchskull, Potion
Crowbar, Sydney
July 11th, 2019

Crowbar is quickly establishing itself as the home of Sydney’s metal and hard rock scene and tonight it hosted New Zealand’s finest metal band, Beastwars. They’ve just chalked up their first number one album, in the wake of breaking up, singer Matthew Hyde’s diagnosis and treatment of cancer, a reformation and the recording the devastating new album IV. In our review we described it as “a blistering, pummelling, cathartic battle cry of a record,” and the expectations were for a similarly brutal live performance.

Potion are a psych/stoner metal trio that know their way around mystical bedrock heavy riffing grooves. Song titles like ‘Dead Mountain’ give you an idea of the territory they inhabit. They do heavy and slow, fast and chugging with equal aplomb, getting the heads a shakin’ early.

Witchskull dialled back the clock to a more classic rock and metal sound. Sonically it was Ozzy fronting Motorhead with many of the songs pulled from their album of last year, Coven’s Will. A bassist that looked like a lumbering, menacing Rick Rubin and a guitarist/singer with the stature of Ronnie Dio owned the front of the stage, laying down tight, paint-peeling solos and rolling, monolithic bass lines. It was an impressive set that balanced and progressed old and newer styles as one.

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Beastwars are now four albums deep so they’ve got plenty to choose from when it comes to an hour-long setlist. They drew from all of their albums, giving a holistic overview of their churning, emotive and visceral metal and hard rock. What they do so well is channel everyone from The Melvins and Soundgarden through Kyuss and Neurosis and onto contemporaries such as Pallbearer. There’s an industrial sheen to their sound but at its core there’s a primitive and primal human howl.

C9F7B23D-7FB0-49AD-9350-E067D63C03ACFrontman Matthew Hyde is hard to take your eyes off. He’s in slow motion as he sways, conducts and conjures up spirits and demons with raised hands. He’s essentially in the eye of a sonic storm, that calm spot at the core, as the fury rages around him. All his energy, no doubt dented and damaged from everything he’s been through in recent times, is channeled through his lungs and larynx. Meditative, brooding, tension-building verses invariably open up like an arriving hurricane into choruses of lacerating, throat-shredding howls that scream desperation and vindication in equal amounts. Highlights of the set included ‘Mihi’, ‘Raise The Sword’, ‘Rivermen’ and more. At times some songs blended into a morass of sludge riffing and dense rhythms but the peaks were more plentiful than the valleys across their set. When the dynamics fell into place with the rock solid rhythm section and Clayton Anderson’s clinical yet full-blooded guitar playing, Hyde seemed to channel something otherworldly and intensely personal – and the power and impact was immense. 

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Beastwars proved they’re a band who know how to convert emotion into music with intensity and gravity, hitting the hearts and bodies of the generous crowd who bowed down before them.

Chris Familton

LIVE REVIEW: Herbie Hancock @ Sydney Opera House

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Herbie Hancock
Sydney Opera House, June 10th 2019

Herbie Hancock has been playing jazz onstage for nearly sixty years and even though this was his second show of the day in the Opera House’s Concert Hall, the septuagenarian seemed to have boundless energy as he took the audience through a spellbinding two hours of jazz fusion.

Hancock has always been one to evolve with the times and branch out from traditional be-bop jazz into soul, funk, classical and more. Tonight he was still sounding like he was channeling the future with a lineup of Lionel Loueke (electric guitar), James Genus (electric bass) and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) and himself on piano, synth and keytar. At one point he introduced a song as one he wrote in the ‘70s and as the audience cheered he added – “2070, I’m ahead of my time!”.

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The focus of the set was firmly on songs he wrote as technology was changing and electronic music was becoming established and often taking the lead in jazz, funk and soul music. Actual Proof was a real highlight. Hard funk and ridiculously virtuosic soloing from the band, especially Colaiuta on drums. What made the band so impressive was their ability to work as a cohesive, fluid and rhythm-based unit and then pull things back to spotlight individual solos that never outstayed their welcome. These were some of the finest players in the world yet there was very little ego emanating from the stage. Hancock was flashing grins and kicking out his leg from beneath the piano, clearly revelling in the musical interaction with his band. As he introduced them he seemed genuinely and humbly in awe of their talents.

Hancock himself divided his time between his various instruments, pacing himself before going deep on a solo, notes near flying off the keys in a blur of fingers, whether it was light, dancing runs or heavy, slamming chordal accents. He remains a dazzling and inventive player, still taking his music to thrilling and otherworldly places.  For the most part the set was upbeat and constantly in motion. A comparatively quieter moment came with the soulful Come Running To Me featuring Hancock’s synth-manipulated vocal adding yet another element to their sound.

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Late set highlights came in the form of two of his masterpieces and most recognisable compositions in Cantaloupe Island, recorded in 1964, and the closing future funk encore of Chameleon, from his 1974 album Head Hunters. Hancock took centre-stage with his keytar, swapping solos with Loueke and at the age of 79, leaving the stage with an airborne jump to signal the final note as the audience rose to their feet in unison. 

This was no artist playing it safe at the tail-end of his career, this was a celebratory night of music and creative spirit par excellence, from a true innovator and legend of modern music.

Chris Familton

LIVE REVIEW: Khruangbin @ Metro Theatre, Sydney

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Khruangbin, Harvey Sutherland
Metro Theatre
14 March 14th, 2019

by Chris Familton

This was a night of very few voices given that both acts on the bill were primarily instrumental trios. It was the music that did the talking and it transformed the Metro into a wall-to-wall sea of bodies-in-motion and conjured up a celebratory vibe in the room.

Harvey Sutherland, the self-described funk-synthesist, was up from Melbourne to open the show and by the end of the first song he’d won over the audience with his blend of soul, funk, house, disco and of course the aforementioned funk. The rhythm section were quite astonishing in their fluidity and precision as they constantly found new ways to build rhythmic detail and dynamics into the music while Sutherland wove his cosmic keyboards into melodic dance floor excursions. It was an infectious set that brought to mind Steely Dan filtered through Jamiroquai.

Khruangbin have built their brand on a visual aesthetic that melds black, straight-fringed wigs with explosions of colour and choreographed stage moves delivered with a knowing half-smile and semi-detached cool. That was enhanced on stage with an excellent light show – simple, bold and dramatic utilising colour and shapes, much like the trio’s music, on this first of two sold out nights at the venue.

It quickly became clear that they’ve spend a lot of time and effort into structuring their sets so there is a balance of peaks and valleys, from the hard funk breakbeat of Maria También to the dreamy, sweet and soulful soft tones of Cómo Me Quieres. As a trio they balance each other out wonderfully. Laura Lee is often the most compelling focal point with her knee drops and hip swivels and constantly light-dancing bass-lines, while Mark Speer roams his side of the stage, also in endless motion as a player but with a kind of roving commission to explore all stylistic facets of his guitar, from psych rock solos to dub echoes and flurries of hyper-melodic Thai funk. Holding it all down and providing a framework for which to hang the songs on was drummer DJ Johnson, his playing channeling everything from hip hop breakbeats to James Brown and Portishead.

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Their breakthrough album Con Todo El Mundo provided a large portion of their set but there were also dips back into their debut The Universe Smiles Upon You, with White Gloves being a particular highlight and one of the only songs to feature all three on vocals. As the set progressed we got a strange interaction between Lee and a lonely looking green telephone which seemed kind of pointless and a successful attempt by Speer to get everyone in the room to introduce themselves to the person standing next to them.

Before the encore the entertainment factor peaked with a medley that saw seamless transitions between songs by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, A Tribe Called Quest, Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, and culminating in the crowd joining in on the chorus to Spandau Ballet’s True (via PM Dawn). 

What the trio showed was their ability to translate their music from the intimacy of their recordings to the live stage, where they balanced nuance with deep grooves, hypnotic and sensual rhythms, humour and exceptional musicianship.

LIVE REVIEW: Shihad @ Metro Theatre, Sydney

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Shihad, Young Lions, The Dead Love
Metro Theatre, Sydney
November 24th, 2018

Thirty years, damn… where did that time go. This writer recalls first seeing them open for The Angels in Auckland, New Zealand in 1990. Back then they were fresh-faced young lads, still in thrall to the thrash metal of Metallica and co and yet to embark on the ups and downs of their rock ’n’ roll career. Now of course they’re middle-aged statesman of Antipodean hard rock, a conduit between metal and melodic rock and most importantly, still performing as passionately and intensely as ever.

The Dead Love were up first, keeping things simple, rough and raw with their grunge punk that treads a nice line between unhinged rock and crossover melodic punk pop. At times their songs veered too close to catchy choruses of the anthemic hook kind but they know to ensure they keep enough throat shredding angst and anger in the mix to stop the songs sounding too cleaned up.

Young Lions on the other hand represent the worst of modern rock, when technology creeps in and bleaches out the rough edges and believable conviction in the music. In their frontman they have a singer who can certainly nail emo, hard rock and some cringeworthy rap moments but his self-belief was overcooked with over-the-top rock star moves and ventures into the audience. The music was generic alt-rock by numbers, Bono fronting Linkin Park, an Australian Idol facsimile of rock music.

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Shihad quite simply laid waste to what came before them. On a stage devoid of amplifiers and a sound that was blisteringly loud, heavy and perfectly balanced, they set about celebrating 30 years as a band with a set that began with Think You’re So Free from their most recent album FVEY and worked its way back, in chronological order to Factory from their debut Churn. 

It was a fascinating arc to experience as the four black-clad Kiwis accurately acknowledged their high-points and lesser successes. The General Electric (celebrating 20 years) supplied five songs, FVEY three, Shihad, Killjoy and Pacifier two apiece. The most commercial period spanned The General Electric and Pacifier albums and the near sold-out crowd were in full voice singing along to songs such as Comfort Me, Run and My Mind’s Sedate. As always Jon Toogood was the hype man and the tireless frontman, constantly inciting audience involvement with handclaps, sing-alongs, lit-up phones held aloft and unified jumping up and down. They’re all cliched rock moves but he does it well and all with his laconic, genial stage manner. 

As a band there are few that play tighter hard rock and honour the riff as diligently as Shihad, they’re a precision machine with a beating heart. In Toogood’s case, one that pumped blood in a stream down his arm as a result of frenetic guitar playing. Karl Kippenberger still works the stage, grinning at the audience like he’s bumping into old friends, Phil Knight is a study of six string wizardry while Tom Larkin is the glue and anchor that ties it all together. As they approached the tail end of the set things got darker with the magnificent thrum and throb of Deb’s Night Out, an absolutely brutal psych assault of You Again and the industrial tectonic riff of Factory from their debut album.

Shihad are essentially still doing what they’ve always done, entertaining their devoted fans with sensory overload at maximum volume. It’s fun, it’s life-affirming rock music and they’re still right at the top of their game, a claim that can be bestowed on very few bands after three decades of making music.

Chris Familton

LIVE REVIEW: The Goon Sax @ Petersham Bowling Club, Sydney

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The Goon Sax, Gregor, Married Man
Petersham Bowling Club
23 November 23rd, 2018

As The Goon Sax made a hurried dash from Newcastle after their flight from Brisbane to Sydney was curtailed, Married Man opened the evening of outside guitar pop music with a set that showcased the songs and voice of Sarafina Pea. Vocal effects were employed to songs that took in dream pop and post punk. It was blurred music with jagged edges courtesy of the rhythm section and in Pea, a voice that rises above the music quite impressively.

Gregor was up from Melbourne and like the headliners he too was celebrating his recently released album Silver Drop. If Married Man used the standard rock n roll components then Gregor (in duo format) delved further into the world of deconstructed pop songs by utilising a drum machine, endlessly inventive bass playing, washes of sound and deadpan vocals with filter-free diary-entry lyrics. It was a fascinating mix that took a few songs to adjust to but across a full set it all made total sense as sad confessional songs to dance to.

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The Goon Sax should probably have been playing a larger venue with a proper sound system, given that the show was sold out and the sound was under par. It was no fault of the sound-person but the drums weren’t mic’d and with drummer Riley Jones’ often light touch they lacked impact in the rhythmically driven songs. The bass was shortchanged as well, leaving the songs sounding a bit hollow and missing depth. All that aside, the band dug in and tore through a set that drew mostly from the new album We’re Not Talking but dipped into their debut, the super catchy Sweaty Hands a particular highlight. Sleep EZ, Make Time 4 Love and the Jones-sung Strange Light all stood out. 

As a band they clearly have the songs and have developed into a fascinating triptych of quirky and slightly awkward individuals (think Talking Heads) but the gnawing feeling still remains that Louis Forster needs to take the lead on more songs. There was a noticeable lift, clarity and drive in the songs that he helmed and the audience responded as a result. Jones’ vocal cameos were also a welcome addition to the set. In all this was a good show, not the best they’ve played in Sydney but good enough to warrant the acclaim and growing fanbase The Goon Sax continue to receive. 

Chris Familton

LIVE REVIEW: Power Trip @ Bald Faced Stag, Sydney

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Power Trip, Flaming Wrekage, Shackles
Bald Faced Stag, Leichhardt NSW, Australia
September 22nd, 2018

As legends of the thrash scene such as Slayer, play farewell tours, attention starts to shift to who will lead the next wave of metal. On the back of their acclaimed Nightmare Logic album, Power Trip are widely considered the reigning princes of a new breed of thrash. Accordingly it was no surprise to see sold out signs at their debut Sydney show.

Locals Flaming Wrekage took to the task of opening the evening with vigour and enthusiasm. They’ve been carving out a niche for close to decade now and that experience showed in the balance of pure thrash and more melodic leanings, as they shifted between the two effortlessly. 

Shackles took things into a different level with songs that barely hit two minutes. Played at a lower speed they’d probably be standard length but such is the intensity and top gear approach by the band, they literally hurtle through rapid-fire grind-core riffs with a drummer that was more machine precision than human metronome. The death/punk vocal approach was a blistered blast of a growl that would have been more effective if it had been better placed in the mix.

If the night had been stepping up in quality with each act, it took a quantum leap forward when Power Trip hit the stage. The clarity and tightness of their playing was on display from the opening pummelling chug and their high velocity intensity. Looking at the band you could pinpoint the various influences of their sound, the hardcore punk of vocalist Riley Gale, the classic metal hinted at by bassist Chris Whetzel’s Judas Priest t-shirt, the 80s thrash vibe of lead guitarist Blake Ibanez. You get all that and more when Power Trip lay waste to a stage and by song two they’d incited a circle pit behind the flailing limbs and stray boots of surfing punters. Crowd favourite Executioner’s Tax (Swing Of The Axe) got an early airing and was a high point of the night, Gale leaning out into the throng, grinning maniacally and leading the anthemic and macabre chorus before making an appeal for weed to help ease the pain of a rolled ankle the previous night in Brisbane.

Divine Apprehension, from their recent retrospective release, was pure thrash chug with wailing cyber solos. Rhythm guitarist Nicky Stewart eyed off the crowed with a menacing raised fist, bared teeth and theatrical intensity when he wasn’t laying down slabs of artillery riffs, the solid base between the rhythm section and Ibanez’s pyrotechnics. Returning for the encore and one final round of chaos, they pulled out Crossbreaker from their debut album before leaving the heaving masses satiated and promising to return to Australia sooner rather than later. Power Trip had prevailed, cementing themselves as the new bastions of hybridised metal.

 Chris Familton

LIVE REVIEW: Jen Cloher, Tiny Ruins @ Red Rattler, Sydney

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Jen Cloher, Tiny Ruins
Red Rattler Theatre, Marrickville, NSW Australia
20th September, 2018

A sold out Sydney show is a great way to kick off a solo tour for Jen Cloher and as she revealed during her set, this was her first ever solo headline gig. A surprising event given the career Cloher’s established over the last dozen years.

Hollie Fullbrook is better known as the central figure in Tiny Ruins but tonight she was performing solo, still in the hazy midst of jet lag following a European tour. It made for a fascinating set as she played old favourites such as Chainmail Maker, Me At The Museum, You In The Wintergardens and Hurtling Through, alongside her new single How Much, her first on Cloher’s Milk! Records label. Blaming the jet lag she admitted feeling nervous and at one point had a lyrical memory failure but recovered gallantly. It was a chance to see an artist at a transitional point with a new album pending, on a new label, singing songs we’ve never heard, stripped back to their essence.

Jen Cloher fitted into the Marrickville warehouse aesthetic in her green mechanic overalls. She was “at work, playing her block of wood”. It was more than work of course, as evident in the emotion she displayed when introducing songs with stories from her life. There were memories of her Jim Morrison teenage obsession, stealing money from her parents to fuel her Galaga addiction while pretending to be an 11 year old boy called Jon, a beautiful tribute to her mother who that day had been posthumously honoured at Auckland University as part of the Suffrage 125 commemoration and more. The stories were laced with humour and honesty and gave the songs context and added depth. 

With just an acoustic guitar Cloher transformed her more rock-leaning recordings into solo reveries that never lost their spirit and energy. It emphasised her strength as a lyricist, allowing the words to cut through in the acoustic setting, riding her near endless array of sweet and melancholic melodies. Tracks such as Sensory Memory, Kamikaze Origami and Strong Woman from last year’s self-titled album drew cheers from the warm and enthusiastic crowd but we were also treated to some dips into the back catalogue with David Bowie Eyes, Needs, Mother’s Desk and Eden With My Eve. 

Fullbrook returned to the stage for the encore and the pair played a touching version of Save Me From What I Want, a song that Cloher recorded with Mia Dyson and Liz Stringer. It capped off a wonderfull night of music. Songs stripped back to their simple yet detailed beginnings as stories, carried on the strings of acoustic guitars.

Chris Familton

LIVE REVIEW: Gaz Coombes @ Oxford Art Factory, Sydney

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Gaz Coombes, Mitch King @ Oxford Art Factory, 13th Sept 2018

Solo tours from artists known almost exclusively for their work with bands are often approached with caution. Will they be able to replicate the spirit of their recordings and maintain the integrity of their songs with just their voice and a few instruments on stage? Some artists take the fully acoustic approach – “These are the stripped back, skeleton versions of my songs,” they say. Others create a new experience and approach the songs from different and fascinating angles. Gaz Coombes successfully took the latter option.

Up first, Mitch King serenaded the arriving punters with a set that showcased his technical ability as a guitarist and a voice that fits the template of the soulful, bluesy, easy-listening and surfer-friendly sounds that the likes of John Butler, Jack Johnson and Ben Harper have built careers on. The audience were drawn to King’s friendly demeanour and clear talent but it all sounded like we’ve heard it a million times before. It wasn’t helped by detours into Heartbreak Hotel and AC/DC’s Thunderstruck.

Gaz Coombes bounded onstage still looking younger than his years and with that cheeky street urchin grin intact. Many would have been there hoping to relive 90s memories with some Supergrass tracks but for that they’d need to wait until the very end of the hour-long set. This was all about Gaz Coombes the solo artist – now three albums deep into his post-Supergrass career. Much of his performance focused on the recent World’s Strongest Man album, his most textured and genre-mixing collection of soulful psychedelia to date, and its predecessor Matador. 

Drum loops, keyboards, effects units, acoustic and electric guitars were all at Coombes’ disposal and the newest songs in particular benefited from the palette of sounds on offer. Wounded Egos, Shit (I’ve Done It Again) and The Oaks highlighted the impressive range and quality of his voice with soaring falsetto and a strong soul-meets-Radiohead tone and texture to the songs. Deep Pockets was a Krautrock groove that spiralled into the stratosphere on the back of distorted guitar and the pneumatic insistency of its rhythm while Detroit was a strummed, heady rush of cascading melodies. 

Humble and grateful to the audience for turning up after a decade-long gap between tours, Coombes had the perfect encore up his sleeve with a dive into two songs from his old band’s songbook. Moving was soaring and euphoric before he left us with a song about “getting in trouble with the law” that drew a cheer from the crowd and communal singing as he tore through Caught By The Fuzz.  Coombes is on a creative run that’s hit 25 years and though it was built on the back of Supergrass he showed that he’s more than earned the respect and continued support of his fans through his solo career.

Chris Familton