Beautiful Error States: Soft Power’s If You Come Around reviewed

soft-power-if-you-come-aroundThere is no room on this Soft Power record; it is thick and overripe. It feels like these songs have sat in a moist basement for a long time, and through doing so grown larger, furier and more complicated.

Andrew McLellan, Joel Stern and Josh Watson are all involved in this. All featured in Greg Boring, and there is a fair bit in common between the two entities. Soft Power is softer and less wacky, but it’s also stranger than Greg Boring. This is no small feat because Greg Boring seemed to pride itself on being strange. Instead, it was wacky. I’m sure you appreciate the difference.

Soft Power has the clarity of pop music thanks to the vocals of Sophia Brous, who is the fourth member of the group on this record (Soft Power is usually just McLellan and Stern). I suppose that is why the group is called Soft Power: its pop veneer appears eager to please at first but there are less scrutable motives at play. A macabre streak underpins these bright synths and illustrous vocals, undermining the pop elements in an unusual way. ‘Siren’, for example, seems to break apart at times. The effect is like textures in a virtual landscape wavering, and the song resembles a beautiful error state. Brous sounds like she might belong to another song altogether.

That is what’s interesting about Soft Power. The music seems poised to illustrate a particular kind of 21st century technology anxiety, but it does so in a more subtle way than most. It seems to relish the minutiae of strange systems by humanising sonics we’re used to hearing in more sequenced, rigid environments. It is strange to hear a song like ‘Wundering’, with its drowsy synthetic pulses, and notice the imperfections: how the tempo shifts upwards or down accidentally at times, or how a note will fall out of step with the rest. These lapses breathe life into cold systems.

Soft Power’s songs sound like they have been tampered with. They sound as if they are functioning despite data corruption. Maybe instead of locked in a basement, these songs have sat on an old PC for years, across the fragmented blocks of a hard drive touched by an old virus, absorbing the surrounding data. During a year which has seen several overtly dark synth pop records (Nun, Mob), Soft Power is frightening in a more fascinating and inadvertent way, but it is also very beautiful.


Soft Power’s If You Come Around is available through All Day Breakfast Enterprises.

New Music

Listen: Sky Needle – End Games

Don’t worry, because there’s a new Sky Needle record coming out. Entitled Debased Shapes, it’s due later this month through Bruit Direct Disques. The Brisbane group’s line-up has expanded since 2012’s Rave Cave: they’re now a seven piece consisting Sarah Byrne, Joel Stern, Alex Cuffe, Ross Manning, Michael Donnelly and Daniel Jenatsch. Needless to say, the pattern of Sky Needle recordings getting progressively weirder is consistent here: ‘End Games’ is the kind of hysteria-inducing cultish pop we all imagined would soundtrack cafes in the year 2013. It doesn’t, but it should.


Greg Boring – Heavy Syrup (LP)

greg-boring-heavy-syrupGreg Boring’s debut LP always sounds like it’s winding down. It’s in a perpetual state of ending. Featuring members of Sky Needle and Cured Pink, Heavy Syrup is interesting for what it seems to confirm about a certain stylistic inclination in Australian underground music. Like so many other active bands at present – Mad Nanna and the recent Girls Girls Girls LP come immediately to mind – Greg Boring sounds utterly exhausted.

Greg Boring is colorful, improvised, synth-driven pop music. It’s delivered in an affable enough fashion, and sometimes it even sounds cheerful. Sarah Byrne is one of the country’s best – and strangest – vocalists. Although she never deigns to audibly exert herself here (in contrast to her work with Sky Needle), her voice is preternaturally restless and expressive, even while it’s threaded with a dreary narcolepsy. On Heavy Syrup, Byrne is accompanied by low-tempo drum machines and vintage synth tones. Together, these components usually result in either an unsteady drunken sway or a last-gasp motorik pulse. The music lolls at a very slow, stumbling pace with only a couple of exceptions.

Why does it sound so slight, though, so unstable? The drum machine in particular chuffs like a dying steam train, while the synth melodies dandy about with a staunch ambivalence to timing. At the rock bottom end of the mix, ugly drones reverberate like a Casio keyboard running out of battery power. Greg Boring’s otherwise affable pop music feels like it’s coming unbolted, like the screws are slowly rattling out. Greg Boring isn’t dismantled, it’s dismantling. Greg Boring hasn’t destroyed – in the way you might say Harry Pussy or The Dead C have destroyed, for example – but rather it’s destroying. Very carefully though! It’s like they’re picking it apart.

That’s why they remind me of Mad Nanna, because despite there being very little in common in terms of instrumentation, Greg Boring sounds like pop music winding down gently. It’s like this huge structure, writhing with epochal energy, has been built to its greatest extent and now we’re taking it apart, placing the pieces back in their box but nursing them affectionately before we do, remembering what they did when they were part of something greater. Greg Boring is quite literally, deconstructed pop.

This band sounds very aware of its unimportance and inconsequentiality. They make pop music with a dogged lack of meaning, all hot wind. The neighbourhood is full and heavily gentrified at that, so let’s leave it alone. Let’s let the Greg Borings of the world have their due. Heavy Syrup sounds like a band almost giving up on their form, but in doing so, they stumble upon something rare and fascinating.

Label: Critical Heights
Release date: February 2013


Goth by Default: Shaun South of Nihilistic Orbs and Chrome Dome Interviewed

This interview took place on the grass/cement/brown glass behind Newcastle venue The Pharmacy during the Sound Summit long weekend. I’d arranged with Shaun South – the founder and operator of Nihilistic Orbs – to have a chat over the weekend for Crawlspace, but I hadn’t factored in the possibility that I’d be pretty lashed while doing so. As a result, much was left unquestioned, because I hadn’t prepared any questions. No problem though, because we met in high spirits – Castings had just finished their first show in a couple of years – and there’s never any lack of things to ask a guy who runs one of Australia’s best record labels.

Nihilistic Orbs has recently released singles for Nun, Forces, Repairs and South’s own band Chrome Dome. The label boasts a strong visual aesthetic that binds an increasingly diverse range of Australian bands. I chatted with South about founding the label, what unifies the various groups it houses, and why dark synth music is better when it’s “goth by default”.

I’m familiar with your work from Young Romantix and Chrome Dome. You used to be a Sydney local. Why did you move to Melbourne?
Let’s see, I moved to Melbourne in 2006. I guess at the time there were bands like Oh! Belgium hanging around, which I was really into. Fabulous Diamonds I also really liked. Basically there was stuff going on revolving around synthesisers in Melbourne that I really liked, and I didn’t even own a synthesiser at that point. Musically I felt like there was a reason to move there. In Melbourne there’s a lot going on every single night of the week. I was also offered a job at an animation studio, which fell apart after two months, but that was another of the main incentives to go down.

Chrome Dome and Nihilistic Orbs were both founded in Melbourne, but I initially associated you with Sydney: Young Romantix, and DIY shows like Chooch-a-bahn. Was there a culture shock when you left? What were the key differences when you moved down?
There wasn’t much of a culture shock, because there were people doing similar things that were coming up to Chooch-a-bahn. That’s how I heard about Oh! Belgium and Fabulous Diamonds, and in Sydney there was Kiosk and Naked on the Vague, and Holy Balm. Sydney nurtured me in that sense, with having that space at Lanfranchi’s [former Chippendale warehouse venue] to basically do something like Young Romantix, which isn’t really a band, has never been a band, and I wouldn’t really consider it one. I still do it, but it’s a collaboration with anyone. My first band was in Melbourne and that was in Deaf Deaf, and that was with kids that were from Brisbane. Even with Chrome Dome, Andrea [Blake] – who I write most of the stuff with – is from Brisbane, and Ben [Taylor] is from Brisbane too. Bryce [Sweatman] is the only guy from Melbourne.

Nihilistc Orbs has a strong unifying visual aesthetic. When you approached starting the label what was the philosophy?
To predate Nihilistic Orbs, I did Summer Winds, which was a DIY festival. That was pretty obnoxious and young and experimental, but I had a five year plan for that and it ended as planned, after five years. I stopped it then because I didn’t want it to turn into some redundant entity: a huge festival or something. The whole idea was that it’d be related to a specific space and time. To go into Nihilistic Orbs though, I was playing in Chrome Dome a lot and I guess before I played music I was more into community and putting shows together in that way, and that’s how I understood how to do stuff.

Nihilistic Orbs started as basically a frustration with playing in a band and organising gigs solely for that band, around that band. It wasn’t fulfilling because that’s not why I originally got into music. So it started as a fortnightly event at the Empress Hotel [in Melbourne]. The idea behind it was to record every set and then edit it and then have a cassette released every fortnight. That lasted three or four months and most of those recordings never saw the light of day beyond ten copies, but that’s where it began. I always wanted to do a label in that sense, but I didn’t really have the resources, especially because then, pressing vinyl overseas was limited to a minimum of 1000 copies, but now I can do 300 at a smaller amount (per unit). It’s easier to do short runs and find stuff faster that I find interesting.

Nihilistic Orbs really started with Jonny Telafone though. I was living with him and I showed him Joe Meek’s Telstar and he was obsessed with it and he had access to my synths. After showing it to him, he came out of his room 24 hours later and was like “oh man, I made a tribute to Joe Meek”. And it was amazing. He’s the sort of guy who would never show that to anyone or even release it, and I said I wanted to put it out. So I saved up and put it out.

With Summer Winds and Nihilistic Orbs it seems that one of your priorities was building a community.
Yes, exactly.

Why? Was there a gap that you thought needed filling in Australian music?
Not necessarily that. I didn’t think that there was a hole in Australian music because I don’t think about it in that industry sense. Basically, all the people on my label are friends of mine because we have a similar aesthetic. This is building that together. More people are coming along like Nun – I wasn’t friends with Nun before. Same with Forces: I wasn’t friends with Alex [Akers] before releasing the 7 inch. They weren’t people asking me to put out their record, it was me seeing them play and just wanting to release them. In a way it’s building a community in the sense that we all have a similar aesthetic.

Nihilistic Orbs has a strong unifying visual aesthetic, but there’s also the unifying theme of synth-based music. But Jonny Telafone and Sky Needle don’t always neatly fit that theme.
I got asked this question before about why Sky Needle was on Nihilistic Orbs. I like pop music essentially, but pop music that has an unsettling feeling, where something just doesn’t feel right. When you listen to Sky Needle, you don’t feel “oh wow I’m going to wake up in the morning!” [Shaun says this in a comically optimistic voice]. I guess that’s it: it’s downer pop. Sky Needle pull that off in a weird and different way. It’s unsettling but listenable. Everything is listenable but you still don’t feel so pleasant after hearing it. That’s Nihilistic Orbs. Downer pop.

Why does that unsettling style of pop music appeal to you?
I can go to a club and there’s songs that I like being played by DJs and stuff, and I see a bunch of people dancing around to it, and sometimes it just feels wrong to me. Going to an indie club and seeing people dancing around to Joy Division is like… “what the fuck? This guy hung himself, and you know, destroyed his personal life!” but you know, he made this pop music. I guess it’s ingrained in there somehow, in my head, that I enjoy the happiness that comes from creativity, but that feeling of desperation and hate is still possible without it being a grindcore band or a crust band or something, you know what I mean? It feels more honest. I find something more sinister about a simple drumbeat and downer lyrics. Instantly in your head you want to enjoy it as pop music, but people who would analyse it or listen closely would be like, “oh god, this is horrible”.

Chrome Dome, with South on far right

When I listen to Chrome Dome or Forces it puts me in mind of the type of goth and industrial stuff that I listened to as a teenager, like Coil, or even some EBM stuff. What are your influences, musically?
Fad Gadget and The Normal. Malaria! and Nervous Gender. Stuff like that, I guess stuff from before new wave became popular: when it was still sitting in bed with punk. There are bands that are popping up now that fill that element. There’s a nihilism, a dissatisfaction with life, but you know, [it still results in] catchy synth tunes.

It’s funny you mention The Normal, with the Ballard connection. That feels almost ingrained in industrial, goth-leaning music in a way, that sense of futurist debasement.
I agree, but I guess I just wasn’t from that. I come from a punk, thrash and hardcore background. When I first heard Primitive Calculators, when I was 16 and saw Dogs in Space, I was like “what is this”? I looked it up on the internet, before Chapter reissued them, and there was one flyer saying “Melbourne’s first synth-punk band”. That’s before I knew about The Screamers or Nervous Gender, and I was like “what is this? This is me.”

I remember really liking the first Chrome Dome 7 inch. The album that followed was enjoyable on a sonic level, but it felt almost comically dark, which I didn’t like.
The first 7 inch was goth by default. I had all these influences in my head but it wasn’t specifically made to be that way. I had a small setup with an organ, a synth, an amp, two samplers and it was me and one other dude. Basically we just got fucked up on prescription pills and then we came down – so it was like “beats… and everything sucks” [laughs]. So we had those songs and tried to translate it into a band, and then from being default goth it turned into “trying to be goth”, you know what I mean?

What made the difference?
Most of those songs were from me and Ben, and then we took them to a band, where it got confused. We were just trying to find our feet. We did that last 7 inch [on Nihilistic Orbs] and it came closer to us unifying as a band, and writing new material as a band as opposed to trying to translate something from a bedroom into a studio into a live act.

Why do you create dark music? What’s the source of that?
It’s a way of being able to have a smile on your face, and to have a bit of a joke. Microphones are a weapon. It’s a natural thing: I get a drum machine beat and a synth, and then the words go through my brain, and then I can articulate stuff I wouldn’t really want to say to other people. It’s an outlet. It’s goth by default. Even though I’m dressed all in black, that’s where it differentiates between being part of goth culture. I see it as a way of venting, but feeling good about yourself at the end of the day, because of that poppy element. You can say whatever the hell you want through delay and reverb and no one ever needs to hear about it. Then after that you can sit down, have a smile, have a beer, have a ciggie, hang out and be part of a community, rather than crap on about how life sucks so much.

So making dark music makes you a more positive person?
Exactly. Goth by default.


Visit the Nihilistic Orbs website for info on releases.

Features, Reviews

Scum Mecca #1

Contained here are six reviews: five tapes and one 10 inch lathe-cut vinyl. Scum Mecca is the name of the column, an irregular feature on Crawlspace’s schedule. Cooper Bowman writes it. This month the column covers Tim Coster, FFEHRO, Mu, Mermaids, Oranj Punjabi, Pho Band/Faux Band and Sky Needle. We’ve provided audio samples where possible, but most of the time it wasn’t possible. Sorry.

Tim Coster – Ocean Liner CS (Albert’s Basement)

After a string of solo releases on his own Fictitious Sighs imprint, as well as numerous collabs both on FS and other labels, Ocean Liner continues the understated minimalism of New Zealand transplant Tim Coster’s previous work. The title track drifts along in a pleasantly amnesiatic state that will appeal to those with an ear attuned to the likes of Schulze’s or Shnitzler’s more subdued pieces. Here Coster deals in restrained synthesised modulations, effectively complimented with subtle keyboard tones before abruptly ending mid-drift. The second track, ‘Two Adjacent Pavilions’, comprises minimal guitar sounds, murky tape hiss and occasional bleeps, making a slightly less engaging, if decisively incongruent departure from the a-side.

FFEHRO – Easy Listening For The Chemically Challenged CS (Albert’s Basement)

FFEHRO, shorthand for Forks For Eyes Head Orchestra. The first movement is an excessively fried, too-long-in-the-sun style hallucination. Things quickly degenerate from here. In-between clatter and radio abounds. Cutlery as percussion, record warp as music, flickering melody as intoxicant. Psychedelic industrial noise. Must be heard to be seen. Really, what would you expect from Toowoomba.

Mu – Live CS (Albert’s Basement)

Mu is a recently anointed duo comprised of Mickey (Mad Nanna, Silk Ears) and Hugh (Nun, Constant Mongrel). Rather than the more rock-based moves of their other ventures, Mu sees them both finding zen in the outer reaches of noise. Following a quick succession of untitled releases, this short affair (same track on both sides) follows a similar trajectory of experiments in pure microphone feedback, vocals and electronics. The piece begins as a steady, warped bass loop with feedback shrieks prodding in and out, before building steam and becoming fully immersive with the introduction of a Casio beat and garbled vocals. Reminds me of some of the more zoned-out aspects of the Shadow Ring combined with the production value of SPK’s Live At The Crypt. Gripping stuff.

Mermaids – Love From The Vegetable Kingdom CS (Grog Pappy)

New tape on what is easily one of the best tape labels in the cuntry. One part Cock Safari, other part Polyfox, Mermaids is a project usually reserved for cheap laughs and cheaper sounds emitted via a range of toys and abused Nintendo applications. Love From The Vegetable Kingdom sees the Mermaids paired up with Nylstoch (Unaustralians, Venting Gallery) on a rare Melbourne sojourn earlier in the year. Although elements of their toys creep underneath at times (definitely could pick an annoying siren I’ve heard used at least once before), Nylstoch’s hysterical overdriven geet and presumed later drumming mutates the Mermaids into a much more threatening beast. The animal lurches, stumbles and crashes into a heap of low-end blow-out and cymbal collapse. Grog Pappy provides what is probably the greatest insight into Newcastle you are likely to get, outside of getting your head kicked in outside The Kent. This tape’s covers are printed on paper found in one of the many derelict buildings in the Newcastle “CBD” (I use the term very loosely) before it was demolished. My copy has a list of many of Newcastle’s suburbs in its background, and I probably have a fucked story associated with every one of them. There is no love in this vegetable patch.

Oranj Punjabi – Untitled c20 (Mazurka Editions)

This is the second release for a newly formed label from Newcastle called Mazurka Editions. The imprint operates on miniscule runs (this specific tape is limited to 30) and possesses a distinct focus on the artwork which adorns them. Oranj Punjabi has roots in musique concrete due to her approach being predominantly tape-based, but otherwise there is little else I can think of to compare her to. The first of the two tracks here, ‘Permanent Vertigo’, begins with noises akin to tape being chewed outta the deck and straight down the plughole. You ever hear of that chinstroking wankfest called Liquid Architecture? This is liquid deconstruction. Really, I have no idea what source material is being used here, but it sounds like OP has somehow converted magnetic tape into a watery form and is playing with it like a small child. If Drexciya made noise instead of techno, these are the kinda submerged sounds they’d create. The flip, ‘Zero Degrees of Psychic Life’, is a journey through an uncharted locale. There are bumps and ridges along its topography, creating a thoroughly disorienting sensation. Resonance is repeatedly slowed and stopped. Occasionally the reverberations hint at rhythms, but mostly they are gradually fed through and allowed to exhale freely. The results are an astral trance of which the endpoint is (thankfully) nowhere in sight.

Pho Band / Faux Band – Barry O Cup Day / The Door 10” lathe (Greatdividing)

Greatdividing is one of the most essential features of the Australian musical landscape. There are few who appear to be appreciative of it’s rough and rewarding terrain, but those who do know the geography better than most. The two bands here are one band. Both are comprised of Exiles From Clowntown alumni, arob and sootieb. The two loose, side-spanning manifestations on offer bear much in resemblance to the disjointed and purely engaging slop-rock of the Exiles. It’s impossible to tell which is the “a-side” due to both being littered with several, seemingly unrelated numbers and sigils. In fact, the record appears to be a testament to irritation par excellence; it is a detested size (10”) assembled out of unpopular materials (polycarbonate), featuring bands that do not exist, playing music that moves an inch. But what an inch it is! I’ll go with the Pho Band first; drum and guitar walk around the room uncomfortably, run into each other, shake hands and make nice before leaving for the pub. Repetition is the key here. Two old blokes in a room, the sound of encroaching senility (or refinement). Drunk, abject, confused, where else to go but down? It’s ok, I can say that without fear of too much reprisal, arob used to be my landlord (sorry about the rug). The “other” side is similarly aimless n’ entrancing . Hypnotic guitar and what might be an organ or might not be push a rock up shit hill but never reach the top. Nor do they need to, it is the process that matters. Despite being a disreputably unreliable format, these two cuts sound bloody fantastic. If music appearing on a lathe is a deterrent for you, then you should probably sort your life out anyway.

Sky Needle – Acid Perm / Deadshits Salon c10 (Nihilistic Orbs)

Closely following an excellent LP on Negative Guest List earlier in the year, Acid Perm is something of a red herring on the otherwise patently electronic-geared Nihilistic Orbs label, run by Chrome Dome’s Shaun South. The title-track of this cassette features what is for me the most interesting quality of Sky Needle; almost total incomprehensibility of how the music is being created. At once it is both organic and electronic, the only distinct instrument used being drums. Otherwise, the rest of its components are difficult to determine. What is certain is that it possesses a purely unprecedented and psychedelic quality. The song is bookended by clapping, indication of its recording in a live setting followed by a brief and blurred reprise. ‘Deadshits Salon’ possesses a similar sickening lurch, albeit with Sarah Byrne’s verbal jabber as the prevalent sound employed, a lethargic male voice subtly weaving underneath and around it. To be perfectly honest, I prefer Sky Needle as an instrumental unit. Their mechanisms almost struggle at times to maintain synchronicity, the very fact that they do is what keeps me interested and it is in this potential collapse that Sky Needle’s strength lies.