A murderous wonder...
Tom Gilhespy
01:23 7th September 2006

All good storms are preceded by a lull, or so the cliché suggests, and though the relative calm here lasts only for thirty seconds or so, The Drones’ latest album is no exception. Faintly, as if at a distance from the microphone, someone shouts out “I’m recording, shut up!” But deep in the Tasmanian countryside, down at Gala Farm, the dogs still bark. Then the guitars come in, and a few seconds later, after one last flurry from the mutts, the bass and drums arrive. The onslaught has begun. At this early stage the tempo can be a little misleading: how much fury and power can there be in anything so slow? Enough, and then some more.

It takes only a few beautifully shaped lines from the mouth of Gareth Liddiard before we realise that we’re in the most powerful storm known to man: the aftermath of an atom bomb. “Cancer’s airborne now / Do you hear the sound?” This opening number, ‘Jezebel’, is one part love song to nine parts apocalyptic nightmare, apparently set in the Middle East, and it sets the tone for the album. ‘Dog Eared’ relaxes the pace and space still further, and features some wrought-up slide guitar (from session man Dan Luscombe) that takes The Drones’ punk blues to a new level. By now it’s clear that their objective isn’t to create a storm of noise – though often they do – but a storm of emotion. They succeed, and by looking at some truly repugnant individuals with a measure of compassion, they do it to delightfully cathartic effect. If the characters here can retain some humanity, there’s surely hope for us all. And if there isn’t hope, well, at least there’s some truly affecting music.

‘Words From The Executioner To Alexander Pearce’ is the first of two epics that delve into the slaughterhouse that was Australia’s early history. Pearce, occasionally known as Pearce the Peckish, was an escaped convict, hanged in 1824 after killing and eating six of his fellow escapees. This all happened in the wilds of Tassie, not too far from where ‘Gala Mill’ was recorded. There is, of course, some light relief. The fastest and jauntiest number is ‘I Don’t Ever Want To Change’, though even this tells of a depressed shopkeeper who burns his business down for the insurance money. Take a break and ignore the lyrics, if you must, and just go along for the exhilarating ride. The only cover, ‘Are You Leaving For The Country’, is more cheerful and is used to evoke an almost idyllic image of the Australian bush – despite it being an American song. ‘Sixteen Straws’, the final history lesson, abandons the band’s normal building blocks – heavy but spacious drumming, tight bass, down and dirty guitars – and strips the instrumentation back to acoustic guitars and a background wash of harmonica. In doing so it reiterates the importance of Liddiard’s vocals and lyrics in all of this. Even when they stray so far from their normal approach, the result still sounds entirely and only like The Drones.

With its excursions into local folklore, ‘Gala Mill’ is the most self-consciously Australian album in years. And with its heavy, visceral sound and the quality of Liddiard’s writing, it’s also one of the most important. A murderous wonder.