Ever come across a band that just sends you? Where you’re so blown away and instantly smitten that you feel the need to seek out others who feel the same? Then it happens that, aside from some critical acclaim and a few compatriots on YouTube, you find yourself more or less alone. When bands as massively great as The Drones get ignored and run-of-the-mill retreads like Vivian Girls get hyped to death, you can begin to feel a bit alienated. It gives me hope though that this impressive Australian quartet might yet have some crossover potential. So far, the only detraction I’ve come across is “I’ve heard better.” And I didn’t even bother to ask the YouTube commenter what he may’ve been referring to. So, despite seeing them perform selections from their esteemed catalogue three times in a row in 2008, I write this review stunned to find myself feeling like I’m on the outside looking in.
I suppose The Drones aren’t the most cuddly bear in the cave. But they bring something special to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s music that’s deadly serious and somewhat topical (see: world’s gone to shit and getting goner) but never preachy or overblown (just blown-out). It’s brutishly confrontational and classically infectious in equal measure. Their up-tempo songs are big, brash bluesy hard rock burners that bore right into you like all the best ones do. And the intermittent slower tunes are devastating in a fashion somewhere between sick solace and gnashed stoicism. As the lyrics become increasingly discernible and Gareth’s voice more vulnerable, you find yourself helplessly entwined with their enraged omniscient narrator in weary repose. Although the words are consistently resolve-sappingly bleak (“Stage fright is proof that nothing's right”), the music never loses its woozy, elemental pull. Singing the most wretched kind of poetry, even at the core of diaper mountain, there is a dependably relaxed sort of grace to Liddiard’s choked delivery.
The dicey, impossibly unwieldy balance of being part of the life’s major problems while being naggingly over-conscious of them informs the playing as much as the verbose, center-stage singing. There’s a subliminally drifting precision to every element, making the requisite atonal feedback carnage seem just as exquisite as those sultry ambient flutters and sustains. Throughout Havilah, the band reinvigorates the well-worn bass-guitars-drums set-up to a vertigo-inducing trance. The songs feel from the gut, yet are so subtly and meticulously arranged as to lift the base, throwaway vitriol of rock up to something that sticks to the ribs. The sensational instrumental refrain that runs through “I Am the Supercargo” is a prime example of what I’m talking about. It’s a potently galling sort of majesty that manages to culminatively evoke both grim resolve and crushing regret.
Frigid, sour, and disheartened as these songs essentially are, there’s still a feet-on-the-ground exaltation that carries the listener through. The fact that the band starts with their own brand of tough love (“Nail It Down”) and ends with a blithely shrugging exhalation (“Your Acting’s Like The End of The World”) shows a newer, more inviting Drones. I hear a band that’s proud of what it's done thus far but is prepared to stretch its pop legs. “The Minotaur” would’ve ripped up the charts in the mid-’90s, even if it easily wipes the floor with Soundgarden, Nirvana, and the like. Great as this refreshingly compact song is, they’re still just as good at songwriting as they are at creating compelling atmosphere, and Havilah’s best songs rise to the significant bar they’ve set in this regard. Perhaps it’s the particular direness of The Drones' resplendent misanthropy that prevents some listeners from digging in. I’d prefer to think that they just need to be heard in the right light. I know for me that it was love at first listen (“Shark Fin Blues” is still one of the most assailing post-’60s rock anthems around) but perhaps there’s just a mood and a place where it needs to click. There’s no shortage of rough-edged rock music out there, but most of it stops short of the next-level sort of workmanship found with The Drones.
Havilah is more humblingly good music at a time when rock music is more about being it’s-all-been-done humble. I guess the “me decade” is no time for heroes. Instead, I’ll flash my indulgent critic’s badge and appraise this band in defiance of their self-deprecating name: essential. I know this is a groan-inducing, sound-bite-style reduction; that’s exactly what they are. They’ve been laboring in obscurity, busting their asses to produce stultifying peals of simmering/careening brilliance for years now. Maybe they’re justifiably content enough with their accomplishments as is, but I can’t help but think that it’s time for y’all to get wise. This is the sound you need to get for right now, and it’s built to last well past that.
1. Nail It Down
2. The Minotaur
3. The Drifting Housewife
4. I Am The Supercargo
5. Careful As You Go
6. Oh My
7. Cold And Sober
8. Luck In Odd Numbers
10. Your Acting's Like The End Of The World