The Drones are new to me. They’re a big deal in their native Australia though where they won the inaugural Australian Music Prize in 2005 and their song ‘Shark Fin Blues’ topped a national songwriting poll.
This is their seventh album but you can be excused for not having heard of them. They did a short tour of the UK in 2009 but other than that they haven’t been over this way much. If Feelin Kinda Free is an indicator then their back catalogue will be worth a listen.
They let you know what you are in for from the off. ‘Private Execution’ opens with some Fugazi-like dissonance before giving way to the minimalism that dominates Feelin Kinda Free. It’s a spacious record with splashing cymbals and strange time signatures. The space provided lends significance to every guitar note and keyboard drone, all built around the vocals of sole original member, Gareth Liddiard. His abstract cut and paste lyrics create images in the listeners head in much the same way that David lynch’s films do.
Common conventions like verses and choruses are not really relevant here. Liddiard's expressive voice and intonations indicate different moods and movements. The discord and innovation suggest a stripped-down Deerhoof or Future of the Left with more arty menace and less outright aggression.
Feelin Kinda Free is as notable for what The Drones don’t do as for what they do. Musically, the bass and drums do most of the heavy lifting. Unusually for a noisy rock album, the whole thing is done without a power chord being struck. The guitars and keyboards are expressionist strokes, decorating and highlighting the songs while the rhythm section and vocals provide the focus. The tempo is slow throughout and the tunes are dripping with restrained menace, which adds to the Birthday Party feel of the album.
It’s political too with last year’s single ‘Taman Shud’ being a response to anti-immigration sentiments and statements in the media, and from the government. NewsCorp’s Andrew Bolt is namechecked, and has denounced The Drones as “Stamping on the ashes of the West’s musical traditions”. I wouldn’t be surprised if they put that quote on their tour poster.
The seven minute long ‘Private Execution’ is a great start to the album. While Ramones could turn six lines of lyrics into a three minute song, The Drones are extravagantly verbose by comparison. Each song is an essay, dense in imagery and emotion. Choruses and refrains are rare but used to stunning effect like on ‘To Think That I Once Loved You’. Their current single, it has a vibe like an even more minimal, and even more miserable, Leonard Cohen. It's ‘Chelsea Hotel No.2’ rewritten with anger and self-loathing. A chorus of Field Commander Cohen's backing singers underscore Liddiard's rage and embarrassment as he wrings every drop of feeling from his voice. It will ring true with anyone who has ever felt like a fool. Which, I suppose, is all of us.
With any band attempting something this innovative and original, some songs are inevitably more successfully realised than others. There are only eight songs on Feelin Kinda Free, which is for the best. A longer album of music this challenging would probably alienate the listener before the end but it's a record that is worth hearing the whole way through. The lyrics and melodies resonate and recur long after The Drones have stopped playing.