It’s a little difficult to tell whether or not Superstar are poking fun. The title of this album and its tracklist almost read like a series of quietly apologetic in-jokes regarding the band’s sound – primitive drum machine; pristine 80s keys; illustrative guitar noodling; whispery, sensuous vocals. It brazenly parades the sonic signifiers of non-descript downtempo pop or TV movie soundtracks from that era, but it refuses to be taken at face value. Calling these exquisite tracks things like ‘Fine Wine’ or ‘Deep Heat’, and laughingly branding your band as ‘Adult Contemporary’, feels like a challenge to the listener to hear past the facade… or a middle finger to those too lazy or callous to bother.
Closer listens bring more concrete allusions to the fore. Parts of A Toast To… sound very much like transition-era Talk Talk unspooling their introspective anti-blues. The guitar sometimes brings to mind early Durutti Column or Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack to Local Hero. It’s worth noting that this record is pretty dark in places, too. ‘Deep Heat’ seems to touch on late-period Earth, then Brightblack Morning Light, and then Om doing their best ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’ impression, all in the span of about a minute. It dapples the listener with an extraordinary array of moods and shades, evoking the patterns thrown by the shifting shadows of an ornate tree bough on a windy day.
But any associations that the music may bring up for you shouldn’t be lent too much weight. The album may look to the past, built, as it is, with tools that recall distantly familiar and incidental music, but valuing it solely on its appropriation of faded signifiers is a waste. This is a deceptively clever record that boasts three inventive and evocative instrumentals bookended by two sublimely forlorn pop songs. It’s music that’s more potent and simpler than most you’re likely to find on any of this year’s most fetishised Australian releases.
It’s perfectly valid to hear it as a retro-homage – as a record that does little more than conjure something indefinable lurking in the psyches of a generation of Australians that grew up watching TV and half-ignoring commercial radio in the 80s. But dismissing this music because of its surface aesthetic is unwise. If you like, use it as a bridge to the album’s understated and unassumingly dextrous songs. You can listen to it as a shiny nostalgic artefact if that works for you, but it’s much more rewarding considered as a unique, informed, and well-written piece of pop music that also poses as an aesthetic riddle.
A Toast To… effortlessly manages something that many bands aspire to – making potent art of past relics – and even transcends it as irrelevant. It almost hurts to think that most of those who should really hear this won’t even know it exists.
The name Rites Wild conjures visions of violent or malevolent ecstasy – of sparagmotic dismemberment and sublime highs. The purpose of that type of rite has long been lost on the western world, and in the absence of any real ecstatic expression, we’re now encouraged to drone on in monotone with barely any sensory deviation. We’re like what Clov observes when he surveys the audience through a telescope in Beckett’s apocalyptic stage play, Endgame: “I see… a multitude… in transports… of joy.”
It’s telling that Stacey Wilson has named her own label Heavy Lows. Its few releases are akin to Rites Wild: they’re similarly spartan in tone, but they share a weird optimism with the label founder’s own work that is important in light of this release. With Rites Wild, it’s almost as though Wilson is trying to reach for some form of ecstatic release by way of devotion to a minimal, brooding, quietly angry music.
Ways Of Being doesn’t change much from her M.O. to date. Its bulk comprises songs already released on cassette EPs over the last 18 months, with a couple of newer tunes rounding the package out to LP length. It presents us with a raft of anaemic drum machines, glowing synths and guttural vocal intonations, meshed into cerebral dubscapes and dirgey organ preset waltzes.
The most striking thing about this collection is the way it balances the cosmic with the intimate. On one hand, each element is tailored to sound as though it’s reaching for the cusp of perception. Drum machines and vocals are cloaked in immense reverb, and walls of delayed texture unspool endlessly into the distance on tunes like ‘Detached Living’. The title track spins a web of resigned, melancholic pop, which is squeezed through a sifting phase shifter to give the impression that its perimeters are slowly warping. Wilson’s vocal on ‘Work Ethic’ is so obfuscated by the burgeoning effects that it seems (appropriately) like a disembodied invocation. But the overall sound of everything is focused, almost muted, and utterly contained, as though by the sleight of a carefully disciplined hand that’s corralling each strand into the strictures of a small loom.
It certainly feels ritualistic, but not in any wild way. If it is reaching for some unattainable sublime, then it fails unequivocally, and this is what makes it so compulsive. It’s the thing that gives the aimless reggae clip of ‘Minimal Where’, or the star-gazing resignation of ‘Ill Health’, inexplicable drive and purpose. It’s what imbues the exquisite and demented waltz of ‘Seasonal Shine’ with a kind of galling, tragic beauty.
It’s meditative – it illustrates what we find at the end of the day’s drone, lighting the distant and intangible contours of what little hope we can still cherish in the depths of each insular, quiet night. Similarly, it’s transcendent and slow – it reaches for catharsis with a thoroughly uncanny discipline. How are we to tear ourselves from these oppressive screens, but with slow perseverance?
Sagittarian Domain plays like the grim soundtrack to some lost, spartan German sci-fi film from the ’70s. It instills a prolonged and potent sense of paranoia that lingers just out of sight, like the presence of some shadowy figure echoing your footsteps as you gradually hasten down a darkened alley.
It’s considerably different to anything Oren Ambarchi has released before, and may stand as a singular anomaly for his future releases as well. In some ways, it resembles the track ‘Knots’ from Audience of One, which came out in March – it’s a single long-form piece, lasting around half-an-hour, that takes its time to get where it’s going, dazzling you with the depth and detail of its arrangement along the way. On the otherhand, it’s significantly different to ‘Knots’ – its backbone is a single synth note that pulses in the dark lower registers of the instrument, mirrored by a primitive, shuffling drum machine that ekes out an impassive krautrock pace. Snagged in between these is Ambarchi himself, doubling the rhythm on an acoustic kit.
What makes Sagittarian Domain’s atmosphere so exhilarating and intoxicating is the flailing human element at its core. While Ambarchi’s textural guitar histrionics are imposing and sepulchral throughout, the drummer at the centre of the piece feels vulnerable and panicked in their company. The percussion sounds as though it’s been played live, in one take, and its slight imperfections – a missed hit, a tiny gap in the pattern as the player pauses to take stock – lend the impression of a person tiring, almost stumbling, as they try to escape the faceless things that swoop down and ooze in from the peripheries.
As with most of his work, beautiful ‘new’ detail reveals itself with repeat listens – but you might not find yourself needing to return to it. So potent is the malicious ambience of the piece, and so lush and extraordinary is the sanctuary it reaches in closing, that it exists particularly well as an idea, an abstract narrative. Listen once, and the heady world of the track will be with you whenever you think of it – its airless tension and unexpected catharsis only a thought away, floating in your subconscious like a perfectly dark jewel.
Hollow Press is the work of Adelaide’s Shaun McNamara. It’s his only musical work to date, so if his name seems as familiar to you as it did to me, you needn’t go searching.
So far, Hollow Press has two releases – an EP called Empathy and a long player called Fleeting Joy [reviewed here]. Each presents a series of mood-focused dreamscapes for the listener to lean into and explore on their own terms. Through tinny laptop speakers, the music sounds quietly foreboding and monotonous – up close, it becomes a potent, immersive experience. Close your eyes for even 20 seconds of ‘Elysium’, and you can begin to peer into the forlorn, sublime limbo that birthed these tracks.
The impression of McNamara channeling the fallout between discrete spaces is mirrored by the two forms his music takes. Much of his music is devoted to a kind of gloriously devolved beatscape that shares certain things with witch house or minimal techno, but dispenses with the sensuousness and forward motion of those tags. The music’s other approach eschews rhythm entirely in favour of dense digital texture and seething ambient spaces. A prevailing sense of resignation and quiet hope bridges the two settings. It’s potent, and occasionally challenging, but richly rewards the time you spend with it.
Why the name Hollow Press?
I’m a big fan of Grouper, I think Liz Harris is amazing. She has a song called ‘Hollow Press’. It’s not a favourite song of mine but I really like the title.
Why did you start Hollow Press? Were you trying to express or address anything in particular?
I started the project at the beginning of 2012. At first it was something I didn’t think would take off, more of just a hobby. I want Hollow Press to remain an ideal of creative expression and celebrate the general freedom of experimentation. I appreciate artistic individuality as opposed to conformity and I hope that clearly comes across in my music.
Your music feels as though it addresses the quietly oppressive nature of the internet and its associated data saturation. How does your experience of digital culture impact on your work?
Since my music heavily involves sampling and data manipulation, digital culture is extremely important. And because of the digital age, I’ve been able to connect with people all over the world. I only had Fleeting Joy online for about four weeks when I was contacted with the prospect of joining US label Drug Arts. This type of connection with people from around the world inspires me to continue making music.
How important is ‘texture’ in your music?
It’s extremely important. I want my sound to have its own environment and I think each layer plays an important role. I enjoy taking sounds from everyday environments – a door opening, a person walking up stairs, trees swaying in the wind, tape hiss, etc. Manipulating those sounds is one of the most enjoyable aspects I’ve experienced while being Hollow Press. I like knowing that I can make music without a regular instrument, but instead with sounds from the everyday world.
The ambient passages in your music are incredibly affecting – you can’t listen to them closely without them changing your mood somehow. Is this the goal with Hollow Press: to create a mood for the listener? When you begin work on a track, what do you envision for it?
I don’t ever want to enforce a particular mood, because I want to leave that to the listener to decide. I don’t want people getting depressed when they listen to Fleeting Joy, I want them to be able to enjoy it without falling down a gloomy hole. I want there to be a connection with the listener – if they are willing to let themselves experience it. When I begin to work on a track, I visualise a soundscape that is fairly intimate, with low frequency rumbles, machine noises, distorted voices – things like that. I envision making sounds that can be enjoyed and appreciated by people with open minds.
Do you draw on dream experiences when you write? Was there some other subconscious environment that you were trying to dial into when writing Fleeting Joy?
I love that escape from reality, removing yourself from the world. I like places that are quiet and sleep is one of those unique places. Fleeting Joy is like a taping of my subconscious in some piece of my world.
Why the ‘Fire Walk With Me’ track? Is it a cover, or more of an homage?
It’s not a cover, but I do like David Lynch. As you’ve noticed, I’ve sampled voices from Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, two of my favourite Lynch films. I like the surreal nature of his films.
Actually, your music sometimes has an implicitly cinematic feel to it. Do you ever begin with particular images in mind?
People have told me that before, but I’ve never tried to intentionally make a song that would be suitable for cinema. I suppose my more hushed, ambient songs would be considered cinematic to some. I could see me doing a new score to one of my favourite short films, Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren. That could be fun. But I think I approach music with more of a photographic image in mind, rather than the cinematic image.
Your music has two pronounced settings – moody ambience, and kind of textural, deconstructed hip hop instrumentals. Why do you splice both of these approaches into Hollow Press?
I find it funny that I’ve used some instrumental hip hop beats because I don’t listen to hip hop. But most of the beats I used were dragged through dirt and covered in muck. My first EP was drenched in witch house samples and beats. Ambient music generally doesn’t have any beats, so I guess I thought it would be interesting to mix some in to almost create some sort of sound dilemma or aural confusion. And looking back now, I’m not a huge fan of that EP release. I think it’s okay, but it becomes tiring and dull because there are no spacious qualities. With Fleeting Joy, the beat work seemed to work much better. But my next release will most likely have no beats at all.
What would you identify as the primary influences, or touchstones, for the music you make as Hollow Press?
Cocteau Twins are incredibly inspiring to me because their music was so textured and mysterious. Whenever I listen to them I lose sense of where I am. And, of course, Grouper is an influence, as well as Motion Sickness of Time Travel, His Name is Alive, Lovesliescrushing, Topaz Rags, Valet and aTelecine. I listen to so much music and it’s all inspiring in some way. Some other influences come from Kafka, Camus, and photographic work from the likes of Rebecca Cairns and Sonia Firlej. I think I’m inspired by a lot of things, whether it’s a piece of art or part of nature.
Tell us about the photography you’ve used for the artwork on Empathy and Fleeting Joy. Why did you choose these images?
The artwork is from Polish photographer Sonjia Firlej. She has been incredibly supportive of my music. I will be using more of her photographs for future releases and I’m forever grateful to her. The images that I’ve chosen both feature individuals with their eyes covered – not covered by another, but covered by choice. We don’t have to accept everything that is shoved down our throats or thrown at us to see. We get the right and the freedom to do what we want. Also, I like to look at these photographs as images from a dream.
I imagine some people would write your music off as too difficult, or too dark to really warrant close listening. How would you encourage people to listen to it, and what would you hope they take from it, were they to give it the effort it deserves?
I’m sure a lot of people would find my music boring or too difficult. Some would find it depressive, sure, but I don’t make it for those narrow-minded, conservative types. I encourage those with an open mind to give it a try and see where it might take them.
Top People is a bit of a Sydney “super group”, comprising Jonathan Boulet of Parades and singer Zacc Abbott-Atchison of the defunct but fondly-remembered Halal! How Are You?
While Halal’s whippet-lean neo-’60s homages were always good fun (the group weren’t averse to tucking snatches of the riff from ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ into sets), they always seemed slightly at odds with Abbott-Atchison’s husky histrionics. Think of something like an angry Tom Waits fronting Pink Floyd in jam mode, barking outrageous things like ‘Your body is a fascist zombie!’, or proclaiming ‘When I make love to you, it feels like I’m playing Daytona 2’. His antics never quite fit the music either – their brusque, perfectly rehearsed mod ensemble changes seemed a civilised contrast to Abbott-Atchison’s need to sing while throwing his beer-spitting bulk through the crowd, or teetering precariously atop the bar, swinging his shirt over his head.
Top People is an inspired pairing, because it sees the hyper-masculine instrumental tendencies of Boulet’s solo work rising to meet Abbott-Atchison’s manic presence. He sounds at once gleefully thrilled by the monolithic riffage that cages him, and slightly panicked by it, which is hilarious and exhilarating to behold. The music, managed largely by Boulet on this EP, is riff-heavy slow-mo power trio fare. They basically sound like Sydney’s answer to The Melvins, but with the grimacing long jams excised in favour of bilious sax and clarinet, care of “ex-Brisbanite and ‘cooking for therapy’ endorsee, Kirsty'”. Throughout, it seems as though Boulet has found his largest amps and drawn his forearm across the EQ panel of each of them. Every time the guitars slacken their onslaught – for some sludgy palm-muting or wanton stop-start dynamics – feedback whistles comically forth. It all sounds quite mad.
There are two drawbacks to this release. The first is that it’s more than a little puerile. In a way, that’s part of the fun, and it’s fairly obvious that the listener is meant to take most of it with a hefty pinch of salt. ‘It’s The Humidity’ begins with the line ‘I lost my teeth to a long-neck of Resch’s’ and the ensuing story sounds funny enough to be true; its racist/homophobic undertones painting the author as a hapless doofus rather than a ranting bigot. The ruptured levee of ‘Artesian Water’ is blessed with a gloriously absurd non-sequitur of a chorus (‘I hope in heaven together / we can drink artesian water’), and the title track needs no dilation, given its topic. One can only imagine that the “‘Working With Children’ certificate” mentioned in the liner notes next to Kirsty’s name stood her in good stead during the recording.
The other downside to the EP is that the whole thing is barely nine minutes long. And, from a listener’s perspective, there’s only so much air guitar/sax that you can fit into nine minutes.