The Bodies Below The Streets: Oily Boys’ Majesty reviewed

Oily Boys’ band name can occasionally be seen spray-painted on brick walls, toilet doors and discarded mattresses in pockets around Sydney’s inner-west. It lends them what feels like a pack mentality, but if they’re a crew they’re a seemingly disparate one. Few bands appear to be made up of such separate personalities than Oily Boys: only one of the members, for example, would be doing any of the tagging.

This works for them. Oily Boys don’t exist to exclude anyone or anything like some might assume of a band with defiant hardcore associations. Oily Boys’ brand of skewered punk carries all the charred remnants of their disparate influences, a clustered mess of punk, metal and hardcore sieved through Drew Bennett’s haggard screams and Dizzy’s caged guitars.

Continuing on from a 2012 demo cassette, Oily Boys’ 7” Majesty differs by an extra degree of power lent by the crisp recording. Many songs have parts that are completely absurd. The snapping guitars towards the end of ‘Rabbit’s Foot’ for example, or the guitar on ‘Arctic Ibis’ which pretty much sounds like trying in vain to shake an entrenched pocket of water from your ear.

It’s not just a hardcore 7”, if the off-pink cover hadn’t already given that away. At one point in ‘Rabbit’s Foot’ the bassline jumps the gun on the rest of the pack and carries on only with Yuta’s maniacally overworked cymbals as company. The crew eventually catches up and powers through a united front, but it’s clear through Bennett’s vocals that there’s a psychotic element at play among the netting of a world of strange ideas.

There are five songs on Majesty, all focusing on murder or at least with that connotation. In order, they’re about the following:

1) Drowning and fucking a man before wearing his skin as a suit.

2) Stalking, trapping and tormenting someone who has broken someone’s heart.

3) Delusions of godliness while standing over a sea of corpses.

4) A honeymooning couple that walks a beach oblivious to a corpse floating face-down in the water.

5) An expression of disappointment that someone wasn’t at the scene of a violent disfigurement.

These are obviously not things that are relatable to anyone who is listening, but the evocations of rage, contempt and violent desire will always be an exciting outlet for the otherwise repressed citizen.

Through Bennett’s maniacal delivery, these songs come across like the angry diary entries of an in-mate on the precipice of release; fanciful threats written on scraps of paper, folded sharply and placed in the shirt pocket of a mad-man who doesn’t really plan on doing anything. In reality he stands quietly at the back of the room and fantasises about the downfall of his enemies. It’s delusion and escapism at its finest.


Oily Boys’ Majesty is available through Distort and Eternal Soundcheck.


The Space Before Dolewave: School of Radiant Living reviewed


This album released to a black hole of ambivalence last year. It didn’t interest anyone. No one wrote about it, and usually when this happens in Australia it means that everyone quietly agreed that it wasn’t very good.

If something is not very good, few people will speak up and say it. If writers care to write about something that is not very good, it’s because there’s something contained in the record that is easy to object to. There must be some attitude, whether towards life or the aesthetics of pop music itself, that doesn’t sit right at that particular moment in time, to that observer. Or maybe the observer is just bored of that sound, in which case they will articulate this in clever ways that seek to persuade others to agree. For what deeper reasons, only true pedants know.

School of Radiant Living, the self-titled LP from this Melbourne four-piece, is not remarkable, and nor does it offer bait for objection, and nor does it exist within brackets which contain something potentially ‘over’. It is not something anyone can easily opine about. Thus, no one opines. There is no angle. It is fated to a quiet existence, where breaths must be taken deeply and walls must be stared at intently. Basically, this School of Radiant Living album can only blossom off the radar, or in your bedroom. It is adamantly unimportant.

I’m curious about this School of Radiant Living record as a case study. I really love this album. I love this album because I think it is very beautiful. It comes with no complications. I feel fragile listening to this, and that is the only reason it is good. There is no other reason. I’m tempted to interpret the ambivalence towards this record as a symptom of both critics and listeners desiring something iconoclastic, something ‘intrinsically Australian’, in their guitar pop music from Australia. But this blind desire is always misguided. School of Radiant Living sound a lot like other, more popular guitar pop bands from Melbourne, but they’re very different.



A case study example of Australianness in music, at the moment and for several years now, is the genre or scene called ‘dolewave’. Commonly, bands like Dick Diver, The Twerps, Bitch Prefect and even distantly Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys, fit this mould, as do countless others because dolewave is everywhere (except Triple J). These bands are powerful now because they reject the neo-liberal, self-improvement, mortage-till-death, make-a-buck-or-die, protect-at-all-costs impulses which are more real now, in established workaday Australian life, than ever before.

The celebrated attitudes of colonial Australian culture have generally been the opposite of those listed above. Many continue to believe these characteristics are central to our identity, no matter the actual truth. Australians want to be knockabout and easy, modestly philosophical with a Tooheys New in one fist and pool cue in the other. They are focused on noble goals like family and pleasant pursuits like sport. We want to be proud, but we’re not entitled to any of these.

The actual truth is different. The pace, the blithe poeticness, the casual live-and-let-die attitude proffered by ‘dolewave’ groups is at odds with the incumbent reality of Australia. Never has there been more evidence that we are a protective, stuck up and fearful lot, with dozens of carelessly bloodied axes to grind, and a fearsomely xenophobic strain to boot. We’re deadset ugly, and as a result those who love dolewave groups may do so because this music helps them – in indirect ways – mourn what we’ve lost. Dolewave helps us imagine a long-forfeited reality of Australian life, and if it was never a reality, then it was at least a fantasy we’ve clung to which can no longer be sustained. It exists now only as a myth. It’s a lie.

When people identify ‘dolewave’ as a byproduct of John Howard’s 2007 defeat, I don’t think this is accurate. Dolewave is not a celebration. Dolewave is a response to living under Howard, even though it didn’t really blossom as a movement until the Rudd/Gillard years. ‘Dolewave’ is a caustic riff on the few virtuous characteristics of white colonial Australia, the ones our politicians are adamant still remain, the ones we affectionately satirise, and the ones which no Kenny can bring back to life. It’s a satirical roleplay of an Australia we once believed existed, but which no amount of suspension of disbelief can maintain. Dolewave reveals that our former notions of Australianness were flimsy, and that what remains when these notions are removed is… basically nothing. We have nothing. We have no identity but our illusions and our atrocities.

I think the best dolewave is intrinsically depressed. Bitch Prefect and Dick Diver are beautiful and poignant in an aggressively sad way, in a fashion we can only laugh along with. Dick Diver’s ‘New Start Again’ is a paean to the years when artists and outsiders could exist without being ‘creatives’, when unprofitable, art-for-its-own-sake wasn’t necessarily a contract with poverty. ‘Bad Decisions’ by Bitch Prefect is its opposite: it’s hellbent (and rightly so, pragmatically) on the resolution that these impulses should be strangled at birth.

Meanwhile, in Dick Diver’s ‘Hammock Days’, we see an idyllic, calm, benevolent drive-by view of an Australian suburbia unaffected by politics, all standalone bungalows on quarter acre blocks. In other words: the dream. “Another arvo makes its way over a barbecue / another dusk congeals into a glut / and through a screen door a TV blues the room / night ambush – the ultimate chorus.”

It’s a sad, beautiful impression which cannot be witnessed anymore, unless through gritted teeth, because who are those people sitting in that room, blue from the TV, and what ugly truths do they believe.

Dolewave is not important but it is, at least, smart. It is beautiful, sad and smart. It is not, as some of its detractors have surmised, the result of blind apathy. It is bearing witness to these developments and insinuating their results. But it is pop music so it does not bludgeon. It is understated yet incisive. It is aesthetically unambitious but it contains multitudes. Dolewave is the exploration of a dream which, once potent, is no longer believable. Notions of ourselves are the only positive thing we have left. So what comes next.

Radiant Living

I was sent this School of Radiant Living record in the last quarter of 2013 and immediately I needed an angle on it. It was a calm, lyrical Australian guitar pop record and I wanted to turn it into a story. I wanted to identify this myth of Australianness inside it, but instead I found a guitar pop record with unforgivingly Australian accents and very little concern about how things were in Australia then, and how things are now. No what once was. No what could be. No angle.

It is very unusual on these terms. It does not concern itself with a mythology, it does not mildly celebrate or condemn or question anything except the purely interior. Its Australianness is purely circumstantial, its beauty is not tethered to ideals or any sense of great loss.

This School of Radiant Living record is uncomplicatedly beautiful. I am forced to listen to these words and these melodies in a manner divorced from any dream, and in this way, it is easy to cherish and believe in. The vocals overreach in beautiful ways that remind me of weird English folk bands from the ‘70s. There is no forced modesty. It is on these terms that I can recommend it, as a record you might enjoy listening to: it does not sound precisely like what an Australian guitar pop band from a certain Melbourne milieu should, simply because it does not trade in confronting banalities. There is no mirage here.

 Yet it’s so easy to regard this album as part of a movement: because of its pace, and its considered, blazing sunrise calm, you want it to mean something wider and you expect it to insinuate so much. You look for some deeper meaning to this demeanour, but none exists. This self-titled LP is exactly what so many latter-period, bandwagon jumping ‘dolewave’ records want to be: an unironic collection of Australian sounding songs. It’s the least complicated Australian guitar pop record I’ve heard for ten years, and for that reason alone, I can’t help but love it. It was a forgotten classic the very moment it was released.

Should we accept its existence on these terms? Is that okay, to just be merely this? You can be the judge of that. As it stands, School of Radiant Living is a record that offers no critical vantage point on its status as a conspicuously Australian pop album. At a time when the rest of the world is focusing on our tiny, state capital scenes and splitting hairs about what makes something uniquely antipodean, this kind of inward-looking craft is a refreshing draught of minty air. It’s just a bloody beautiful pop record. It’s something you alone can place meaning inside.


School of Radiant Living was released independently. It’s available through Eternal Soundcheck and Distort.

Two interesting responses to this piece have been published elsewhere by Max Easton and Ian Rogers. (and now another at Mess+Noise by Joshua Manning.)


Foreign Rules: Matthew Hopkins’ Nocturnes reviewed


Nocturnes comes packaged with three prescribed listening events. They are activities you are advised to execute while listening to the record. You may read them as irresponsible liner notes, tasking you with fanciful and sometimes outrageously dangerous chores, and choose instead to enjoy the music alone. That is your decision as a passive or active listener.

At first the activities packaged with Nocturnes seem easy, but always there are steps among the simple instructions that are too elaborate to immediately pursue. It is easy to finger some bubble wrap and rub your forehead, but it is not easy to “craft an amulet from pencils, patch leads and dust”, and nor is it easy or advisable to “ingest elixir made from cicadas, sirens and strepsils”. Nestled among the simple commands, these are cultish, outlandish requirements. They are strange rules.

Matthew Hopkins, better known for his work with Naked on the Vague, Vincent Over The Sink and Half High, has long had an interest in setting down rules of engagement. His 2009 CD-R as Bad Tables, released through Spanish Magic, was composed under strict conditions. Entitled Lid Domestic Dome Bin, the record’s liner notes described the rules under which it was (presumably) recorded. A brief example:

“Only record when the following things occur:
You hear the big skip bin in the garage being emptied by the garbage.
When the bin in the kitchen is full and needs to be taken out to the big skip in the garage.
Whenever a mess is identified around the house.”

It’s tempting to assume that these processes are borne of a desire to show the inherent strangeness of rules themselves. When rules are decontextualised – shorn of their footing in the systems we abide by, unthinkingly, as humans – they often seem stupid. This is data we can never untangle, and untangling these is the pursuit of philosophy. At the root of Nocturnes’ ‘Listening Events’, which are packaged with the LP, are cryptic and cultish recipes that can only feasibly result in a speculation: a spark of the imagination. But to get there you must penetrate first through the mundane and the achievable. First you must fiddle around with what’s in front of you, or as Nocturnes prescribes, “shuffle cassettes strewn about [the] desk,” or “roll batteries, spin coins.”

You always begin “at a desk”.

Nocturnes always begins “at a desk”. Bad Tables begins when the garbage truck sounds, and then a series of events – tie the bin bag up, wrest it out of the bin, take it outside, put it in the skip, go back inside – happen. It’s a ritual.

Hopkins’ solo work seems fixated on the distanced absurdity of our systems and processes, but it is not admonishing. It is not cynical, it is not blithely critical. It is curious about the birth of these intelligences. It wonders at their foundations. Hopkins presents processes which seem mundane – droll as your plainest soup recipes – in a parallel dimension, and offers them in as blandly a matter-of-fact way as possible. We can never fathom their meaning.

Hopkins’ ‘Listening Events’ are torn straight from a world where these strange activities, executed at the desk, are as unfeasibly magical as pouring water into a glass and the glass managing to contain that water. They are just as logical as all of the other real world phenomenon we do not understand, and yet what percentage of real world phenomenon do we actually understand?


Musically, Nocturnes is a more ruminative, elongated and generous version of Hopkins’ earlier work as Bad Tables and Lamp Puffer. It is not as sharp edged and demonstrative. It is calm, but haunted. It is music that you wonder at, or wonder with. A slow, two note undulation marks ‘Nocturne #1’, frayed by electric pops and breakages. It’s a serious piece of music that beckons you to imagine seriously ridiculous settings, poised sharply at the brink of reality.

It is not, at the same time, unfunny. It is not without an element of comical severity. Comical severity is one of Hopkins’ hallmarks.

The three Nocturnes are presumably meant to align with the three ‘Listening Events’ described in the liner notes. Strictly speaking – and to Hopkins’ credit – it doesn’t really matter whether you’re invested in the rules or not. You don’t need to enact them.

Significantly, Hopkins’ work as a painter (an example you can see above) seems to run parallel with his solo musical output. His latest exhibition, now running in Sydney, is entitled Passages. It evokes a similarly ultra-receptive, incantatory power that Nocturnes does. The lines in Hopkins paintings appear permanently to be melting into another, liminal world. They’re pouring towards a pole we cannot reach. They’re seeping towards a set of rules obscenely different to our own. They’re moving towards a state where these obscenely different rules are natural.

That, at least, is what this music and these rules evoke for me. Rules are what make us, and rules are still what make everything we do not know, because we rule them out. Rules also exist for things we do not know. Rules and prescriptions are the stuff of us. We impose them, and we fear them. We rarely understand them, and we daily take them for granted. But what if rules had imaginations of their own.


Matthew Hopkins’ Nocturnes is available through Vittelli.


Beautiful Decline: Hour House’s Stroke reviewed


The facts: Hour House is the work of two former members of Newcastle group Castings, specifically Mark Leacy and Sam Kenna. They’re now based in Melbourne. Stroke is their first proper cassette release as Hour House, though they have also released music as Motion (Sic). Cooper Bowman, who runs the Altered States Tapes label, also features occasionally.

It’s hard to avoid drawing parallels with Castings, but one factor stands in contrast: I was surprised by this tape because I expected something far more fiddly and tentative. Castings always sounded tentative: a gathering of sounds which struggled captivatingly to transcend their beginnings. These occasionally erupted into moments either ugly or darkly beautiful, even both of these things at once. Stroke, on the other hand, sounds like a narrative. It sounds impeccably structured. It also, mood wise, feels like a decline. Several discrete declines contained inside a much larger one.

There’s a funereal atmosphere to Stroke. The empty frequency mourning at its beginning gives way to a warm glow part way through the cassette’s A-side. A fog of synths flag slowly at their edges, like heat on tarmac, and the melodies sound at the verge of disappearing. When this passage evaporates an ugly tape loop marks a more pure form of degradation. This theme of decay is apparent all the way through Stroke. Its containing world circles a drain. The A Side is a bleak, shallow ascent and then a long nauseating descent into death.

Its B-Side is different. A choral sample declines slowly, soon replaced by a sampled voice demanding it be allowed to sing in the background, to which another replies: “alright, but sing waay in the background!”

This is very funny, but Hour House is never at any other point funny. Listening to Hour House can sometimes feel like slowly going insane. All of its parts – the synths that struggle for brightness, the torpid washes of soft noise, the menacingly circular samples – achieve a state of mild, despondent paranoia.

Maybe this sense of mental unwellness is what naturally occurs when heavily treated and looped samples are allowed to sustain for too long. Or maybe it’s chemistry.  Afterall, there’s no doubting that much of the B-side here is reminiscent of The Caretaker’s productions, a project which deals solely in austerely manipulated source materials. But in the end, Hour House is focused on a more gruelling, less diagnosable and more personal trajectory of degradation. These sides are marked by glimpses of uncomplicated, fraying beauty which serve to make the bleaker parts all the more barren and unsettling.

Stroke is available through Altered States Tapes.


Back to the Flood: Blank Realm’s Grassed Inn reviewed

Blank Realm - Grassed Inn Album Cover
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.


Blank Realm’s Grassed Inn is available through Bedroom Suck in Australia and Fire Records in North America.