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.


Photos: Angel Eyes, Blank Realm, Superstar and Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys in Newcastle

One of the biggest all-star line-ups of the century descended on Newcastle last Sunday for a quadruple album launch at White Records. Yasmin Nebenfuhr was there, and she kindly took some photos.

Check out our reviews of the new LPs by Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys, Angel Eyes and Blank Realm. Superstar soon.

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Growing Inside: Blank Realm Interviewed


Blank Realm formed in Brisbane circa 2005-06. The group features three siblings (Daniel, Sarah and Luke Spencer) as well as Luke Walsh on guitar. During the course of their eight year existence the band has evolved from strange and colourful free rock into a more streamlined and song-oriented affair, culminating in their latest record Go Easy, which released on Siltbreeze and Bedroom Suck late in 2012.

Go Easy has attracted the group more attention than any other release, but for anyone interested in improvised psychedelic rock music, their early recordings such as Free Time (Music Your Mind Will Love You) and Heatless Ark (Not Not Fun) are well worth tracking down, among many other cassette and CD-R missives. The group’s pop tendencies crystallised on 2010’s Deja What? and were further sharpened via a 2011 Negative Guest List single.

We caught up with Daniel Spencer on the eve of an extensive Australian tour to promote Go Easy. For tour details, scroll to the bottom.

Do you guys see yourselves more as a ‘band’, or as a family? Do you primarily spend time together hanging out or making music?
Definitely more of a family. I mean, I guess at some point we’ll stop doing Blank Realm, but we’ll always be family. Luke Walsh included. The band arose out of just hanging out, out of wanting to do something more than just hang out and listen to records together. Not that doing that is waste of time – I spend a lot of time doing that still.

There’s always been a bit of a spirit of mucking around to the band that I think will remain no matter how successful or unsuccessful the band manages to get. It will always mostly be just goofing off. For the most part, I think that’s how it should be. Bands who are really trying to make it, or bands who write a press release or an exegesis prior to their first jam have never really set my world on fire. These days, it’s probably 50/50 hanging out and making music. There’s actually a lot of work put into our music, even though it still sounds terribly sloppy.

The first time I saw you guys play it was more experimental and minimal. Now it seems like an extreme yet undefinable rock and roll band. How would you describe yourselves, and the various progressions you’ve made?
That’s sort of hard for me to say. I mean, I can see there has been a pretty radical shift in the sound from free noise, to almost straight up rock and roll, but being in the band it feels a lot more gradual than it may seem to those patient enough to have been listening all along. Part of it is just learning how to play. In the beginning we couldn’t play at all, we just turned everything up and tried to somehow control the waves of feedback. It was really fun, but maybe not so much fun for the audience.

I like that you said ‘extreme’ rock band, because that’s how I see it in a kind of ideal sense. I feel like all the noise and chaos of those early records and shows is still in these songs we do now. We like to keep things on the edge of collapse. Some people have said to me that we change every time they see us, which is cool. I mean, I don’t think we do, but it’s cool that people think that.


I’m really interested in the lyrics. Do they come before and after the jams, and are they based on reality, or are they spontaneous?
Well, I’ve written all the lyrics so far. In a way the lyrics and the music exist independently of each other, until we find a way to bring them together. I go for a walk pretty much every night and will turn over phrases or words in my head. I’ll think of words, almost slogans really, and I’ll just hang onto them until we play something they seem to fit with. That usually doesn’t take long. Whenever I have a lyric I think is good, the band usually play something that goes with it within a week or so, without me even telling them the lyric. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it continually mystifies me, the way that seems to work.

I definitely wouldn’t say the lyrics are based in reality, I think they are more symbolist. Sort of  transmissions from some warped quasi-religious rock and roll fantasy. I’m not too interested in writing about everyday life. There’s lots of people doing that better than I ever could these days.

I’ve always been obsessed with siblings – in films, books, literature etc – and the complex nature of these relationships. With the group comprising three siblings, have your relationships with each other always been creative?
Now that you mention it, I guess it has. Even when we were little kids we would make up fake bands with our toys and even record whole albums in stupid funny voices. I feel like going any further into that would destroy any chance we’ve ever had of being seen as cool.

Regarding lyrics, I like what you say about everyday life versus fantastical themes/ imagery, because I can relate to that with my own lyric writing [Angie writes with Circle Pit and Ruined Fortune – Ed]. Do you feel, however, that somehow they filter down and directly relate to real life events, your personal history etc, at a later date?
I feel like I definitely get the same feeling from your stuff, especially with Circle Pit. I believe rock and roll is a foundational myth in contemporary culture, and we, as a band, are true believers in its redemptive power as one of the true freedom musics. I feel like my real life is terribly boring a lot of the time, and the lyrics are sort of this parallel fantasy life. Everyone must have that to some extent, but I just get to make records about it with Blank Realm.

I wanted to ask about your artwork, as you guys usually get an artist to provide imagery for you. Was this the case with the new album?
Yep, for sure. The album art was done by Spencer Clark and his friend eggyolkeo. Spencer does a project called Monopoly Child Star Searchers, which is incredible, and he was in the Skaters, which was his band with James Ferraro. We were big fans of that band. Anyway, we visited Spencer on tour in Portland, and we were surprised to learn that he is obsessed with Australian rock from the ’70s and ’80s, like Dragon, Icehouse, Matt Finish and all that kind of thing.  He kind of saw our music in that tradition, which is really cool.

When it came time to do the art he was the logical person to ask. He initially wanted a photo of Luke [Walsh] standing alone outside a nightclub in a leather jacket to be the cover, but we could never quite get the shot. From what I understand the cover is stills from movies in Spencer’s enormous VHS collection. He explained that the cover is meant to capture the dichotomy in our sound between the nightclub and the beach. I’d never thought of it like that before, but that definitely makes a lotta sense.

Watching you play live, especially in the last year so, there is some kind of frenetic energy coming from all of you. There’s an equal excitement there, something that I interpret as coming from the fact you’re all so close. How do you feel about playing live? 
I’m not sure where the excitement comes from, but we love playing live. We are really comfortable on stage now, which we absolutely were not in the beginning.  I feel like we are a live band, meant to be seen live, that’s where we really exist. The records are just kind of representational.

Would you say it’s a kind of release for all of you?
It’s definitely a release. Being on stage is the only time my mind is empty of everyday bullshit. I don’t think about anything other than what we are playing and trying to get the audience into it. It’s the most liberating thing. I really love playing for people. I think we are pretty dependent on the crowd being into it. If there are five people in the room, and they are all hanging by the bar, we’re probably not going to play our best show. Some bands play really well with a nonexistent or indifferent audience, but we just don’t. I think there’s still part of us that’s really amazed and grateful that we are up on stage in front of people, and that keeps it this kind of joyous thing. I mean, when we started this band we never imagined we’d ever even play a show.

How can you relate the experience of singing and drumming at the same time? Are they the opposite to each other, or intertwined – something you have to balance?
Singing and drumming is definitely hard to balance. At the risk of drawing attention to it, the drumming becomes far simpler when I have to sing at the same time. I guess the way I sing is pretty influenced by my drumming, sometimes I think it’s not so much singing as much as it is rhythmic yelping.

What are your plans after this tour, will you return to America? What other projects are you all working on?
We’re going to America to play Chaos in Tejas and a bunch of other shows. Really need to try not to gobble so much intense junk food this time. We’ll have a new single really, really soon and we are finishing up a new record.


Blank Realm’s Go Easy is out now through Bedroom Suck and Siltbreeze. The band is currently touring Australia to launch the record. Full dates here.


2012 in review: artists and Crawlspace editors


This is a collection of reflections and lists from Crawlspace editors, as well as a handful of the artists we’ve featured in 2012. Editor Shaun Prescott opens proceedings. Brace yourself.

At the beginning of the year I hated writing about music. I wanted to stop and work full time on a novel, which pretty much signals the end for any writer (unless they manage to complete that novel and it’s okay). The sentiment wasn’t born of dwindling interest in music, but more the brutal logistics of making a worthwhile outlet work. These are the logistics (pageviews / unique hits = revenue) that render a lot of the music we cover on Crawlspace virtually non-existent to outsiders.

For someone whose taste has always been driven by the written word (that’s old-fashioned at best and illogical at worst, I know) it felt like there wasn’t enough writing about Australian groups that would have made me dreamy as a teenager. Things that you read about that make you think, “wow, that sounds incredible and I must track it down,” or “why would anyone listen to that? Help me understand.” Stuff that opens up whole new avenues and ways of listening. If I hadn’t discovered groups like Castings, or Moonmilk, or Naked on the Vague, or Alps, purely by accident upon moving to Sydney in 2005 – where would I be? Crawlspace is largely a response to failed pitches.

The thing is, most of Australia’s best music is often only heard by the people who make it and by their peers. In Sydney, you see the same people at all the good shows. This is healthy enough: that’s a community. Music doesn’t always need to amount to more than that. But in other ways that’s just not good enough. As a believer that reading about music should be about discovery and, sometimes, re-aligning one’s understanding of what they already like, it just made sense to make this website. I also unapologetically believe that 99% of Australia’s music media is ignoring this country’s most important art, instead slavishly covering what the overseas market or the established local “industry” deems fit for consumption. This longstanding habit is an absolute fucking stain on a media that is meant to excite, educate and actually be there when something remarkable is happening just down the road.

Diplomatically speaking, there’s so much to discover, and there are heaps of bands that I wanted Crawlspace to cover in detail this year that never got a run: Collarbones released an incredible record that I greatly admire. Southern Comfort finally released a proper piece of wax. Newcastle’s Grog Pappy label sent us a package we haven’t covered yet (there is something in the works, though). Teen Ax released a great tape that I couldn’t quite articulate the appeal of.

Crawlspace has kinda defined 2012 for me, thus the tiring prologue. Sorry about that. Here’s the business:

  • 2012 has been a year of great songs. Circular Keys’ ‘Eurogrand’, Kitchen’s Floor’s ‘Bitter Defeat’, Nun’s ‘Solvents’, Lower Plenty’s ‘Nullabor’ are all favourites.
  • I feel like Breakdance the Dawn is the strongest LP-oriented label in Australia: their hastily packaged CD-Rs usually communicate one single idea incredibly well. Often they feel like transmissions from a world that is vaguely similar to mine, yet it’s somehow melted, fraught with illogical dream-state segues. Girls Girls Girls and Club Sound Witches both provided highlights.
  • My favourite LP this year was WonderfulsSalty Town, which I still haven’t reviewed, but will. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a record that captures small town loneliness and neurosis quite as effectively – and it’s not even (completely) about that. It’s a tough record to swallow. It’s emotionally challenging and confronting.  A close second is Mental Powers‘ LP.
  • Woollen Kits are a group I’ve maintained total ambivalence towards up until now. I’ve heard the 7s and bought the first LP, but found all astonishingly dull. They wouldn’t let me in. Magically, Four Girls did. Prosaically speaking I think they simply became better songwriters.
  • The best punk rock record of the year is Taco Leg‘s. Many thought my review suggested otherwise. Sorry about that.
  • Fatti Frances’ Sweaty EP is something I think about regularly when I’m not listening to it. It’s so strangely modern in its positioning of love and lust, and whether there should be a versus there.
  • If Australia celebrated new music as tirelessly as it did the old, than Midday Music: Brisbane 2012 is an essential a document as Lethal Weapons and… a bunch of other old compilations that people fawn over.
  • Melodie Nelson’s To The Dollhouse is objectively one of the best records in 2012, but I’m quarantined from all things MN because she’s one of my best friends. So don’t trust me. Listen for yourself. She also made the logo for Crawlspace. Thanks for that.

Anyway, without further ado, over the page is a series of reflections and lists from some of the groups and artists Crawlspace has covered since it launched in August this year, as well as our writers. We humbly thank everyone who participated.


Blank Realm – Go Easy (LP)

During the first track on Go Easy, vocalists Daniel and Sarah Spencer double-up in what could be an ode to their musical history. “Guess I’ve been acting kinda strange,” the two sing over a fiery backdrop. It’s apt, because Go Easy is the least strange Blank Realm record to date.

‘Acting Strange’ sounds like it could be all over in a minute, but in true Blank Realm fashion it’s a five minute affair. The song feels both urgent and dangerous, threatening to careen off the rails into an oncoming petrol tanker. The fast-forward guitar reminds me of a cut from Naked On The Vague’s Heaps Of Nothing.

Over the course of Go Easy, Brisbane’s Blank Realm have apparently dipped their fingers into the 21st century Australian alternative music canon – breezy lead single ‘Cleaning Up My Mess’ plays as if the band took a vacation to Melbourne’s inner suburbs (where the populace themselves had just returned from a vacation in New Zealand).

Out of the gate, bass guitar plays an integral role on Go Easy. Previously its part has felt like a mere accompaniment: stage dressing at best. Here though, it occupies space as a heavy fixation or a staggering melody. Meanwhile, memorable guitar riffs and distinguishable lyrics elevate the album to a point of accessibility previously untouched by the band. There’s a fidelity to Go Easy never afforded to their earlier releases.

Just as the strident ‘Acting Strange’ so smoothly slides into ‘Cleaning Up My Mess’, there’s a thread of complementary duality all through Go Easy. The dark throwback of ‘The Crackle’ is split into two parts: ‘Pt 1’ is incensed, ethereal punk rock, while ‘Pt 2’ shows an odd percussive listlessness, eschewing the directness of the first half for classic Blank Realm playfulness.

The nearly nine-minute ‘Pendulum Swing’ escalates into the kind of full-bodied psych-out the band are known for, before again switching down gears for the closing title track. ‘Go Easy’ appears to be where all the weight of previous incarnations have come to lay; they’re not heavy burdens, but they apply a gravity to what feels likes an already unsteady amble.

It’d be easy to give Go Easy a sticker that read “Blank Realm does pop!”, but that’d be an oversimplification. Since 2010’s standout ‘Full Moon Door’ (from Deja What?), we’ve known of the band’s romance with obscured pop, one that’s been peeling back the ambiguity by way of last year’s 7 inch Falling Down The Stairs. Finally on Go Easy, that trend reaches its logical conclusion in a variety of suits.

Still, Blank Realm haven’t fully done away with their psychedelic ways and nor have they turned into a guitar pop band. Paring back the psychedelic sleeves (or perhaps growing out of them), Blank Realm have offered an unexpected clarity with Go Easy. It’s less about evocation through obfuscation and more about bringing the developed songwriting to the fore. By their own standards, Go Easy isn’t much of a strange beast, but it’s hard to deny that it’s their best yet.

Label: Siltbreeze / Bedroom Suck
Release date: November 2012