Despite my lack of interest in theming this column, a theme has bubbled up. Half the acts listed here are living overseas.
It could be because Australia is a tough country to live in as an artist. That notion has floated about for ages and was finally anchored last year when a survey pointed to serious health and wellbeing problems in an entertainment industry in âsevere distressâ. Living in cheaper cities with less distance between gigs, and a larger audience for niche scenes, is one way to relieve that distress.
Yet thereâs another reason why such good Australian music is made from abroad: living away from home is creatively motivating. Especially, perhaps, when that home is Australia.
Of their stunning 2014 album, Passerby, I wrote: âLuluc left Melbourne for Brooklyn four years ago and there succumbed to a productive nostalgia for the âshimmering heat of a bold hot sunâ. Itâs hard to imagine a record marked by such tender regard for Australia could come from any artist actually living here.â Viewed from afar, and removed from our day-to-day political buffoonery, Australia is a far more fruitful muse.
So letâs dive in. Iâve made a playlist for those keen to hear a selection of music discussed in columns in the year so far.
Lindsay Phillips â The Sleep Song
I used to think my obsession with the folk songs of Melbourneâs Lindsay Phillips would wane. And it still might if he quit writing songs of stark potency that seem to slow time itself.
Now living in a farmhouse in rural Sweden, the musician cares for his young son and summons songs from a steel string guitar, the wheezings of an heirloom accordion and a sorrowful baritone distinguished by an abundance of vibrato. Few effects are used and no collaboration sought: this is defiantly solo music.
Phillipsâ lyrics remain unmoored to time, place or subjectivity. At his most confessional, on Casting Shadows, he offers this truism, weighty with regret: âItâs hard to be wise in turbulent times/Itâs hard to be kind all the time.â
As on previous records, a medieval air stains his songs sepia. If, listening, we are transported anywhere, itâs to a Games of Thrones subplot that ruminates on real people instead of dragon-mothers and king-slayers.
Folk music need be no more, and should be no less, than this.
Buzz Kull â Chroma
Buzz Kull single Into the Void is a gothic dark wave classic that should soundtrack a club scene in a movie. Set to strobe lights on a dance floor dripping with drugsweat, the song has it all: pounding drum machine, stabs of frosty synth and vocals with a void where the heart should be.
Buzz Kull is Sydneyâs Marc Dwyer, and this recordâs been a long time coming. Kudos to newish label Burning Rose for releasing it at roughly the same time as an EP of bruised post punk from Publique, also excellent.
Dwyer is not without affectation and owes a lot to Devo, New Order and early Front 242. But given he covered Blue Monday when supporting Gary Numan, and named a song Lost Control, heâs not feigning originality. Iâm a believer in intros and outros, too, and Chroma has each. Opener, Christina, sets the tone for a record thatâs both minimal and grandiose but most of all ice-cold, as if the final touch in the mixing studio was a blast of liquid nitrogen.
Kris Keogh â Processed Harp Works Vol. 2
Kris Keogh is based in Nhulunbuy, and his toddler wonât sleep without this music. As for others in the tiny Arnhem Land community, Keogh says: âI think zero people here like it.â
I saw him last in 2009 at Newcastleâs This Is Not Art festival, pounding out a techno set on a monome. Even then â harp glittered around the edges â and now, harp is all there is.
Keogh processed the raw strings using self-made software (included as a bonus download). Bass flutters, never finding a rhythm, and digital tape hiss is ever-present. Still, itâs quite new age-y â although if it were playing in a massage room Iâd probably keep one eye open. Water metaphors are unavoidable â is water harpâs spirit element? I hear sun glinting on ripples; trickles snaking through soil; drips in mossy caves. Keoghâs compositions were inspired by birth (his daughter) and death (his father), and are offered to others as a reflective space.
As poet Denise Levertov wrote: âDonât say there is no water/to solace the dryness at our hearts.â
Au.Ra â Cultivations
Great shoegaze isnât defined by wall-of-sound guitars, though they sure help. The vocals should elicit genuine pity because unless I think things are insolvably fucked, I canât languish in the lethargy of doing nothing about it â and that is shoegazeâs chief charm.
Au.Ra make bliss-laden psych pop shot through the middle with Tom Crandlesâ sultry, sulky, distinctly Mancunian drawl. Itâs the formula for a feelgood wallow all right.
âI donât see corrugated skylines no more,â he sings on the Dandy Warhols-esque Above the Triangle (perhaps in reference to his move to London?), and all you want to do is ask if heâs OK. Sometimes songs evoke Animal Collectiveâs fiddly microcosms and sometimes the anaemic guitar noodling of The Durutti Column. Au.Raâs relative obscurity makes no sense. The duo brims with nice-sounding ideas, which they cram into dense, hooky songs.
Julia Reidy â Dawning On
Experimental guitarist Julia Reidy moved from Sydney to Berlin last year where, in addition to her solo work, she plays in a âthrashy improvâ duo called Pales in âplaces you probably havenât been toâ.
She bought her 12-string guitar just 18 months ago but plays it neck to bridge as though sheâs owned it forever, extracting an invigorating miscellany of sourness and warmth, twang and sustain.
Themes rarely repeat in Reidyâs compositions, so when a series of rueful notes does reprise in Something I Could Do it is disproportionally arresting. Bobbing up amid an erratic sea, the passage assumes significance, like sheâs stooped to spell something out for us. You absorb it like a sponge, involuntarily, because we canât help but latch on to repetition. Reidyâs harsh, choppy strumming on Upwelling brings to mind the bracing crescendos of The Necks. But where the jazz trio hammers it home, she backs off, slyly stymieing any hope of resolution.
Wolf Shield â Residuum
This is Wolf Shieldâs debut, but Iâve heard these songs before. Well, fragments of them anyway. These days Randy Reimann is best known as the founder of electronic act Tralala Blip â composed of members with and without disabilities â but in the early 90s he was the vocalist of legendary Sydney hardcore/thrash/punk band, Massappeal. They were Sydneyâs most ferocious live act, and Iâd come down from the Blue Mountains for their all-ages shows.
I was thrilled, then, when more than two decades later, Reimann sent me an album heâd made from Massappeal practice tapes: the âresiduumâ. Using magnets and video cassette recorders, heâd processed the dying moments of songs â crashing cymbals, feedback, or the room resonance as a song ended â and wrote lyrics based on a journal from the same era. It was a way to âexpress how Massappeal continues to vibrate on some level inside meâ, Reimann says.
The result is nine electronic excursions into skulking dark electro. On Supercell, you can hear remnants of Massappealâs abrasive textures, echoes of Reimannâs bratty sneer and how heâs alchemised it into something newly uplifting. If only we could all reconcile with our past creative selves so productively.
AcharnÃ© â Innocence and Suburbia
The dissolution of two romances â the first with his partner, the second with Berlin â saw techno producer Rick Bull, better known as Deepchild, forge new ground with a new alias: AcharnÃ©. In âa radical pause to reflect on the shifting sands of a beloved cityâ Bull made a very lovely record, full of gently shifting sensibilities.
In an interview with Native Instruments, Bull deep-talks the album as âa space which is essentially âhauntologicalâ or hypnagogicâ. Yet it could equally be tagged as a comedown record for the chill out space, as antiquated as that may sound.
As Bull suggests, the songs hark back but in the jazzy, post-classical touches â cymbals, piano loops, forlorn horns and a far-off clarinet â I hear mid-90s Ninja Tunes downtempo artists, such as Funki Porcini.
Cable Ties â S/T
When I arrived at Camp Copeâs pub gig earlier this year everyone asked: âBut did you see Cable Ties?â The Melbourne three-piece had clearly done their warm-up set white-hot justice. I mention it because some bands are all like âweâd be doing this anywayâ â but Cable Ties are not that band. Not only do they come with a feminist message thatâs made to be heard, but their music only works with the energy of an audience plugged in at its source.
Few can approach the strangled screams of Babes in Toylandâs Kat Bjelland as Cable Tiesâ singer and guitarist Jenny McKechnie does. It strikes me, though, that Bjellandâs howls happened decades ago now, and when McKechnie bellows âyou canât touch meâ there is more power, less pain. Women are singing back in a way they werenât before.
Elsewhere, the influence of Eddy Current Suppression Ring is strong in how the rhythm section holds down a groove for the guitar to break over. Meanwhile, even the cynics will sprout a goosebump or two at McKechnieâs anti-capitalist rant on Say What You Mean, because even if they find it gauche, it starts to fill the gaping hole for political rock and roll in Australia.