Tuesday, May 7, 2013

REVIEW: The Drones -- I See Seaweed

The Drones are the musical equivalent of a drunken pub brawl. The Australian band's songs careen between sullen musings and feedback-drenched eruptions, everything connected by sinewy leads and tribal percussion. Singer-songwriter Gareth Liddiard's delivery, especially his manic phrasing, sounds at times like Lux Interior without any of the Count Floyd campiness, and at other times like a besotted Peter Garrett. As a lyricist, Liddiard keeps the themes quite dark -- over the years his songs have considered, among many other matters, dead drug-addict girlfriends ("She Had an Abortion that She Made Me Pay For"), cannibalism ("Words from the Executioner to Alexander Pearce"), and a Joseph Conrad-esque view of white colonialism ("I am the Supercargo"). They have a significant and devoted fanbase in their home country. In a poll of Australian critics and music-type people, their 2005 song "Shark Fin Blues" was voted Australia's greatest song.  For what it's worth, the album that featured that song, Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By, made my own top 10 of the entire decade.  Despite their continued puzzling obscurity in the States, the Drones are one of the world's great rock and roll bands.

I had begun to wonder whether perhaps we'd heard the last from the band. Although 2008's Havilah was excellent, the later tracks on that album had a bit of an autumnal feel to them -- a sense of something winding down. Then in 2010, Liddiard released a mostly acoustic solo album, Strange Tourist. Although a very satisfying record, it was lyrically dense, in the manner of "Sixteen Straws", the final track on the 2006 Drones album Gala Mill. That song and album are nearly brilliant, but all things told, the former is really pretty much Liddiard solo. So I had started thinking that if the Drones weren't finished, maybe they would ease back into the more mid-tempo, nearly free verse narrative structures of Liddiard's latest work. Well, I was wrong.

I See Seaweed, the band's sixth full-length, was self-released in Australia in March, and to the extent one can say it about a group that has never made a bad record, this album is nothing short of a revelation. There is not a weak instant in these eight songs, and although only two of them are under six minutes long, nothing meanders. Intensity builds in the quiet moments, and either explodes in angry catharsis or gradually blooms into a roaring chaos. The title track, which leads off, uses dissonant guitar and piano to evoke an unease that, at the 2.20 mark, is crushed by a wave of power chords and a fatalistic chorus of "Ain't that just the way things are? / You always went too far." The song ends, after the third chorus, with an apocalyptic solo eventually yielding to a Hammond-sounding organ courtesy of newest Drone Steve Hesketh. It's a stunning track, but only a glimpse of what else is coming. Have a listen:

One of the best songs, "They'll Kill You", is an example of that slow build that catches one by surprise. Liddiard sings, about two minutes in, "Give me back my evil streak, and guarantee it stays with me." The progression between this lyric and the end of the song evokes the parable of the frog tossed into the pot of cool water just as the gas gets turned on. Liddiard and fellow guitarist Dan Luscombe create a roiling instrumental backdrop until the vocals give over to the beautiful, harrowing noise. Here's a terrific live version from a concert in Sydney last week (only 3 views as of this writing). The part from the five minute mark on is flat out thrilling.

Of course, when inclined to do so, the band will punch a listener in the face right at the start. In "A Moat You Can Stand In," drummer Mike Noga and bassist Fiona Kitschin lay a foundation for a textbook Liddiard vocal rant.

The finest moment of many, and indeed, maybe the band's finest moment, is "The Grey Leader," which starts off with a demented country-jazz vibe of twisted strings and broken-glass piano. After a pause, the instruments come together underneath Liddiard's tense vocal. It all builds for a couple of minutes, pauses, and then the song becomes something entirely different. Two softly pulled chords, repeated, evoke the climactic moment of "Dogs", from Pink Floyd's seminal Animals. Noga then detonates his kit, and is followed at once by everyone else. The piano is surprisingly at home in the turbulence that pushes the song to its molten, feedback-drenched coda.

You'll probably have to order a physical copy of this album if you're anywhere but Australia, but check out your independent record store nonetheless. I was able to buy my digital copy from Amazon toward the end of March. It's been a long time since something has monopolized my stereo like this album. I don't think I can overstate what a triumph it is.

The Drones Website


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