If the Australian music tree of life were illuminated where the money flowed, only a twig or two would light up. The root structure, trunk and sturdy branches consist of volunteers.
Take FBi radio’s Peter Hollo, who has hosted the Utility Fog show for the 12 years the Sydney community radio station has existed. Hollo’s volunteer work has not – as the myth promises – led to a paid job elsewhere, nor does he expect it to. “I get some promo CDs,” he says. “But I buy most of the music I play. I do it because I love collecting and sharing music.”
Music, more than anything, defies the capitalist odds. It finds a way. I don’t mean to glorify the flat-broke reality of so many in the music scene but I don’t want to overdramatise it either because most of these people have enough social mobility to find other ways to survive; and they do.
Image: The Black Wreath
Yet still the music flows. I’m not alone in my conviction that Australia punches above its weight with great music. Henry Rollins apparently said it too, in reference to Melbourne band Russell St Bombings. (He is also a fan of Stephanie Crase’s solo project Summer Flake – both acts made great records you should consider as unofficial numbers 11 and 12 on this list.) I’ve heard American label heads rave and English music journalists confide: “Australia is about the only place that produces interesting bands at the moment.” Without fashioning some sort of Pepsi challenge as proof, it is pretty much fact.
These 10 albums are not delivering wads of cash to their makers. So let’s celebrate that hackneyed yet still real idea of “doing it for the love” and know that for every local album you heard and liked during 2015, there are 10 more you might enjoy even more – but you have to dig.
The underground means something different for everyone. Its only true definition is that it exists one layer of dirt beneath what each one of us sees. This list is for the diggers and for those dug up.
The debut record from Sydney duo Au.Ra slipped under the radar this year. But after succumbing to the riptide pull of the opening track, Morning, you stay submerged, sound-bathing in layers of sublime guitar tones and effects that evoke a bevy of shoegaze legends like Slowdive, Ride and Pale Saints. Two years in the making, the gradual build of Jane’s Lament paid off in its drowsy unhurried air. Mixing wizardry care of HTRK’s Nigel Yang no doubt adding to the swoon factor.
Highlight track: Morning
Driving through the American desert, Jess Ribeiro resolved to call Mick Harvey (the Birthday Party/the Bad Seeds). Together, they made not a handful of songs but an album in the truest sense, evoking the raw smoulder of Patti Smith, the opiate sway of the Velvet Underground and the amble of Moon Pix-era Cat Power. With its “red earth” and “yellow brittle grass” Kill It Yourself is from and about Australia, meaning foreigners will hear its sound but we will hear its soul.
Highlight track: Born to Ride
From the bloated back catalogues of metal, hardcore and punk, High Tension carve off only the lean meat. At gigs, frontwoman Karina Utomo’s tiny frame is a blur of motion; her hair spinning as she screams, death-growls and raises aloft the mighty metal orange – the latter an example of how High Tension inject metal’s cliches in the right places, in the right doses, making this record brutally fun. And who would have expected the feminist video of the year from a metal band?
Highlight video: Bully
I wasn’t the only reviewer to describe this experimental folk record as “ritualistic”. In their final few months as a band, Sydney’s Rand and Holland played a series of shows that pushed their folk into heavier, darker terrain. After the band splintered, songwriter Brett Thompson took the shards and polished them into a five-song album of tense space, reverberant textures and emotional inwardness – brilliant precisely because it is too intense to suit everyone’s taste.
Highlight track: Cobra
Originally of New Zealand grunge band Batrider, Melbourne-based Sarah Mary Chadwick’s voice is the sound of two hands wringing. Her genius is in taking musical tropes past the point of comfort: her idea of “solo artist” seems utterly alone, and her idea of “confessional songwriting” is awkwardly frank admissions like “I’m always underdressed or overdressed” that could be croaked straight from crumpled diary entries. Just a few long organ notes glimmer in the gloom but painfully honest is honest all the same and it’s an album I’ve returned to a lot.
Highlight track: Aquarius Gemini
Bush reggae bands are central Australia’s most common acts, but as the “most isolated heavy metal band in the world” Southeast Desert Metal is bucking the trend. From the small Aboriginal community of Santa Teresa in what they call a “dry and brutal” part of Australia, the five-piece band do two things very well: riffs and messages. They import their influences – Iron Maiden, Metallica, Judas Priest – but sing of local matters. On Eagle, Chris Wallace sings about his totem (“We are an eagle-dreaming clan”), while Disturbing the Spirits is about how mining is spoiling their ancestors’ land.
Highlight video: Eagle
They may be cracking it big in America, but Perth’s Methyl Ethel are a peculiar band. Their pop rock manages to be both spectral and stadium-friendly, with Jake Webb’s vocals just one aspect of their androgynous sound. There is muffled drums, reverb-soaked guitar that sounds thin and lost and, when stretched, Webb’s voice crackling into distortion. Among the weirdness, they place choruses you want to hear forever, as on Twilight Driving, the year’s best earworm – and a public service announcement, too: “Twilight driving, better watch out for the roos.”
Highlight video: Twilight Driving
Ten years in the making, when Bathurst to Melville (B2M)’s album finally came out, the multigenerational Tiwi Islands band sold out Darwin Entertainment Centre. At Top End festivals, B2M wore matching suits and did synchronised dances to screaming crowds. To my ear, Home is at its best when the older fellas chant in Tiwi language to the beat of clapsticks, but Indigenous crowds seem to think otherwise, incited to scale the stage when B2M do their squeaky-clean boyband R&B.
Highlight track: Parlingarri
Since forming in 2004, My Disco have been tagged as minimalist but only onSevere do they reach minimalism’s slate-grey rock-bottom. Little of the trio’s percussive danceability is present here. Like Godflesh (the seminal industrial metal band My Disco sound increasingly like), gratification comes in the purity of the lava-heavy pound and the clarity it both communicates and instills. To their merit, My Disco eschew metal’s inchoate growls, instead offering unsmiling mantras such as “Recede. Into the silence.” Don’t fight it.
Highlight video: King Sound
Yes, this record is derivative of soft-focus 80s ballads and yes, Pearls lob in some Goldfrapp and MGMT-style electro too. But maybe all this is why I want to play it loud, alone, as I drive at night: it is the comfort blanket of guilty pleasure. The best track, Albion, is a shoegaze ballad and only serves to deepen Pearls’s identity crisis and make me like this album more. Pearls are also high camp, high pretension and highly attractive. What’s not to love?
Highlight video: Pretend You’re Mine
The Guardian version
My name is Kate Hennessy. I am a freelance arts writer, editor and music critic. I contribute to publications including Guardian Australia, The Wire (UK), ABC Arts, The Saturday Paper, The Quietus (UK), The Australian Book Review, The Lifted Brow, Noisey/Vice, Limelight, Mess+Noise and others.