Before the review, a short digression.
In year 12, I had a great media studies teacher named Mr Mortenson (‘Morty’ to his students). Morty's classroom was full of movie posters (The Usual Suspects, Fargo, etc.) and LP covers adorned the top of the whiteboard (most clearly, I remember the bug-eyed stare of Screamin' Jay Hawkins staring down on me as we learned about Film Noir). One time, I left the classroom to run an errand and came back to find Morty looking through my iTunes library, casting an approving eye over my collection. Before the lesson was over, he gave me a USB full of albums he thought I'd appreciate. Amongst the entire Yo La Tengo and Pixies discographies was an absurdly named album full of seven-minute rock songs and ocker-inflected bush poetry that introduced me into the weird and wonderful world of The Drones.
The Drones, perhaps best known for their sea-shanty-meets-murder-ballad ‘Shark Fin Blues’, released six albums over fifteen years, shifting from the garage-spiked epics of Wait Long By The River And The Bodies Of Your Enemies Will Float By (2005) to the dramatic and paranoid Feelin Kinda Free (2016). Across their releases, the dark and literary words of singer/songwriter Gareth Liddiard have remained both an entry point and the focal point. Nowhere is the power of his lyrics more pronounced than on Strange Tourist (2010) a sparse solo record that put Liddiard’s abstract tales of drunks and traitors under a bright light. But by the time of 2016 single ‘Taman Shud’, Liddiard’s gaze had turned towards the political and dystopian. As it turned out, this was merely a clearing of the throat before the sustained pained scream of that is Tropical Fuck Storm.
Tropical Fuck Storm – Liddiard’s latest band, formed alongside Drones bassist Fiona Kitschin – began in 2017, doubling down on the vitriolic and herky-jerky sound that was teased on the last Drones album. Across four singles, TFS rebuilt Liddiard’s reputation, recasting him from a wordy elder statesman of the Melbourne scene to its latest foul-mouthed prophet. The band released the bizarre but vital A Laughing Death In Meatspace last year, and has quickly followed it up with Braindrops, an expansive album that stretches out the intensity of Meatspace to familiar but rewarding places.
Like Meatspace, Braindrops opens with it’s most Drones-y track; a holding of the hand to old fans before the jump into the deep end. That song, ‘Paradise’, starts with an expressive guitar riff and Liddiard singing mournfully about a doomed relationship, a mood that lifts when the drums and backing vocals crash through on the chorus. Before you know it, the band is stomping and a fiercely discordant guitar solo is dominating the track. The stage is set.
TFS’s greatest strength is the blending of Liddiard’s voice with striking group vocals of the rest of the band. The all-female trio (Kitschin, Erica Dunn of Palm Springs and MOD CON, and Lauren Hammel of High Tension) splices Liddiard’s drunk man poetry with a manic energy that matches the intricate and noisy instrumentals. On ‘The Planet of Strawmen’, the backing vocals provide the melodic hook, singing ‘they want the glory of a coup de grâce’ as Liddard tears a vocal cord. On the skittering ‘The Happiest Guy Around’, they chant teasingly, ‘will you ever get over it?’, wringing a catchy tune out of nothing. This trick of finding the hook hiding within the moody or vitriolic noise rock keeps the album from settling into anything too familiar.
Despite the (welcome) focus on the multiple voices and arresting sounds, the greatest pleasures from this album come from Liddiard continuing to meld the personal and the dystopian. On the stunning ‘Aspirin’, he reminisces with a lover about their life together, jealously reminding them of their mortality, singing ‘when you go you'll get to finally meet the one who tortured you, the one that hurt you worse than everyone, even me’. Across all his work, Liddiard has always excelled at highlighting the beauty of ugliness, and on Braindrops he finds another angle with which to examine it.
Braindrops is out now on Flightless. Tropical Fuck Storm are touring the album across Australia this October. Their Melbourne launch has sold out, but there are still tickets to their Torquay show on the 20th of October.
Hal Parker Langley