Music Features

Really Good Aussie Bands: A Lesson in Introspection

As a vast country with a tiny population, there has never been much scope for Australia to make waves on the international market, even if this has led to a vibrant, self-nurtured local music industry that is strong enough to sustain itself with a minimum of outside attention. But now all of a sudden, thanks to a Nirvana tribute band from Sydney, it seems that people are finally catching up with what's going on down under.

I've been dissin' the Vines to anyone who will listen for some time now, mainly on principle. But, while it's important to be wary of hype, I guess really we should be thanking them, for hauling the international spotlight onto Australia for the first time in ages. Not to mention giving thanks to this current rise of dirty new-wave garage post-rock that has allowed us to flourish in the eyes of the music world.

But there are just so many other bands in Australia, how can I make you see? Music that leans towards understatement, that inspires passion rather than hype, that thrives on under-exposure. And maybe it's for the best. After all, if all bands were as big and hyped as the Vines, inextricably bound up in a relentless publicity machine, the scene would be a shambles. On that note, today's lecture will be titled Really Good Aussie Bands: A Lesson in Introspection.

We'll start in Melbourne, Victoria, current home of Machine Translations, a whispery name that has become more of an insistent hum of late, albeit an immensely pleasant one. Often compared to Badly Drawn Boy, the man behind the sound, J.Walker, is an old soul, with a soft handshake and smiling eyes. He's been tinkering in his shed for around 6 years now, and has produced 5 albums under the name Machine Translations. The first three are little-known and fairly prog. "Very low-key," he says, "but I always thought that my music had a broader appeal."

'Disturbo-pop' is how his music is sometimes described, and Happy, Walker's most recent and highly acclaimed album, is precisely that: a puzzling mix of disturbing beauty and cheerful optimism. Eight months in the making, Happy is a multi-layered opus. Intricate, rich in melodies and experimental, computer-driven sounds, the record draws on Walker's many influences and experiences as a musician. He describes recording as "a creative, open-ended process where the end is rarely foreseen".

Driven by an appealingly post-modern approach to experimentalism and classic pop songwriting, the album's twelve tracks are a smorgasbord of fragmented electronic samples, subtle breakbeats, fragile vocals and engaging melodies, peppered with 80s rock references and Eastern influences. It's an album that's simultaneously dark and beautiful, mysterious but crystal clear. Happy is, indeed, that holy grail of the contemporary music scene, a Modern Classic, and one that will live on in the Australian music lexicon for many years to come.

J. Walker's most recent project has been in producing the upcoming album from intellectual-rock duo Sodastream, formerly of Perth, now also residing in Melbourne.

A match made in heaven, if truth be known, because there are few sounds as insidiously beautiful as the music of Sodastream. Consisting of Karl Smith on vocals and acoustic guitar and Pete Cohen on double bass, Sodastream have that kind of luscious blend of poetry and melancholy that is strongly reminiscent of Belle & Sebastian. Not surprising, really, given that the 'Stream boys featured B&S's Matt Walker and Mick Cooke on their first album, Looks Like A Russian, in 1999.

However, although Karl Smith has been described as "Stevie Jackson's vocal doppelganger", Sodastream has a notably starker, and frankly less poncy sound than B&S. The fundamental introverted intensity is there, but the ear is not coddled and overborne by overzealous orchestrations. Instead, one is lulled by the beauty and intimacy of unadorned vocals and beautifully crafted instrumentals.

Perhaps due to their detached and slightly reticent style, Pete and Karl are under the impression that they're not that big in Australia, and I put it to them that they're wrong. Okay, perhaps they are bigger in Europe and the UK. "We're big in Italy," says Pete. "We've always done better overseas than here." At any rate, Sodastream have just finished pressing their latest album after three years of relative silence, much to the relief of scores of quiet fans across the country. Yes boys, we've missed you and we can't wait.

Also highly anticipated is more stuff from Art Of Fighting, another Melbourne group who've toured a lot with Sodastream, and also with Stephen Malkmus when he was last here. They put out an excellent album in 2001 called Wires, a multi-textured 'exploration of love' which draws various influences, the main one, I think, being sadness. It is indeed a sad and beautiful album.

On the same label, and also hailing from Melbourne, Gersey is another tiresomely modest outfit of the meditative variety, and yet another example of why this could well be Australia's finest hour in terms of original music. Formed in 1997 by vocalist Craig Jackson and guitarist Matt Davis, Gersey is now a five-piece, managed both here and in the US, and has played alongside former Pavement dude Spiral Stairs' outfit The Preston School of Industry.

Gersey are finally gaining much-deserved recognition on the strength of their really rather wonderful second album, Storms Dressed As Stars, which is one of the loveliest, dreamiest, moodiest, indie-rock records you'll hear this year.

Storms Dressed As Stars is a study in introspection in itself, although not of the weighty shoegazing variety, as there's only hints of the patented Belle and Sebastian slow-tune here. But while comparisons can easily be made with the likes of the Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev, Gersey's music stands apart and avoids self-effacement, despite being about as thoughtful and mellow as you can get. And, while fundamentally brooding and reflective, this is music that, far from weighing itself down with heavy-handedness, manages to remain as fragile and ethereal as it is momentous and resounding.

Craig Jackson's gentle vocals fill the speakers with wistful and moody poetry. The jangling guitars and heavy bassline meander unhurriedly, but the music manages to stay cohesive and structured. It sprawls without being sloppy, testament to the band's seemingly innate ability to create music that swells forth from its own momentum, rather than a whole bunch of fancy-schmancy effects and well-worn tricks of the indie-pop trade. This is just as well, because the result is an charmingly well-crafted album, one that might make you ache with longing without knowing why, just as easily as it will make you smile and crank up the sound.

Gersey recently toured with Sydney band Gelbison, another shining light of the Aus-music landscape. Formed less than three years ago, Gelbison met Ian Ball from Gomez in a Sydney bakery one time, and ended up spending a night on Bondi beach with the Gomez boys. What resulted was a very positive collaboration with Ian Gomez, who produced Gelbison's debut album, 1704, which was recorded and mixed last year in the UK. Veteran kid-rocker Ben Lee wrote one track, and Luke Steele of the Sleepy Jackson contributed to another. Basically, as a band with a sound, they're all over the place.

But it's easy to come over all poetic at the very mention of Gelbison, whose name derives from a sacred mountain in Southern Italy. So indulge me by imagining 1704 in terms of a sparkly mountain stream, flowing over all these pretty rocks and pebbles. The mountain is Gelbison, the water is their music and the pebbles are all the bands that spring to mind throughout this album. Along with Spaklehorse, Radiohead, Badly Drawn Boy and Mercury Rev, the most obvious is Gomez, another arty rock band renowned for mix n' match. Working with Ian Ball is what influenced the various streams of music coming together. "Ian was really into combining stuff, rather than isolating sounds," says frontman Edo, although, as he points out, Gomez have a different dynamic that comes from having three frontmen instead of one.

In any case, Gelbison is a brilliant band in its own right, and is sure to achieve any measure of success. In fact, it may have already happened, as a friend has reported to the band having heard one of their singles being played in a chainstore pharmacy in Ohio. Fame or what?

Another band that looks set for a bit of fame, Aussie-style, is The Panics, from Perth. In fact, this place of origin is a feat in itself. Perth is so damn isolated, right over the other side of this wide brown land, and if you live on the East side of the country, it costs more to fly there than it does to Bali. And yet some of the best current music is coming out of Perth, like The Sleepy Jackson, Eskimo Joe and Halogen. Kind of a microcosm of Australia itself, it seems that isolation breeds coolness, creativity and talent.

Anyway, The Panics have recently returned from Manchester, where they played at the In The City Industry festival. They caught the eyes and ears of one Mark Coyle (producer of Definitely Maybe), who helped produce the upcoming debut album, which is now just months away from being released. Looks like they've got it made. And besides, Manchester alone was a coup for The Panics, because the band is founded on an abiding love of all things from Northern England. Says frontman Jae Laffer: "We've always liked to do music with atmosphere and texture, but we still have deep roots in hard rock n' roll." From what we've heard of their previous EPs, it's something along the lines of the Stone Roses and Radiohead, but more subdued.

Finally, the winners of Most Intriguing Name, electro-pop six-piece Architecture In Helsinki. You Brits might have heard of them because apparently John Peel plays them quite a bit on Radio One. For good reason, too. A gorgeously loopy, quirky and unpredictable style, the sound of AIH is a delicately knock-about blend of contrasting styles, with eccentric threads of electro-indie running through every song. Of the unusual name, vocalist Cameron Bird has said that "it alludes to finding wonder in something obscure." Perfect, just perfect. Another good encapsulation of Australia music.

Needless to say there's plenty of wonder down under, if you'd just look past the hype.