Monday, 3 August 2009

Review: The Rational Academy - Swans

The Rational Academy have been one of Brisbane's most respected indie-rock bands ever since their formation in the wake of the dissolution of Benjamin Thompson's Autumn Giants and Meredith McHugh's Delpino. After releasing last year's well received A Heart Against Your Own (why a track like 'The Author' failed to get substantial JJJ rotation is a mystery to me - I suppose the fact that the band pushed the similar but more morose '2004' instead probably has something to do with it), McHugh left the band, leaving Thompson as the sole founding member remaining. While some of the band's first steps after their substantial lineup change left some people wondering if they had lost their spark, Swans should lay any such fears to rest. It's probably a better record than AHAYO, though it moves the band further away again from its guitar-squall origins.

Released on Lawrence English's Someone Good, Swans is the label's second release in a series of records following a strict '10 songs in 20 minutes' format. This restriction seems to bring out some of The Rational Academy's strengths, as it forces them to showcase their melodic abilities - what would have otherwise been choruses are now middle-eights - without surrounding things with minutes on end of drones and feedback; there's no 'The Squid And The Whale' on this record. That's not to say that there isn't a healthy amount of ambience and sonic experimentation here (this is The Rational Academy after all), instead it just means that you only have to wait half a minute or so until the next riff or lead vocal. When the haze of buzzing synths and effects do descend they do so with a greater degree of cohesiveness than they have on previous recordings.

That cohesiveness is the other strength of this record - tracks blend into one another in such a way that you may not realise that you've moved into a new song, while when there is a big dynamic shift between tracks it always feels totally natural (eg: the piano-based 'Summer Husbands' moving into the jagged guitars of 'Satan'). The band perhaps uses this to cheat a little bit in regards to the '10 songs in 20minutes' challenge, as a couple of the 'songs' are really just intros or outros to other, more substantial numbers ('12 Feet In Cheltenham' is pretty much an outro for 'Teen Diethylamide 25', while 'Oak Hill' is 19 seconds of ambience that continues into 'Summer Husbands'). Still, who cares when it gives the record such great atmosphere. As much as it seems like a cheap comparison, it really does call to mind the recordings of The Rational Academy's recent stage partners in Deerhunter. The end result is that songs that individually might seem somewhat slight are bolstered by the music that surrounds them - the record ends up as more than just a sum of its constituent parts.

Perhaps this is why the two most developed and robust songs are the ones that bookend the record: 'Unsolved Mysteries' is perhaps the only song one the album that could be called a 'rock' song, even though it consists of layers of clean guitars and a haze of tremolo and reverb, while 'A New Berlin' is a beautiful acoustic-guitar based number with the most direct production on the record (though it eventually gives way to the ambient outro of 'Yoko I'm Only Dancing', the record's technical closer). In between we have the stately 'Teen Diethylamide 25', the robotically funky 'Hammer' and the wintry beauty of 'Summer Husbands'. My personal favourite is the supremely catchy 'Satan', one of the few traditionally guitar-based songs on the record; I find myself wishing it was twice as long, but I guess the song's brevity increases its potency.

We've been accused of playing favourites with The Rational Academy here at Before Hollywood, but with a record like this... why the hell wouldn't you? It's mature, delicate, meticulously constructed and supremely rewarding. A Heart Against Your Own was a wonderful record but had some fairly conspicuous flaws - despite The Rat Acad being a terrific guitar-rock band, the loud guitar songs on that record sounded kind of strange in their recorded contexts. Swans removes the flawed elements of the last record, edits things down their bare essentials and then polishes the results to a fine shine. While I'd love to hear a Rat Acad ROCK record that matches their old live sound, it's probably not going to appear any time soon (though they apparently have a third album already completed which should be released early next year - a 2009 release date was pushed back due to the band's overseas touring). Swans is a better replacement than one would have any justification in expecting.

PS: Apologies for the lack of a gig guide last weekend, I came down pretty sick at the end of the week.

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