The enduring Blank Realm narrative is that they’re a weird improvisational band come good. The story goes that the Brisbane band has, since their 2010 LP Deja What?, awakened from its early scrappy folly and found redemption in rock ‘n roll. Let us forget those beautifully strange tape and CD-R editions they issued from the bleak torpor of the Howard years.
Grassed Inn completes a transformation that began with that 2010 record: it’s a rock album which is not surrounded by anything potentially unpalatable to impatient listeners. The category “rock music” can signal a lot of things but in its most traditional sense it evokes something immediate. You do not need to deconstruct a good rock record straight away: that can wait until later.
I was a bit stressed out about this new Blank Realm album. I think this band is perfect when it is operating precisely halfway between the provinces of redemptive rock music and the ambiguous, mysterious abandon of lo-fi improvised psychedelia. Watching the group hurtle rapidly towards the former extreme of this dichotomy, I feared they might turn into a crap rock band.
The reason I feared this is because Blank Realm, even when they offer very appealing reasons to sing along, have always seemed a band about texture. For example: if ‘Full Moon Door’ from Deja What? or ‘Cleaning Up My Mess’ from Go Easy were stripped of their layers of superfluous, reverberated greasiness, I’d have no reason to listen. The song left behind would not be enough. After all, these songs comprise nothing more than verses punctuated by wig outs.
Blank Realm still don’t really do choruses. They do on ‘Falling Down The Stairs’ for example, but it’s the instruments carrying the melodic hook and not the words. Blank Realm rock songs usually have one star melody on which they rely exclusively. Personally, I can’t imagine ever being moved in any easily describable way by a Blank Realm song. I can’t imagine shedding a tear. I won’t select a Blank Realm song to soundtrack my funeral. But I would readily describe a common latter day Blank Realm song as a kind of vitamin supplement for the imagination.
This is why I was shocked when I found myself enjoying the new Blank Realm album more than any I have previously, since it’s definitely their most straightforward. It’s easy to assume that many of the elements that make Blank Realm excellent are either accidental or circumstantial (the way they record etc), but Grassed Inn announces these traits as either stylistic decisions or something inherent. ‘Bulldozer Love’ was the song that prompted this discovery, and it is typical of what I’m talking about.
Here’s what I’m talking about. Blank Realm have a way of performing their songs so that they sound like several distinct transmissions orbiting one another but not quite combining. Listen to the sad guitar line during ‘Bulldozer Love’, and then block it out and focus on the perfunctory synth bassline, and then notice how Daniel Spencer’s vocals seem to preside over it all from another place. Each part seems at an odd remove from the rest. What’s ‘locked into’ what?
When you listen to a rock record, it’s important to maintain the illusion that the record is performed by its musicians in the same room at the same time. The elements in a good Blank Realm song never actually perfectly align though. They don’t sound played. They all sound like they are coming from different arenas. I don’t see a band playing, but instead music happening.
I find this effect haunting and beautiful. This sense of dislocation and separation makes the presence of any coherence – the presence of a song – all the more special. It sounds like the latency of yells or foghorns pitched across long distances. The end result is that Blank Realm songs, when they’re good, sound more like phenomena than craft. Blank Realm is still an airy collection of disparate and ill aligned sounds even though they’re now ostensibly a “rock band”. You can’t really deny they’re a rock band, but they’re definitely not in any pejorative way that suggests mundanity, despite tracks like ‘Bell Tower’ and ‘Back to the Flood’ sounding considerably dryer texturally than ever before.
I don’t think Blank Realm is unique in this. Listen to ‘Third Stone From The Sun’ by Hendrix for a textbook example. Similarly, heaps of early psychedelic rock evokes this feeling, and you need only listen to a Syd Barrett Pink Floyd record to hear it. It’s also true that a lot of the Flying Nun groups achieved this, chiefly The Clean, and its probably this sense of familiar sounds emanating from a vast distance that so endeared that New Zealand scene to those in the Northern Hemisphere.
But I do think that the Blank Realm narrative – ie, the one that cherishes the group’s move from an exploratory concern into a rock one – is overstated. Because even their early records were rock on the group’s own terms: the separate elements torn away, thrown asunder and then, as if magnetised, coming imperfectly together again. It’s just that the pieces are now forming something more closely resembling song.