Last weekend in Melbourne, and the week before in Brisbane, A Rock & Roll Writers Festival returned for a second year to put songwriters, music critics and novelists on stage to discuss their craft. Speakers included Adalita, Bunna Lawrie, Tim Rogers, Jess Ribeiro and Jenny Valentish. I took part in a panel with three other music critics.
The festival claims to âcelebrate the creative relationship between writing and musicâ, though it does much more. First, it asserts that contemporary music, writing and the confluence of the two actually matter in Australian culture. That alone slakes a terrible thirst. Second, it asks why they matter and how.
Into the chasm cracked apart by those questions, answers come skidding and tumbling, following rich new seams of conversation. Thrust into the literary spotlight for a change, the speakers were stripped of pretension: the musicians shorn of showmanship, the writers of the sheepishness they assume in the shadow cast by more âimportantâ topics of criticism like visual art or literature.
Itâs likely most people at the festival in some way diminish what they do. Not only because of tall poppy syndrome or the self-deprecating Australian way but because they are economically undervalued, which saps their self-worth.
That day, Guardian writer Andrew Stafford handed out photocopies of a Matt Groening cartoon called How To Be A Feisty Rock Critic. Even in 1986, music criticism was accompanied by a âvague sensationâ that it was a âridiculousâ career choice. And maybe it is. But not at A Rock & Roll Writers Festival.
While the event gave egos temporary succour, itâs the music we return to for long-term sustenance. And a song like A Quality Of Mercy by RVG â on the album of the same name â is a perfect example of why music matters.
Two years on from the executions in Bali of drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, this single song, less than four minutes long, was able to re-summon a very particular pain. To keep that ugly rift in Australian public life alive, even when the protagonists are dead â to remind us how unforgiving we have become.
RVG â A Quality Of Mercy
In 2015, as the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran drew close in Bali, opinions in Australia were polarised. On radio and online people wished the men dead, refusing to countenance their rehabilitation. Singer and guitarist Romy Vager watched on from Melbourne and, two years later, released an album of charged and beautiful rock songs, partly inspired by the time.
RVG evoke 80s Australian bands that crammed garage rock cred with sun-dappled hooks, such as Sunnyboys or the Go-Betweens. What makes these songs so moving is not Vagerâs voice itself but her delivery. Her fierceness, her flow and how clear it is sheâs singing about what she knows. Vincent Van Gogh is a character assassination of archetypal masculine rock and roll heroes â âYou say youâre hard done by/You say youâre a wreck/But the damage you do is worse than/The damage you getâ â and its clean and bright guitar lead should drape over day-drinking in beer gardens from here until eternity. This album sounds nothing like a debut; it was a born a classic.
Red Red Krovvy â S/T
When Ash Wyatt of punk three-piece Red Red Krovvy sings, you want to smash shit up. Hurl a boot, start a stampede. Heck, dismantle some systems. âIâm sick of being late! Iâm sick of making you wait!â Hang on, what?
Red Red Krovvy formed at Cairns high school 10 years ago. Guitarist Ben Warnock told Noisey these songs are ânot really saying anything but neither is most of your existenceâ. His words could be a mission statement for any number of Melbourne dolewave bands. But when that same sense of suburban aimlessness collides with Red Red Krovvyâs mean fury of punk, it ignites into something genuinely cathartic.
Drummer Adam Ritchie hits hard and Warnockâs caveman riff on Holiday reminds me of how Mikey Young steams away in Eddy Current Suppression Ring, playing stuff that makes your neck hurt the next day. Itâs also worth repeating: though her vocals are coolly multi-tracked with a Kim Gordon-style talk-sing, Wyattâs yelling is epically pissed off. If Red Red Krovvy decide to start something â anything â Iâll get right behind it. Until the record ends, anyway.
Dag â Benefits Of Solitude
It was a relief to learn that Dag songwriter Dusty Anastassiou grew up on a cattle station in Mundubbera. âI was sort of the shit-kicker/stable boy/jackeroo,â he told a Melbourne music podcast. Novelist Lionel Shriver may say itâs OK to tell other peopleâs stories but if Anastassiou were a city boy and these songs of âcattle dropping like fliesâ were lifted from headlines browsed over a Gertrude Street piccolo, Iâd have felt a little cheated.
Anastassiou lives in Melbourne now and though this record inhales the shambling amble-rock of local bands Lower Plenty and Dick Diver, it exhales the country. âWhen is the sky is empty and the water is low/When debt and death go hand in hand,â he croaks on the macabre waltz of Endless, Aching Dance.
Elsewhere, itâs all mid-20s ennui backed by caustic guitar strums and the sad swoops of Skye McNicholâs violin, all of it bringing to mind Moonpix-era Dirty Three or the off-kilter country-rock of Palace Music. Ennui is not the extent of it, however. Company is a window to peer in on depressionâs rock-bottom for those who have never suffered it. âCompany, it could not cure me/Despite your best/I might take my last breath,â sings Anastassiou, his sentiment proven when the band chips in to harmonise yet he still sounds wretchedly alone.
Desecrator â To the Gallows
In the seven years since Melbourne metal band Desecrator formed, they have shrieked and shredded on hundreds of stages in Australia and abroad. They have recorded a live album and even âa bloody cassette tapeâ, says singer and guitarist Riley Strong, but To the Gallows is their first studio LP. It is freshly recorded vintage thrash. Even the film quote on Desert for Days hoons back to 1981 (itâs from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior). A good year for Max, a good year for metal.
Desecratorâs brand of thrash metal party music speeds so shamelessly through the stereotypes you barely bother clocking them. Strong hits and holds the high Rob Halford notes and no oneâs dared to tell lead guitarist Scottie Anning you canât start a song with a fiddly-as-hell solo. Thrash is a Verb is my favourite. Not only does Strong drop a grammar lesson â âThrash is a verb, itâs an action, itâs a doing wordâ â he continues the tradition of metal songs about metal in this instructional manual for fans. âStretch out your neck/Limber up your shoulders/No-one sits down at a Desecrator show!â
Glitter Veils â Figures in Sight
I bet the record collections of Michael Whitney (Nite Fields) and Luke Zahnleiter (The Rational Academy) are real beauties. As Glitter Veils, the Brisbane duo makes sumptuous bedroom pop intent on extracting exactly the right hue from every sound on these crawly, drawly slow jams. Itâs a record that suggests a history of deep listening and more than a little obsessiveness. Record collector types.
Effects wobble, whoosh backwards or come at you sideways: consummately mangled. The earworm on Gibberish Talks isnât a âbitâ you can hum later. Itâs not a chorus, melody, horn or hook you want to play on repeat but the sound of the guitar itself, lush and gravelly, when it breaks over the song, taking the bedroom setting somewhere vast. All the guitars, in fact, sound like they have been recorded in perfectly resonant rooms.
Whitneyâs monotone, meanwhile, has the sticky closeness of Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse while Soft Touch channels the Eastern psych of Brian Jonestown Massacre. Pretty much every track on side B could be an outro. That, or a waltz for stoned people to languidly cut a rug to.
Lawrence English â Cruel Optimism
Lawrence English mastered the art of dense and affecting ambient compositions some releases ago. For Cruel Optimism he strayed from solo practice to serendipitous input from musicians including Heinz Riegler and Thor Harris (Swans). The record brewed in a year (2016) when an âunimaginable future â¦ began to present as actualâ, says English.
Commonly, such instrumental releases allow listeners to exit via lighter passages, suggestive of hope. Not so here. English trusts our fortitude to cope with a record that advances as inexorably as an icebreaker ploughing the polar sea, bound for something grim. The trombone on Exquisite Human Microphone begins as a muted caution only to return like a foghorn bellowing from the deep.
The pounds of sound on Hammering a Screw and Object of Projection strike as body blows that recede, redouble, strike again. Techniques such as this are reprised on Cruel Optimism but rather than seeming studied they are as elemental as an earthquake and its aftershocks. âThe storm has broken and feels utterly visceral,â English says.
Orion â S/T
When Orion played a gig for Sydney label Paradise Daily last year, a bigger crowd showed up than usual. A wilder, boozier feeling was in the air. Something was pent-up. This is Orionâs first LP but theyâve built a fervent following through gigs, a long sold-out demo cassette and the presence of band members in hardcore/punk bands including MOB, Whores and Low Life.
For a scene used to finding catharsis in the fast, rough and hard, Orionâs melodic post-punk is almost too full of sentimentality to bear; a sleeve on which to smear your messed-up, strung-along, late-night heart. In the small pond Orion came from, this LP was always going to make a big splash but it is entirely deserving of all and any praise. There is a lot of vintage Manchester here â from Joy Divisionâs idiosyncratic bass lines to Morrisseyâs moroseness in Yuta Matsumuraâs vocals. The wonder is how the four members (and drum machine) pitched in so synergistically to augment these songs, as if they were all sharing the same life story.
Nadia Reid â Preservation
Years ago, somehow, I missed the memo that Sufjan Stevensâ songs were to god, not to a lover. Certainly not, by extension, to my lovers, but it was too late: Stevensâ god songs were strewn across years of mix-tapes made for significant others.
Folk singer Nadia Reidâs second album could be aimed heavenwards too. Lyrical clues are embedded in most songs and the first and last tracks are as spare, self-contained and hummable as hymns. As on her 2015 debut â released when she was only 24 years old â Reid has a lovely way of lingering on some notes and clipping others short. She has just returned from touring to her hometown, Christchurch, where her friends and fellow folkies Marlon Williams and Aldous Huxley live too. All sing in a style beyond their years â what is it in New Zealandâs untroubled waters?
EWAH & The Vision of Paradise â Everything Fades to Blue
Tasmanian singer and songwriter EWAH (Emma Waters) took four years to make this album with her band. Yet her vision didnât dim on any of its eight noir-rock tracks. Every aspect coheres into a whole â from the dusky cover art of clouds and mountains to the frontier sprawl of tremolo-heavy guitars and crescendos swelled by synthesiser. Songs brood and build into lush, long outros, some of them satisfyingly loud.
Midway through comes Vision Of Paradise â the summit of this recordâs romanticism. âI had a vision of paradise/and it looked like you,â Waters sings, her voice all big-hair 80s diva; her candour drawing you close. Like Paradise Motel or Mazzy Star, this is romance that is bruised, blue and too heart-on-sleeve for a group setting. Enjoy it alone where you can pull it tight.