Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Review: Do The Robot - First Names

Do The Robot's 2008 Valve records release Amp On Fire was an enjoyable, if somewhat flawed, minimalist shoegaze record. A little over a year later the band have released their follow-up, First Names, and it's an improvement on their debut in almost every sense. While recent live shows have played up the ambient side of their music, First Names combines the recent increased use sound layering with the traditional melodicism Do The Robot have shown at all stages of their existence. The record improves upon the areas that were somewhat lacking on Amp On Fire, while expanding the areas where the band was already quite successful.

The record starts off with 'Europe', about as concise a song as you'll find in Do The Robot's discography, coming in at a touch under 4minutes. Within this timeframe the musical improvements the band has made in the past year all come to the fore - the songs are more densely packed with melodies and shifting arrangements, and there's a greater sense of movement inherent in the music. No longer do their songs coast along for 7minutes with a mere two or three chords, seemingly held in stasis; now songs embrace traditional pop structures while still keeping the band's trademark dreaminess and languid beauty. Another thing that will strike those familiar with the debut is the sound of the record - everything seems so much more full than before, and not just because of the increased use of guitar and keys overdubs. Engineer Todd Dixon has done a great job of balancing reverb-filled haze with a sense of weight for all of the instruments. The final thing of note that has really improved in recent times is Sera's singing - she has always had a voice with the perfect character for this style of music, but now she has better control of her vocals and hence comes across as much more powerful and confident. She also seems to have reduced the Americanisations in her pronunciation (something that is a bit of a pet peeve of mine).

The band also seems more willing (or more able) to mix things up - 'Grandmother's Bicycle' is a terrific, upbeat pop song that devolves into a Sonic Youth Sister-era outro, 'Mountain' is the tensely dramatic centrepiece of the album, and 'Moon In The Sky' shares a fair bit with sister-band The Rational Academy's more reflective moments. Meanwhile 'Just The Six (No The Five Of Us)' is the sort of extended jangly pop song that Amp On Fire was filled with - except better. Matt also mixes up his guitar tone much more frequently than on the prior record, often double tracking his parts and not being afraid to throw down some appropriately distorted shoegaze guitar. It helps to keep the record moving along, and stops things from getting too samey.

First Names is the record that I was hoping for with Amp On Fire - beautiful and stark, yet inviting and enveloping. Unlike Amp On Fire, it benefits from not outstaying its welcome, being all over in a bit over 35minutes. It also packs a lot more ideas into its running time than its predecessor, ensuring that the listener stays interested through its entire duration. Since Do The Robot have already moved on from the sound of this record I'm interested to hear their next release - if its much like their current live show we can expect it to be more obtuse, more ambient, more abstract and even more densely filled then First Names, and yet just as melodically satisfying as this record.

Oh, and I should also mention the beautiful packaging. The vinyl version comes in individually hand-crafted fabric jackets.


Friday, 25 September 2009

Gigs of the Week - September 25th

Good weekend this weekend. See below.

BTW, Mr Maps have a free download available on their myspace of a new track they recorded in their rehearsal room just recently. Check it out if you're into them.

Friday 25th:
Stature::Statue, Moon Jog, 3ofMillions (NSW), Bastards of the Epic Day @ Lofly Hangar - Bring along a mix-CD to swap it for someone else's.
Royal Headache (NSW), Bed Wettin Bad Boys (NSW), Kitchen's Floor, The Seizures @ Step Inn (Front Bar)
Nikko, Caught Ship (Vic) @ Ric's Bar
Almost Invisible #3: Sounds From The Ward, Alrey Batol, Ghost Notes @ Browning St Studios
We All Want To @ The Powerhouse (6pm)
Tom Ugly (NSW), The Rocketsmiths, Comic Sans @ The Troubadour

Saturday 26th:
Turnpike, Loomer, Whyte Lightning, Loose Grip @ Fat Louie's
FootFootFoot: Dot.AY, BigStrongBrute, Buildings Melt @ Blackstar Coffee (7pm, Thomas St West End)
Velociraptor, Bright Yellow (NSW) @ Ric's Bar
ChalkAndCheese @ Borders (1pm)

Sunday 27th:
The Gin Club @ The Powerhouse (4pm)


Thursday, 24 September 2009

Review: Idle Cranes - Fur Release

Post-punk band Idle Cranes have been been playing around the traps for a few years now, but have just recently released their debut record, Fur Release. The band seems to think of it as an EP, but with nine tracks and a running time of around 40minutes it's equally as valid to think of it as a full length album. With a production style that hearkens back to the post-punk records of the late 70s / early 80s (ie: not much low end, LOTS of reverb and feedback, buried vocals that are largely indecipherable) it's not an easily digestible piece of music either, but it's not without rewards for those who persist with it.

The record starts of with the instrumental 'L'Amour', a spiky piece of down-tempo post-punk that somewhat sets the template for much of the record in its minute-and-change length: trebly guitars, distant thundering drums, monolithic distorted bass that somehow stays in the sonic shadows despite its volume. 'Frigate' introduces vocals into the mix, with both of the band's singers sharing the mic on the song - Jon's languid, British sounding croon laying the foundations while Jakeb's more colloquial bark cutting through the middle, his speak-singing sounding more like the vocalisations of your average post-hardcore vocalist than a post-punk one. 'High Heels Low Brow' closes off the more accessible first third of the record with the most immediately likable slice of music on the disc, disco drums and all. If Fur Release were to have a single, this would be it.

In it's live incarnation, 'Ghost Train' is an absolute monster. Slow, menacing, oppressively loud. This recording doesn't capture that side of it at all, instead the song comes across as monotone and repetitive, with pretty much no dynamics or significant changes in its 7minute span. Drums are reduced to a metronomic tapping in the background, the bass is neutered of any power and the song is reduced to an exercise in mood and texture. Strange, then, that it's not a total write-off (though cutting a minute or so out of the first half might have done the track a favour). The song is probably the biggest challenge on the record, almost as if the band is daring you to make it to side two. Those who do will be greeted by the somewhat schizophrenic 'Discotheque' (cool riff at the 2minute mark) and the relentless, tribal 'Tetrahydreen'. In combination with 'Ghost Train' this trio makes up the decidedly strange middle third of the record.

The final third of Fur Release is probably the strongest, but also the most oblique. 'Mexico' takes the murky atmospherics to their logical limit, slowing things down to a introspective crawl and, in the process, becoming the most successful recording on the album. 'Two Horse Race' is probably the Idle Crane's finest live track, and though the band's chosen recording style has sapped the song of some of its oppressive power from the live setting (much like 'Ghost Train'), it still stands out as one of the highlights of the disc. The verses are propulsive, while the choruses increase the intensity by just enough to highlight the epic nature of the chord progression. 'DFD41' finishes things off with some more atmospherics, utilizing some found sound loops, an acoustic guitar and some droning vocals to bring things to a soothing yet disquieting end. It's one hell of a comedown to a record that doesn't give an inch over its entire running time.

By taking such a strong stance in terms of creating a uniform, highly stylised sounding record, Idle Cranes have created a somewhat more divisive record than they perhaps might have with a more 'true to life' presentation. Such conviction is to be applauded, especially in such a young band, even if the results are perhaps to the detriment of individual songs. The band has obviously wanted to create a real record, as opposed to a collection of loosely linked tracks. Some people have labelled the record as 'lo-fi', but that's not really accurate. This isn't something recorded on a cassette four-track in someone's garage, it has been intentionally constructed to sound a certain way and create a certain mood. In this respect the record is a success (extra credit also needs to be given when considering that the band pieced the record together from multiple recording sessions at a variety locations, although four of the tracks were recorded at the (new defunct?) Valley Studios by Glenn Agnew).

There is certainly a consistent mood that runs through the entire record - often this can create a sameness to the music, and this is arguably the case here. However, after living with the album (or EP, whatever) for a bit of time the listener is able to get past the murky sounds and hear that there is actually a remarkably wide breadth of music on display. Strangely enough, it's easy to imagine that with a more orthodox production style Fur Release could actually seem a little bit scattered. The fact that it instead comes across as quite cohesive would indicate that this is a band with a fairly strong idea of where it's headed, even if at this stage it does seem to occasionally get lost . Still, their success rate is high enough that this record (and their live show) comes recommended.

You can currently listen to the entirety of Fur Release record at the band's myspace page.


Thursday, 17 September 2009

Gigs of the Week - September 17th

Thursday 17th:
Blue Carousel, Running Guns, Surecut Kids @ The Clubhouse (Empire Hotel Corner Bar)

Friday 18th:
The Nation Blue (Vic), SixFtHick, Dick Nasty, No Anchor @ The Zoo
Mr Rascal @ Queens St Mall (6pm)
My Fiction, Teleprompter @ The Clubhouse (Empire Hotel Corner Bar)

Saturday 19th:
4ZZZ's These Are Not Birds: Secret Birds, To The North, Swamplords, Feathers, Oh Ye Denver Birds, Common Pointless Rage, Wil Wagner (Vic), Mr DNA (Vic), Sleepwalks @ Boundary Hotel (West End)
Chinese Burns (Vic), Undead Apes, Fancy Boys, Geese @ Step Inn (upstairs)
Dizzygotheca (EP Launch), Silver Circus, Edge of Colours @ The Zoo

Sunday 20th:
Sonic Boom #6: Ambrose Chapel, White Bears of Norway, Secret Killer of Names, Extra Foxx, Ian McIntyre @ 101 Merthyr Rd, New Farm


Wednesday, 16 September 2009

DZ, Villains of Wilhelm @ Fans (12.09.09)

Popular indie-rock club night Fans recently up and left their traditional home at Alhambra lounge, now putting on their regular shows at the Empire's corner bar (otherwise known as The Club House). Deciding to start things off with a bang, Fans opened the new location with the EP Launch for the super-hyped dance-punk band DZ.

Starting off the night, however, were garage rockers Villains of Wilhelm. Before I go any further, there's one thing that has always annoyed me about this band: they seem to always pronounce Wilhelm as 'will-helm', missing the obvious opportunity for illiteration provided by the usual pronunciation of the name! Man, that really grinds my goat... Anyway, The Villains play largely uptempo, loud rock'n'roll with occasional detours into something a bit more melodious. Frontman Danny Wilhelm is far and away the focal point of procedings, running around and causing all sorts of havoc while the rest of the band provides tight backing to his antics. In general crowds seem to lap it up, though not everyone is so enamoured - after their set a less than impressed friend of mine commented that 'anyone can roll around on the floor, it doesn't mean the songs are any good'. It's a fair point, though perhaps a marginally unfair one. While The Villains are hardly providing anything unique in the grand scheme of things, they execute their chosen brand of rock'n'well with a near perfect balance of musical proficiency and reckless abandon. Furthermore, what's wrong with a bit of showmanship? Whether the band can prove themselves to be as effective on record is up for debate, but as a live spectable they're a worthwhile act for those with a predisposition towards their particular form of rock.

DZ have garnered a reputation as a fairly explosive live act, being unafraid to try every trick in the proverbial book to enhance the energy inherent in two dudes playing loud, guitar-based rock music. To that end they liberally incorporate intense strobe lights, crowd surfing, smoke machines, black lights and extreme volume. Most of these things were on display at the launch of their Ruined My Life EP, and the crowd responded in predictably riotous fashion. The end result was without a doubt one of the sloppiest rock sets I've seen in many a month - instruments would regularly stop playing for bars at a time, musical cues would be missed, crowd members would run onstage and push over parts of the drum kit or pull out a guitar lead. For a band being touted in some circles as the heir to Violent Soho's grunge-influenced crown, on this particular night they lacked that particular band's iron-tight grip on its music, but that's not really what DZ are trying to achieve. They're a band who are attempting to bring the noise and aggression of punk and meld it with the communal, party atmosphere of dance music, as shown by their regular covering of songs from acts live Daft Punk, Justice and even the Venga Boys. Judged on that criteria, the launch was a complete success. I can't think of many occasions where a crowd has been so intensely into a local band's set, or where the security at the front of the stage were actually not only necessary at a local show, but so laughably ineffectual.

The night finished up with Stature::Statue playing the 1am slot, but a) I've already reviewed them quite recently and b) I was pretty tired by the time they had started so had already headed home. There was also Chain Gang from Sydney at the start of the night, but I only caught their last (pretty crazy) song, plus they don't fit within Before Hollywood's scope.

Photo courtesy of Gerry Rocks.
Usual full disclosure statement: I recorded the DZ EP at my home studio.


Thursday, 3 September 2009

Gigs of the Week - September 9th

So, it's Big Sound week this week. That means there will be all manner of industry types walking around the valley until the weekend. I had a bit of a look around today, it was... interesting. In any case, Big Sounds means that there are quite a few shows happening around town over the next few days.

(Also, for those who want a look behind the curtain to see what makes Before Hollywood tick, there's an interview with me over at the blog The Fruit Bowl... if you're interested)

Wednesday 9th:
Big Sound Live: I Heart Hiroshima, The Rational Academy, Little Scout, DZ, Skinny Jean, The Middle East, Hungry Kids of Hungary, Kate Bradley, Toy Balloon, Timothy Carrol, Ed Guglielmino, Rocketsmiths, Chris Pickering and MORE @ Various Valley venues - See www.qmusic.com.au/bigsound2009 for details on getting tickets etc.

Thursday 10th:
Big Sound Live: We All Want To, Grand Atlantic, The Boat People, Mary Trembles, Hunz, Last Dinosaurs, Madeleine Paige, The Cairos, Drawn From Bees, Dan Parsons and MORE @ Various Valley venues - See www.qmusic.com.au/bigsound2009 for details on getting tickets etc.
Pink Reason (USA), Slug Guts (LP Launch), Fabulous Diamonds (Vic), Blank Realm @ Step Inn
NineHoursNorth: aus (Japan), Cokiyu (Japan), Do The Robot @ Judith Wright Centre
Teleprompter, Snow White @ Ric's Bar

Friday 11th:
DZ (EP Launch), ChainGang (NSW), Stature::Statue, Villains of Wilhelm @ Club House (Empire Hotel Corner Bar)
Songs (NSW), Little Scout, Big Strong Brute @ The Troubadour
We All Want To @ The Powerhouse
Up Late: Kate Jacobson, Ben Salter @ Queensland Art Gallery

Saturday 12th:
The Bell Divers, Bliss @ Ric's Bar
Running Guns @ The Troubadour (1am Late Show)


Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Review: AXXONN - Masters of the Epic Day

Masters of the Epic Day, the second EP from local laptop-drone duo AXXONN (the first being the freel download Should You Fear Hell?, which Gav reviewed a while back), is an interesting little release. Interesting because it's actually something of a split record, featuring two songs from AXXONN and two songs from each of the two members' solo projects: Tom Hall (as himself) and Ian Rogers (as Ambrose Chapel).

It's also interesting because the two AXXONN tracks are probably the weakest on the record. Masters starts out with 'The Second Death', a track that plays out like a slightly condensed version of the debut EP (but this time with drums). The song starts out quiet and contemplative, full of warm synth tones, before erupting into noise around the one third mark, cruising along at full volume for a bit before calming back down... only this time it returns to crushing distortion instead of just petering out. Since it's only one song compared to the first EP's three it contains fewer melodic ideas, being mostly based around changes in dynamics instead of the Hell's gradually shifting tones and melodies. It's satisfying in the way that a Mogwai song is satisfying: it hits all of the points that you want it to hit, and it peaks right around the time you desire it to. It has big dynamic shifts that seem as though they're meant to jolt you about, but you're expecting them so they don't really surprise. In fact, the song is very Mogwai-like - I know it's a sin to automatically compare dramatic instrumental bands to the Scottish post-rockers, but this track really sounds like the more electronic numbers from the most recent two or three Mogwai records (the only difference being that Mogwai play guitars that sound like synths while AXXONN play synths that sound like guitars - even the sampled drums sounds a lot like the playing of Martin Bulloch, though that's probably more because he's often such a lifeless, mechanical drummer). I don't think there's any plagiarism going on here, even of the subconscious sort, as I don't believe that AXXONN are overly avid listeners of Mogwai - it's probably has more to do with the inherent limitations of and similarities between bands in this vague 'genre'. Anyway, 'The Second Death' is certainly not a bad track, in fact it's quite good, but it doesn't feel as successful as the band's earlier release.

The second track, 'Nikki Grace', is shorter but perhaps a bit more interesting, though it mines a very similar vein of ideas as 'The Second Death' - gradually developing textures in the first half, a big dynamic shift around halfway, mechanical drums. In fact, I think one of the main problems with the two AXXONN tracks is the drums - I just don't think that Hall or Rogers are particular adept at programming rhythms, or at least not the big, bombastic sort that they're trying to implement here (actually, on second thought the rhythms are actually pretty decent, the issue has more to do with the drum sounds that have been chosen and the way they've been mixed - the drums just seem to stick out, breaking the spell created by the rest of the music). On Should You Fear Hell? rhythm was used sparingly, often being limited to muted bass rhythms that burbled away beneath the weight of the huge synthesizers, and this was very effective. On Masters the rhythms are much more upfront, and I don't think it really works. It takes the band more in the direction of standard post-rock, which is all well and good, but I think that the band's best moments are when they're more understated and are slowly milking a dramatic chord progression for every remaining bit of interest.

The solo tracks reinforce this. All four are far more understated than the opening two songs, and are all the better for it. Tom Hall's 'Wor(l)ds Fall Down' is four and a half minutes of dread based around a couple of keyboard notes, while 'Between Subdivided Distances' features a slowly building array of drones and textures which never reach any sort of emotional payoff, although they do eventually break through the aural clouds to reach a kind of sunshine for the last minute of the song. Both tracks are desolate, murky sounding affairs, but not in a cold, detached way. They're also both really, really good.

Meanwhile, Rogers' two tracks are equally as enthralling. 'Bulk Carriers At Sea (And On Fire)' alternates between unnerving white noise and synths that sound like foghorns, giving a feeling that perfectly reflects the song's title. 'Corridors_Bend' is the shortest track on the EP, featuring a chorus of what sounds like ebowed guitars and rumbling ambience - there's really only one idea in the track, but it's explored thoroughly while not outstaying its welcome, and as such is as successful as anything else on the EP.

Masters of the Epic Day is an interesting little release. It's successful in ways that you wouldn't think it would successful, and its failures are due to things that you would imagine would be strengths. Who would have thought that the solo tracks, which many might have expected to be somewhat 'throwaway' in comparison to the 'proper' band songs, would be the highlights of this disc? Conversely, AXXONN are often most successful when melding the heady 'art' of experimental drone music with the more emotive, visceral world of rock and folk (in the traditional sense of the word), so it makes sense that the use of bombastic rhythms and big dynamic shifts would only add to the success of their music. However, this doesn't seem to be the case. It seems as though the aspects of AXXONN's music that they should be pursuing are the subtle melodies and texture shifts, and mixing those with a more subtle rhythmic approach.

Don't let my musings on why this record doesn't quite hit the heights its aiming for put you off, it's still a highly worthwhile release. All six songs are at the very least interesting, with none of them being remotely 'bad', while some of the solo tracks would be highlights on many quality records. Oh, and the packaging is pretty cool, almost meeting the lofty standards set by Rogers' other act, No Anchor.

Here's the video for 'The Second Death'.