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.

New Music

Watch: Primitive Motion – Colours

Primitive Motion released one of the stranger pop LPs of 2013 last month in the form of Worlds Floating By. We described it as a “gorgeously smeared pop record with all the colours of the rainbow”, which is neat because the album has a song called ‘Colours’ and its new clip – embedded above – is very colourful indeed. Directed by Leif Arwen Gifford, it captures the spirit of the record very well.

The duo is playing the Sound Summit launch party in Sydney this Thursday night, which is also acting as an album launch for Worlds Floating By and Sky Needle’s similarly excellent Debased Shapes LP. God Willing, Heinz Reigler, Thomas William, Jon Watts and Hinterlandt are also playing.


Terminal Longings: Primitive Motion’s Worlds Floating By reviewed


Music is strange when it’s broadcast from a distance and misshapen along the way. Recent anecdotal example: the other day a North Sydney office building hosted a charity sausage sizzle on the sidewalk of one of the business precinct’s busiest streets. The stand had a huge set of speakers blasting chart pop, and from my perch ten stories above, behind heavy-duty plate glass and the dull ambiance of an office, it sounded totally different. Ke$ha’s brash rave arpeggios, blunted by the distance into chime-like celestial shapes, sounded immensely beautiful to me. I’ve no bone to pick with up-close Ke$ha, but far away Ke$ha was a true revelation. It seemed important to me.

Reared on barely listenable AM transmissions in the deepest Central West of New South Wales, this sense of music having travelled long distances is very appealing to me, especially when it sounds like it has picked up cosmic artefacts and refuse along the way. There’s a threshold between actual sonic phenomenon and your own imaginings which pleasingly blurs. Primitive Motion’s debut record sounds exactly like this threshold: it’s full bodied from a melodic and songwriterly point of view, but it makes a science of simulating the eerie pleasure of mishearing.

This is probably what people mean when they describe certain types of pop music as dreamy or heavenly. Both are reasonable enough descriptions, but they also connote shoegaze and all the dreary guitar-with-lite-electro dabblings that came in its wake. There’s also a case to be made for Primitive Motion as an evolutionary leap for hypnagogic pop, itself a reference to the half-dream state which blurs the lines between wakefulness and sleep. This is fine, but it’s important to note Primitive Motion’s uncomplicatedly pop approach. Like that Angel Eyes LP from earlier this year, Worlds Floating By initially sounds like an exercise in building ecstatic textures, but it eventually rewards you with the gratification of song: structures and movement, eventful landings, solid unchanging milestones within the illusory fog.

Primitive Motion’s half heard world seems unique, because it’s not tethered to a sense of remembering. The apparitional vocal samples in Burial sound like distant nightclub emanations from a specific era in UK dance music, and similarly, James Ferraro’s mid-2000s noise albums were like listening to ‘80s sci-fi action flicks from a bunk bed in the next room. These associations are sometimes central to the appeal of these artists, at least from a critical perspective, but with Primitive Motion no such references really exist. Instead, the distance implies an origin that neither time nor location can lay claim to, but nonetheless you see it. You visit there. There’s very distinctly a world inside, but it’s only fleetingly recognisable.

Strangely though, for a gorgeously smeared pop record with all the colours of the rainbow – Casio, flute, humungous vats of reverb and echo, vocals bellowed from the clouds – it’s this implied distance that renders the whole operation obliquely sad. Through conjuring a sense of somewhere else, Primitive Motion glazes your actual lived experience with a sense of lost opportunity. It’s so exceedingly… so preciously beautiful and treasurable (!), that you just about want to give it all in. Here’s an instance – a rare instance – of pop music as heavenly. It transmits from a distance and is immeasurably affecting, because its relationship with the grit and smoke of your lived experience is nil. And yet, you still find tiny traces of yourself in there, usually the parts you feel are fading away, or that you want to protect. The parts life persists in conditioning away. It’s a desire to actually visit some physical version of this world.

And it’s because Worlds Floating By gives you the space to imagine inside. As close as you may be, you need to prick your ears to hear its whole. It guides you calmly but lets you stray. If there’s any record that will compel you to close your laptop and stare into the middle distance for 40 consecutive minutes, this would be it. Seven songs only just coming into focus, beckoning you to peer.


Primitive Motion’s Worlds Floating By is available through Bedroom Suck.

New Music

Listen: Primitive Motion – Home of the Lone Coast


Here’s a take from Primitive Motion’s new long-time-coming LP Worlds Floating By, set for release through Bedroom Suck on September 23. Consisting visual artist Sandra Selig and former Deadnote Leighton Craig, the Brisbane duo produce gentle synth-oriented pop music with an edge-of-sleep hallucinatory quality. This LP is the culmination of various CD-Rs, tapes and 7 inchs through labels such as Soft Abuse and Room 40 offshoot A Guide To Saints. Between this and the forthcoming Lucy Cliche record we’ll have plenty of bent, heavenly pop to assuage our post-Coalition-win contempt for mankind.


Superstar – A Toast To… (LP)

036_cover_IODAIt’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.

Label: Bedroom Suck
Release date: February 2013