It’s been six years since Nic McKenzie and Nick Weaver released their debut album Outlands. On the back of a run of singles they’d built a strong sense of anticipation about that first record and it certainly lived up to expectations. Fast forward to 2018 and how does a band evolve and change over that time? The DSA model is to essentially stick to the template with some refinement and an easing off of the accelerator.
As you’d expect with such a long gestation, they’ve no doubt rewritten and reworked tracks and that has given these ten songs a sense of calm control. The more frantic edges of earlier songs have been rounded off. This is the band sounding less indie psych rock and with more of an ultramodern sheen that embraces electronic and disco sounds as much as it distils the pop and psychedelic qualities of their past work. Mercury Rev, Spoon, Beck, The Horrors are names that come to mind, acts that all relish melodic hooks as equally as they paint in cosmic colours.
McKenzie’s voice is shorn of some of its more nasally proclivities and is now in perfect marriage with the music. Musically, the Manchester 90s vibe is still there in tracks like Joanna with its dance-ready rhythm section. The closer Ready is a highlight of studio-polished melancholy while Learning To Fly is an absolute ear-worm of a track that uses hooks and repetition to bury itself deep. The other highlight is the single Close To Me with its loping trip hop groove and psych-soul feel that blossoms into one of the duo’s finest choruses.
Black lights are employed for artistic lighting effects as well as diagnostic and therapeutic uses and in that sense it’s a fitting title for a record that looks to combine art-pop and post-relationship dissection. There are moments when form supersedes the strength of the songwriting but overall Blacklight justifies the long wait for this second album.
Three years on the road with her band Big Thief has been a life changing experience for Adrianne Lenker and as she explains to Chris Familton, she wanted to document and archive her thoughts and emotions through that period on her new solo album abyskiss.
I made my first solo record when I was 21 and I was so much closer to my influences then. Now I’ve got farther from those influences although I’m more influenced by more things than I’ve ever been,” explains Lenker as she ponders they ways in which she’s evolved musically and personally since her debut, Hours Were The Birds, was released. “I’m 27 now and I feel like there have been so many things that have happened. When I made that record I hadn’t even met the band and I’ve spent the last three years on the road and they’ve become my family. That in itself has completely changed me. I’ve shed skins. I’ve been so influenced by the music the guys in the band have shared with me and people I’ve met on the road. My heart has been expanding with the challenges and heartbreak and the wounding and mending over that time.”
The album was predominately written on the road, something many artists choose to avoid. For Lenker, her muse has a habit of dropping in at any time and capturing the songs in certain situations can make for a difficult creative process.
“Songs are always welcome in my soul but reality sets in sometimes and there are moments when I can’t give attention to a song that’s coming through. That can be so frustrating. Time is so fleeting and with touring pretty much all of your hours in each day are structured and everything is planned out ahead of time. Writing on the road is about stealing time from myself, finding moments to get lost in my soul,” says Lenker. “That can just be for 20 minutes or a couple of hours or for a day, but there have been so many times when an idea has been forming that I’ve felt really excited about and then we have a soundcheck or a show or a meeting. That’s happened countless times where I’ve lost ideas that I’ve loved. I also think when it doesn’t form fully it is meant to be, they’re just stepping stone ideas to get to another thing.”
Sonically, there is a clear separation in the sound of the album from the full band elements used on Big Thief recordings. “I had the intention to keep them minimal because I really wanted the acoustic guitar to shine,” explains Lenker. The approach is an effective one, drawing the listener into the intimacy of her performance and the simple details of her songs. “I just sat in front of the microphone and sang and played the songs and recorded them. There was no editing at all and we only aded one or two other elements. I was conscious to keep it like that – quiet.”
Lenker is known for her astute and sensitive approach to detailing events and the emotional impact they have. On abysskiss she again takes a magnifying glass to life experiences but places them inthe context of big picture existential questions.
“The biggest theme is the least original thing possible. Life, pain, birth, death, the cyclical nature of things. A lot of it is about questions themselves. The aching bittersweetness of being alive and the inherent duality of everything. What kind of twisted, hilarious or crazy thing brought all of this into being and how insane it is that we are brought into his world and then leave and the only guarantee we have is that we will die and lose everyone that we love. Somehow that’s what makes it so rich,” she says, with a mix of wonder and passion in her voice.
“I’m fascinated by the microcosms and explosions that are happening minute to minute within all of us. It’s creating this crazy tapestry that feels extremely gruesome, morbid, gory and bloody and also so delicate and magical and pure. The ocean exists and the most beautiful harmony exists but also war and destruction. I’m constantly overwhelmed by the sensation of being alive. That’s where it’s coming from.”
Suede are this deep into their career and have flirted equally with the charts and the arthouse that they have earned the right to be the masters of their own destiny. Hence they’ve realised that the best Suede albums have a mix of grandiose, sweeping music and dissertations on the minutiae and unease of modern life. The Blue Hour is the third album in a trilogy that includes Bloodsports and Night Thoughts, set in the dark blue-hued twilight of the evening, the deepening shadows the heart and the oncoming dark night of the soul.
Strings sweep across the rural landscapes and the trash littered motorways that Brett Anderson sings of. He’s talked about viewing the world through the eyes of his son and much of this album deals with the terrors of childhood. You can hear it both in the tension of the music and literally in Anderson’s songs of broken homes, fractured family relationships, fear of the future and finding one’s self and place in society. It’s powerful and dramatic stuff. In other’s hands it would be overwrought and pretentious but this is Suede’s home ground advantage, their musical stock and trade.
Interspersed between the songs, recorded sound effects and sonic vignettes suggest dead birds and lost children and give the record a sense of a concept album, though it’s more of a collection of sketches or short stories rather than one linear tale. Wastelands, Cold Hands, Don’t Be Afraid If Nobody Loves You and Beyond The Outskirts are highlights of the glam, indie-rock variety and provide a good balance to the arch and avant garde tracks.
It all amounts to a fascinating and rewarding album with plenty to revel in on its surface whilst also offering a deep well of poetry and drama to explore at length.
A new track and clip from Melbourne quartet Diana Radar. ‘Growing’ is their third single this year, taken from an upcoming LP or EP from recording sessions engineered by Lachlan Wooden (Primary Colours, Archie Roach), and mastered by Mikey Young (Total Control, Eddy Current Suppression Ring). ‘Growing’ is a tumbling cache of sparkling and jangling guitars and melodically rolling bass. It has that New Order, Smiths kind of vibe, definitely placed in an Anglophile 80s world but also in the same orbit as Real Estate.
The last decade has seen a rise in the popularity of modern classical music and its influence on other genres, particularly electronic music. One of the leading lights in the scene is German composer Nils Frahm and in a revealing conversation with Chris Familton he discusses his musical beginnings, his future and the constant flux of his live shows.
It’s 1:30am on an autumn morning in Berlin and Nils Frahm is ensconced in Saal 3, his studio in the iconic, Funkhaus, a 1950s building that previously housed world-class recording facilities and was home to GDR state radio. “I’m always a professional, always working when I’m not sleeping,” he laughs. “I like the night, it’s perfect for musicians. It’s quiet and inspiring. I’ve been in the studio for four hours and I’ve already unlearned how to speak and so it is civilising to talk a little bit.”
It’s been a big year for Frahm, with a heavy touring schedule on the back of his acclaimed All Melody album, He’s about to return to Australia for the first time in four years but don’t expect to immediately recognise songs from the album when he plays them on stage. “All the songs have changed already. I can’t go back to where I started them,” he says, with a note of satisfaction in his voice. “I deconstruct the compositions all the time and build them in a different way. I feel like the songs are ongoing compositions and when the task is to play them again, no-one could ask me to play them the same every time. I need to destroy what I did yesterday and redo it today. It needs to be a little bit different each time,” Frahm emphasises.
A hallmark of Frahm’s music is his ability to seamlessly blend electronic and acoustic instruments and still retain an organic, tactile and emotionally resonant quality in his work. “It doesn’t matter how something is played, just listen to the music,” Frahm responds, before tracing his fascination with both musical worlds back to the lounge room of his childhood home. “For me it was a natural connection to electronic music because it was always connected to my father’s hi-fi system. It was highly electronic so that connection between music and electricity was always there for me and wasn’t a separate thing. I was aware that a piano didn’t have a plug and other things did, but I thought a vinyl record player was as exciting as a piano. I liked anything that played music to my ears and made me feel amazing,” says Frahm.
“I was always curious about music and I like when I don’t really know how something is made. It can be made by an orchestra, it can be made by a synthesiser or even an algorithm. If it sounds good to my ears, and it all comes out of speakers in the end, I don’t worry. Here in my studio I’m looking at my patch bay and cables one to eight are all microphones and nine to 16 are all synthesisers. They are all the same cables. Even the acoustic piano goes through the same cable as my synthesiser and they come out of the same speakers,” explains Frahm, surveying the array of keyboards, pianos and synthesisers around him.
The conversation leads to where Frahm first had a strong emotional response to music. Not just hearing it as background music on the radio or in the endless hours of practising scales in piano lessons. “There were some songs that amazed me. ECM released John Surman, the saxophone player who played along to synthesisers and loops. It was something that burnt into my heart,” he recalls passionately. “I was crying to that song when I was a kid, and it had no lyrics or anything. It was just a harmonic motif and the timbre of the synthesiser, together with the saxophone. A truly amazing combination of a real instrument and something alien that I couldn’t understand. I heard many good examples of tasteful blends of those two worlds, even before I recorded anything, so I was very confident that it could be done and I was standing on the shoulders of heroes.”
Frahm still has All Melody tour dates stretching into 2019, but what then? He recently released Encores 1 – additionalmusic from the same album sessions, and he hints at but doesn’t confirm that there will be more in that series. For Frahm it seems like his future is something of a mystery at the moment. “I don’t tend to plan too far ahead. I just want to survive next year and then in 2020 who knows what I’m feeling like doing then. It’s a crazy time in life and I’m meeting a lot of people around me who talk about inspiration and what they want to do in life. I hope by 2020 I’ll be smarter and can imagine something a little wiser than what I’m doing now – being the pop icon who is traveling around the world with tons of equipment and lots of people and playing these silly festivals around each corner.”
It’s a revealing and remarkably candid insight into the decisions an artist has to make – the form, timing and responsibility of presenting their art. “I’m totally open for all of this to end, to be honest. I don’t want to be the person who just stops and takes something away from people. I can’t say I’m excited to just finish a tour in two years and then do the next album and then do a huge tour. I don’t know how many years we can go on like this. It’s really crazy man. I’m not dark about the future, I’m excited… but I’m absolutely puzzled.” says Frahm, before returning to the solitude of the early hours, the empty Funkhaus hallways and the cables and synths of his studio.
So far this is our favourite track from the new Interpol album. The record shows flashes of their early brilliance and though it doesn’t hold up across all tracks it’s well worth spending some time with these songs. ‘If You Really Nothing’ is Banks doing falsetto over trademark Interpol slashing guitars and tumbling drums.
Brisbane trio The Goon Sax return with their second album and as Louis Forster and Riley Jones explain to Chris Familton, the desire to document their thoughts and experiences through an open musical relationship remains the driving ethos of the band.
They were still teenagers negotiating the twin worlds of school life and being in a band when they released their debut album Up To Anything and now, facing the challenge of adulthood and the new responsibilities that come with it, The Goon Sax have found some different angles from which to write about familiar themes on its followup We’re Not Talking.
“I think growing up was definitely a big theme,” says singer/guitarist Forster. “We were writing more about love than we’d written about before. On the first record we were writing about that from an outside perspective, as a foreign concept. This time it was closer in that sense,” he reveals. “It was also about finishing school and worrying about what we were doing everyday, which we hadn’t had to do for 18 years.”
The group recorded the album down in Melbourne at Super Melody World and though they have mixed feelings about the experience, both Jones and Forster agree that it yielded positive results. “The recording process was really different because we worked with producers who had an idea of what we should sound like and we had a different idea, so the album is like both sides pulling and fighting for some middle ground which definitely makes it interesting,” reflects Jones. Forster agrees, adding, “we started writing as soon as we finished recording the first album, from 2015. It’s coming from the same place as the first record. I think there’s tension in every aspect of the record. It feels like it has so much tension and energy, that feels like it’s on the verge of falling apart or exploding which is a good thing. It didn’t seem like a good thing at the time but maybe it is now,” he says, with the benefit of hindsight.
One feature of the album is the increased democratisation of the musical relationship between the three of them. Alongside James Harrison, all members contribute lead vocals to the new album. “We definitely sing the songs that we write and then the others chime in. We recently made a rule that anyone can chime in whenever they like and so far that has worked well,” explains Jones.
That willingness to try new things on We’re Not Talking extended to the use of new instrumentationsuch as strings, piano and more across its 30 minute playing time. “We wanted to experiment with drum machines a bit and have some horns and things.” says Forster. “We all wanted to sing more on each other songs. There are more group vocals and we were all having more influence on each others songs, both with the singing and the ideas we were putting forward. There are bits of Riley and James on all my songs and vice versa which wasn’t maybe there before that. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing but we did it at the time and it felt good.”
One common element that the newer songs share with the first album is the streak of melancholy and self-doubt that permeates their music. Is that a representative of their personalities or just the mood and tone of how their creativity is naturally expressed?
“I think to some degree it is part of our personalities but we definitely wrote about things that were difficult and that bummed us out at the time and writing about them made us feel good again. Sad music is made for a reason and maybe it’s to repurpose something you’ve gone through, “ ponders Forster. “It’s important for us to make music that feels necessary, not just for the sake of it. You need to feel like you have to do it. I like the absurdity of putting sad lyrics to happier sounding music, it just makes me laugh.” Jones has a similar take that also reflects the way she enjoys listening to music. “I like it when you can be nostalgic about those kinds of feelings and remember through the music how strongly you felt about something.”
It’s hard to believe but Mudhoney are now in their 30th year of active service and on Digital Garbage, their 10th album, they show they’re still the kings of fuzzed-out punk and garage rock. Their disdain for everything fucked up about the world is still vital and biting and they don’t hold back one iota.
No topic is out of bounds as they rail against social media, the rich getting richer at everyone else’s expense, gun control, religion and environmental destruction. Mark Arm has sharpened his pencil with more scathing intent than he’s ever done before. “Fuck the planet, screw your children, get rich, you win,” he sings on Prosperity Gospel while on Paranoid Core he throws barbs of sarcastic truths at an unnamed Donald Trump and his supporters. Musically the band are as economical as ever but in addition to their trademark buzzsaw guitars and MC5, Stooges shakedowns, they also get dark and moody with an early Nick Cave feel on Night And Fog and there are strains of Neil Young in the chord progressions of Messiah’s Lament.
There’s plenty of humour at play too. Lines such as ‘turning water into wine is dismissed as a parlour trick, that’s insensitive to the struggles of alcoholics,” throw amusing shapes across the underlying messages on Digital Garbage. Few bands have remained so close to the sound and integrity of their music. Mudhoney are still out front of the pack, setting the benchmark with brutal and brilliant honesty.