The Drones’ first album in nearly five years is a thing of dark, unsettling majesty
No band so seamlessly marries the emotional, intellectual and visceral like The Drones. Even as far back as their breakthrough album, 2005’s Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By…, song after song was a lucid, witty, insight into themes as varied as suburban domestic disputes, asylum seekers or good ol’ breakups. And all of it was set to the compelling, deeply discomfiting combination of Gareth Liddiard’s grating snarl and original guitarist Rui Perera’s discordant, unhinged guitar.
The swirling result was music that was, unusually for an Australian band with such a firm grasp of melody and song structure, something that routinely rewarded repeat listening, that could take the mundane – or the extraordinary – and sandpaper it back to a matte finish, leaving the listener raw, exposed.
In hindsight, then, it feels inevitable that today, nearly five years after the sprawling Havilah, we have I See Seaweed, a monstrous, confounding thing of dark majesty.
If nothing else, after over a decade of playing together, and five years on various solo and side projects, The Drones have learned the value of getting out of each others’ way. For a band so influenced by the raucous noise of 80s punk and garage, The Drones’ latest is most notable for its willingness to forego music almost entirely.
Songs ebb and flow, often resembling the score for some long-lost horror flick, shifting from near silence (a muted kick drum, Liddiard’s morbid groan, the occasional bass flick) to flat-out, shred-the-guitar, kick-the-drums-down-the-stairs cacophony. There is an ever-present ominousness, the threat of left-turns, a sudden fill of horror-movie chimes, a squalling guitar fill, incomprehensibly creepy backing vocals from the until-now underused Fiona Kitschin.
Never more are the album’s unsettling delights on display than the stunning, epic ‘Laika’, the story of the first dog the Russians fired into space. Approaching eight minutes (not an unusual runtime for this band), the song never lets the listener listen in comfort, shifting from a dark, off-key guitar coda that repeats throughout the song, to an almighty crescendo of chaotic noise, then back to Liddiard, mirroring the same melodic call with the uneasy, ambiguous phrase ‘half a pound of sugar!’. Again. And again. Pianos tinkle mysteriously, bass rumbles, then everything explodes.
Much the same can be said for the titular opener, yet it is an utterly different song, allowing Liddiard’s wit and lyrical sense of humour shine through.
Barnburners that old-timer fans would lament the passing of are not forgotten, though. ‘A Moat You Can Stand In’ is a searing, rollicking four-minute tour de force, closely reminiscent of ‘I Don’t Ever Want to Change’ off the band’s previous best, Gala Mill.
There are even moments of (semi) sweetness. ‘How to See Through Fog’ is held together by a chiming minor-key piano line that could very nearly be described as ‘pretty’, while Liddiard sounds very nearly at his most ennui-filled and lethargic, chanting “They only ever think you’re good/When you’re walking like you’re made of wood.”
I See Seaweed ends on another unexpected moment. The tender ‘Why Write a Letter’. While nothing like the blood-soaked convict tale ‘Sixteen Straws’ from Gala Mill, ‘Why Write a Letter’, softly lets the listener out of the album’s clutches. The band waft gently behind Liddiard’s paean to a simpler time (a topic, incidentally that would be horribly gauche in lesser hands) with a half-time lounge groove.
On that closing, it feels as though the band are gently guiding us back to land. By album’s end, the title’s possible purpose becomes apparent. You’ve been on a voyage. In a storm. Buffeted about, exhausted, but exhilarated. And better for the experience. Liddiard drops you back off on dry land, shakes your hand, but suggests that no one’s going to correspond with anyone. Rather, you’ll hear from them again only when you come back together.
And that’ll be just fine.