The Drones Gala Mill

[ATP/R; 2006]

Rating: 5/5

Styles: Aussie-folk, slop-bluegrass, thrash
Others: Dirty Three, Mogwai, Will Oldham

The Drones' third album, Gala Mill, finds them further honing in on the art of storytelling and desolate rock heaviness. To prove just how desolate these Aussie natives can be, Gala Mill was recorded on a spacious, 10,000 acre farm, deep in Tasmania. Between its mystery, fable, and fierce country swagger, Gala Mill has all the elements of an instant classic. For this album, they haven't actually changed their formula so much as they've gotten a lot better at it. Now, what makes these blues-infused folkies with distortion pedals stand out above the rest? Earnestness, passion, and honesty; they're cliché words in criticism and theoretically should apply to anyone's art. But much like Neil Young's songwriting, those traits are some of the best weapons they've got, and it's rarely ever this convincing. The Drones don't have to prove anything, nor do they have to prove that they don't have to prove anything. (If Teddy has seven apples and gives six to Jane at 4:45 pm, then takes a commuter train to Pittsburgh while stopping off to get a sandwich three miles before his destination...) No one is reinventing the wheel here; humility rules, and what makes Gala Mill so impressive is how The Drones wear their emotions on their sleeves and how naturally everything spills out.

In typical storyteller fashion à la Nick Cave and Bob Dylan, the music is primarily accompaniment to the greater purpose of the lyrics. Gareth Liddiard sounds passionately belligerent, belting out tales of anarchy, romance, and internal struggle. His deviant voice is distinctively crude, much like Tom Waits (or again, Dylan and Cave); that's just how it comes out of him. You'll either embrace his barbaric idiosyncrasies or they will be constant road blocks, but they refuse to be ignored. His stories jump from the real to the abstract, from protagonist to antagonist, without making any distinction between the antonyms. But where most people would use these tools and wind up with a convoluted mess, Liddiard sculpts his phrases into narratives, often modernizing the tradition of the ballad. Even when singing about something distinctive to the Australian countryside, which I'm not familiar with, he's tapped into the mystique of a foreign nostalgia, and like early American folk recordings, there's a contact high that a history book will never provide. The parallel between skuzzy sludge rock and folk heroism is set in stone when they pay a nod to Karen Dalton with "Are You Leaving for the Country." Clearly, The Drones are radicals, patriots, and lovers, all rolled into one.

But this isn't the fucking Black Crowes that we're talking about. Stripped of all novelty, gimmicks, and effects pedals (save distortion and the occasional wah-wah), The Drones keep the suspense level high, kicking ass by way of menacing crescendos. Their dynamics move to and fro, exploding with the real-time emotion, as each riff is dissected with edgy temperament. Given the long, prose form they're accompanying, there's plenty of time for them to rise and fall with the farm winds around them and it makes for an edgy listen throughout.

Speaking of real-time, I'm definitely a sucker for real-time movies like Dog Day Afternoon and Nick of Time and am equally fascinated when this effort is made in recording. There's something to be said for setting up a couple microphones in a room and going to town. It probably wasn't all done in one take, but in the style of Hüsker Dü's Land Speed Record or The Rapture's Out of the Races and on to the Track, Gala Mill calls considerable attention to its environment. Inevitably, a band will sound more comfortable and lucid in a rehearsal than in a studio with producers and time restraints. Needless to say (with the 10,000 acre farm entered into the equation), it sounds as if nobody is around for miles, leaving The Drones to their own devices. There's rustling wind, band banter, bird chirps, heartfelt sloppiness, and it's all crucial to Gala Mill's success. But more importantly, The Drones sound as though they're playing for themselves, and it's only by coincidence that we happen to be an audience.

1. Jezebel
2. Dog Eared
3. I'm Here Now
4. Words from the Executioner to Alexander Pearce
5. I Don't Ever Want to Change
6. Work for Me
7. I Looked Down the Line and I Wondered
8. Are You Leaving for the Country
9. Sixteen Straws