Monday, December 7, 2009


Thursday, June 12, 2008

A rumour went around Hobart in the late 1990s that a US spy base had been built within a mountain in the South-West Wilderness. People had seen alien spacecraft while bushwalking around there; even Peter Cundell of Gardening Australia admits to having spotted UFOs along the Tasmanian west coast. A lot of this sort of talk went down in Hobart around that time, and alarmingly little of it had to do with drug taking. The pervasive Us vs Them mentality, so much a part of life in an isolated place, thrived on such stories and ignorance often took precedence over information. Which made it all the more strange when a Hobartian was proven right, when something was actually world class and encapsulated what it was to live there and then, simultaneously embodying the frequent longing to be anywhere else.

Along with Sea Scouts, The Stickmen were shining examples of Hobart's resolutely out-of-time music scene. Despite playing only a few shows in Melbourne before their 1999 implosion, the band already seemed mythical; unanimous praise from those that had seen them, few photos, no interviews, no egos, just two scarce yet fearsome CDs and myth, hovering like the stench of hops around the Cascade Brewery.

So, like the rumours of the spy station in the wilderness being proven true, here comes Soar/Sonar with a compilation CD that will araldite itself into your player, even if you are one of the 500 people who already have a Stickmen CD.

Firstly, this is authentic Australian rock and roll. This plugs deeper into history than a bunch of AC/DC wannabes ever could, with energy to burn, control, guts and a hurricane ferocity that astounded live and is very nearly captured here. Who Said It Would Be Good? is of its time and place in a way that few bands seem to be capable of rendering; the bold type of their ingenious simplicity spelling out the themes for the lyrics to smear. It's a time that, though essentially foreign, is universal; nothing says 'I'm pissed off with Brisbane' like I'm Stranded, The Triffids epitomise the alternative to boom-time 1980s Perth, and The Stickmen have Hobart in 1998. "We wait up until the moon is in the sky / It is the nighttime let the darkness begin / It is the nighttime and it gets under your skin" (Night).

The mechanical rhythms feel drawn from the industrial history of the place; they smell of the Bell Bay zinc works and move like overloaded log trucks gunning through the city at night. Guitars sound channelled through a hydroelectric scheme and recorded at the foot of a dam wall, Aldous Kelly's galvanising sneer beamed in from a visiting UFO, full of urgency when not stretching out over the dark, sparse, scattered scenes that the band are equally adept at creating. A sense of borderline paranoia tinges the lyrics, caught up with physical reactions to the environment; bones, skin, fire, the ocean and the city all figure prominently, as does the need to escape ennui up a sinewy, slippery rope ladder. Nostalgic instrument / The machine gone and fractured the bones that hold us together / Calibrate this thing before it tears us apart / Living in boxes within boxes / Cubes within squares / Existence lies between us (Maps of Places). It's hard to believe the music has aged so little.

Secondly, guitar music you can dance to has been given a bad name in recent years, and while The Stickmen possess the force of a speeding train they choose to rein it in for the most part. When it does explode (like the opening 45 seconds of the album) it's like a white-water rapid; you can see the course of the river but it's still full of unexpected surges and twists. Immense respect has to go to drummer Ianto Kelly (cousin to singer, songwriter and guitarist Aldous) and bassist Luke Osbourne who move the songs with a precision that could only have been born from a dedication bordering on obsession.

Instead of '14 Stickmen Songs Everyone Should Know', we get a thoughtful overview of the band's recorded history. Aldous Kelly and Tom Lyngcoln of Solar/Sonar (and of The Nation Blue) have negotiated a collection likely to stand the test of time better than one guy picking his favourite tunes. The tracklisting is paced like the songs, eschewing chronological order for sudden lurches, rollercoaster surges, giddy spirals and dark green calm.

Mysteriously omitting the heady rush and breath-sapping dynamics of Without A Clue for an interesting but inessential demo version is an odd choice, as is the absence of the intro to the CDs title track Wired World, and a cursory version of 7000 live at Risdon Prison does little to represent Andrew Harper's chillingly honest account of the show that comprise the CD's liner notes. Instead we have incendiary examples of the band in various studios and live. The title track's space-time-continuum bending guitar and turntable interplay is a clear highlight, and Strange World's three-note riff the perfect paper plane design; a work of engineering that becomes art by virtue of its simplicity. Matt Greeves' inspired use of a distorted turntable to flesh out the bass/drums/guitar machine is a secret weapon used to minimalist perfection, constantly surprising with its rhythmic accents sometimes opening up to a spectrum of tightly wound noise on songs like Floating Pawns and the epic closer Youthful.

There are elements of surf rock to The Stickmen, but this is once- Antarctic surf lapping at some disused docks. There is nothing sunny about Hobart in the wintertime and this album chills in a most atypically Australian way. It was often said that Tasmanian music had more in common with New Zealand than the mainland, though trends like this matter increasingly little these days, so it's significant to see that it did; more Flying Nun than JJJ. That Aldous Kelly now calls that country home and is still making music that channels his environment should come as little surprise. This CD documents the band with revelatory zeal, and realises Solar/Sonar's intents like the Holy Grail it is. Definitely something for the time capsule.