Left to right: Pimmon, Oren Ambarchi and Dworzec
Common knowledge about Australian music appears to be that it's been hiding its 'experimental' nature under a bushel for quite some time. While those around us (most notably New Zealand) have been bustling with avant expression for many-a-year, Australia's been given a bad reputation by most of 'those-who-know' - the general consensus appears to be, "Australian music? No thank you." Now, I can't really blame a lot of overseas folks (hell, even local folks) for getting the idea that we're stagnating. For a long time, Australia's been seen as some populist retard home - all Men At Work and INXS and Kylie Minogue, although Kylie did the decent thing and released a few great pop singles before losing it with some 'cred'-tack (the "Impossible Princess" era). Given that we did offer the world one of the first punk acts - the Saints - the '80's and '90's have, by and large, offered little more than miniature cracks-in-the-pavement as far as good music from our fair country goes.
by Jon Dale
Sure, there's those Thug records, and Feedtime, and The Moles, and the Triffids and Go-Betweens, and I'll never complain if someone pulls out a Laughing Clowns album (particularly if it's Mr Uddich-Smuddich). But where those around us there have been perceptible movements - the glorious rush of the Xpressway continuum, the wave of guitar-reinvention from the US and UK in the late '80's, the cracked-media antics of Europe in recent times - Australia hasn't proffered much in the way of a focussed and fiery wave of invention. I'm sure it's partly to do with the distances between major cities - Sydney to Melbourne is a 12-hour drive, Melbourne to Adelaide a 'mere' 9 hours. It's hard to connect with like-minded freaks when you're so far apart. But neither has there appeared to be a fermenting 'scene' within each city. No little colonies of crazed experimenters, no sonic wastrels banding together and exploding out of their confines to overseas shores.
That's still not really happening, either. But it behooves us to remember that Australia has offered those concentrated explosions of mad inspiration in previous times. The early '80's brought an astounding wave of post-punk eclecticism from Melbourne. Gathered loosely around the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre, acts like Essendon Airport, Dave & Phil Duo, and Tch Tch Tch interrogated the spaces between experimental music, populist rhetoric, and avant-gardism. David Chesworth of Essendon Airport was notional 'head' of the Clifton Hill centre from 1978 - 1983, coordinating the live performances held at the Organ Factory venue, and acting as 'scene catalyst' for the nascent charges of experimentation. The Clifton Hill Community Music Centre also branched out into performance art, film and video works, and so forth - a real cross-wiring of artistic thought. The Innocent Records label released a lot of singles by all the artists mentioned and in general collected together a catalogue of primo other-air sounds. (For example, try and find the debut Essendon Airport single, "Sonic Investigations of the Trivial" - and then draw some parallels between that slab of vinyl and the electronic pop/lounge miniatures of acts like Stereolab, Broadcast and Minimum Chips - you'll be pleasantly surprised.) A lot of this activity was documented by the New Music Australia magazine, and there was also a great book by John Jenkins (created in collaboration with NMA), 22 Contemporary Australian Composers, which is well worth hunting down if you want to trace the complex and intertwining routes of this starburst of Australian sonic invention. (It's also online at http://www.netspace.net.au/~rlinz/NMA/22CAC/TOC.html)
Simultaneously, Sydney was bursting with a wild collective of similar-minded wayward souls such The Makers of the Dead Travel Fast, Scattered Order, and Paul Schutze's first outfit, Laughing Hands. Sydney was also home to the stunning and overlooked early line-up of Severed Heads, whose early recordings were classic electro-brut renderings which shared head-space with the Residents and the Chris Watson line-up of Cabaret Voltaire. And in Brisbane there was always something happening, because something always seems to be happening there -the Go-Betweens, Saints and Laughing Clowns had left a certain fire-brand eclecticism in the water which showed up later in the incredible free-rock of the Holy Ghosts, possibly the most criminally-overlooked of Australian bands in the '80's. This all amounts to a hidden history of Australian music - and is in many ways the predecessor to the current wave of Australian experimentation. Chasing down the complex byroads that this burst of invention left behind is hard work indeed for many travellers, but Melbourne's Chapter Music label is curating a much-needed compilation of Australian early '80's post-punk/experimental music, and the Laughing Hands and Makers of the Dead Travel Fast records have been reissued on Extreme - so there's something to start with.
As much as the history lesson is pertinent and worthwhile, though, the focus here is on what this decade has to offer. Australia is just beginning to hook together a loose but friendly experimental music 'community', much like the Clifton Hill community in the early '80's. A lot of the artists involved have been creating in an often self-imposed vacuum for a long time - The Lost Domain have a history that stretches into the '80's - and that they are only now becoming visible to more than the lucky few is simultaneously a great shame (that it didn't happen earlier) and a blessing (that years of woodshedding is coming to 'fruition'). And whilst there is no real 'nexus' for Australian experimental music at the moment, there are two major points of meeting. The first is the Synaesthesia record store, mail order, and Shin-Sound gallery space. Hidden away behind a church in Prahran, Synaesthesia's impact on awareness and interest in avant-garde music of all strains in Australia has been impossibly far-reaching. Everyone knows about it, everyone goes there. Run by good soul Mark Harwood, it spends equal time disseminating essential overseas cultural artefacts to Australia's avant-community and proselytising about the state of Australian experimentation. A powerful and wise voice in our nascent community, Synaesthesia's impact on listening and knowledge has been incredibly important to the establishment and growth of an up-to-date, energetic and open-minded vanguard of experimental musicians and fans.
The second major 'gathering-of-the-tribes' is the What is Music festival. Building from humble beginnings half a decade ago, the festival, curated by Sydney musicians Oren Ambarchi and Robbie Avenaim, has developed into a two-city (Sydney and Melbourne) extravaganza of live performance sonic exploration. 2000's festival brought the Mego label, Simon Wickham-Smith, Neil Hamburger, and Keith Rowe (amongst others) to our fair isles, and cross-thatched them with local artists such as Pimmon, Dworzec, Martin Ng, Minit and Menstruation Sisters (names which you'll hopefully be rather au fait with by the end of this article). As an intersection of thriving cultures from overseas and our own backyard, it's a startling success. More importantly, it's a damn pleasurable four night foray of sound-art blow-outs. What's more, it's reach gets wider and wider every year, with truly surprising turn-outs in each city. The word is spreading, after all. What is Music also makes an effort to bring the history of Australian experimental music to the fore - long-running improvisers such as Jon Rose appeared at the last festival. The only problem faced was a certain superiority- complex from the old-school improv community - copping an attitude toward the lap-top brigade of Mego, Pimmon and Wickham-Smith. A sign that bridges have to be built, surely, to allow more incorporative spaces have to evolve.
So that's 'where we meet,' but what about the artists themselves? Who should you be checking out in order to get an idea of the burgeoning renaissance in Australian music? Well, I toyed with the idea of tracking the complexity of their interconnectedness in flowing form, but it was too much of a head-fuck task. So instead I'll list of the names you should be keeping close to the tip of your tongue at all times, and that'll serve as a good starting point for those of you interesting in exploring further (and that should really be all of you, right?)
- OREN AMBARCHI Oren Ambarchi has a strong history at the forefront of '90's Australian underground music. He first came to my attention as member of Zorn-japery whack-off outfit Phlegm, who released more records than you could care to mention (or listen to, in my less-than-humble opinion). The Zorn connection was reinforced by Ambarchi's involvement in several performances of Zorn's game-piece "Cobra." The first signs of a differing approach to music came with his noise-brut-punk duo (with Nick Kamiussis, who also performs as Sportsbra and Rizili) Menstruation Sisters, whose debut CD Ma is a classic of unexpurgated all-out spastic sound-flail - an Australian equivalent to the wildness of Harry Pussy or Green Monkey. They've recently released a triple 7" (on Kamiussis' Fata label) which is unheard by these ears, but doubtless well worth seeking out. (Particularly as it's limited to 99 copies, collectors!) After touring America and Japan with Phlegm and the Menstruation Sisters in 1997, Ambarchi returned to Sydney to find the live music scene in a state of seemingly-permanent hibernation. He hid away at home and worked on developing his solo lexicon, resulting in several mindblowing records which have charted a new course for guitar manipulation - the thick drones and juddering cut-ups of the "Stacte" series (released on his own Jerker Productions label), and the cracked-open, beautifully-splayed glitch tones of the Touch Records CD Insulation, which is more in line with the Mego school of digital noise-fuckery than most received wisdom about 'guitar playing' (man). Ambarchi also performs in a stellar duo with Robbie Avenaim, who've released a rather good disc on Tzadik, Alter Rebbe's Nigun, which crosses Ascension-style guitar/drum sprawl with ominous deep-breath atmospherics, and a 3" CDR, "Clockwork", which is the best thing either have been involved with - gamelan-esque tones, clattering percussion, mucky, amorphous drone-globules, and rising static. The duo also won the ABC-FM Improv competition in 1999 ("Clockwork" is a recording of the semi-final performance). Finally, they both run the What is Music festival, mentioned earlier, and play in improv-spazz outfit Testicle Candy with Lucas Abela, Martin Ng, and Ray Ahn.
- JULIAN WILLIAMS/FROM THE SAME MOTHER Julian Williams is one of the most underground and unknown of Australian performers, although he's been involved in outward sounds for at least a decade. Beginning in pop bands in Perth in the early '90's, Williams launched his From the Same Mother label, documenting (along with the Chapter Music label) a nascent pop scene in that city. A mass exodus of Perth characters to Melbourne in the mid-'90's led to Williams forming classic Australian improv trio Solids. Beginning as a warped, wracked pop outfit, whose early releases betrayed strong influences from The Fall and other early '80's acts whose music expanded from pop constructions to free territories, Solids eventually exploded into a pure improvised experience. While their work still roughly adheres to a 'song' format - largely due to Greg Wadley's consistently rhythmic, metronomic drum pulses - Williams and third member Jad construct juddering walls of guitar and analogue keyboard wail over the top, at times torturous, at times atmospheric. Their work has been documented on a handful of From the Same Mother cassettes, and a limited 7" single, "Padma Gling-pa". After Jad left the country for a holiday, Julian and Greg drafted in Dion Nania (ex-Golden Lifestyle Band) and Dylan Krasevic (of Fong and Snawklor) to form the Hi-God People, a more loose, Krautrock-inspired jam-outfit. I feel guilty talking about them, seeing as I helped release their one album, but The Hi-God People/Nega the Eight-Headed Serpent is a classic of its sort - floating, chiming, Amon Duul-esque chanters slide up against more jerky and abrasive piano-clunk, Williams chants in a post-Sun City Girls style, and glistening percussive rituals rub against Dead C derived rock deconstruction. There's been rumours of forthcoming CD releases from both Solids and The Hi-God People - who knows when or whether these will happen, but they're well worth keeping an eye out for. Julian has also released more solo cassettes than I could care to think about, mostly pretty interesting, and again displaying his move from skewed pop (in the early days) to noise/improv blather (in recent releases) - and he showed off his substantial debt to those early Suicide records on a stunning 10" lathe-cut LP entitled Makara Dhwaja which was a heavy Rev-inspired keyboard chanter. Williams also publishes the From the Same Mother fanzine, which splices together fascinating personal writing, fiction, and historical overviews of people as diverse as Nikola Tesla and Brian Wilson.
- THE LOST DOMAIN/SHYTONE David MacKinnon is an amazing character from Brisbane. During the '90's, he's disseminated some wild and wicked sounds from the Brisbane improv-rock front via his cassette-cum-CDR label Shytone. Unfortunately, due to small runs and a smaller promotional budget, this music is hidden even from the most 'hep' underground cats the world over. It's a complete shame, as MacKinnon's own outfits, Grubbage, Two Poor Boys and The Lost Domain, all sidle up a back alley where the No Neck Blues Band get frisky with the Anthology of American Folk Music and Albert Ayler. An amazing cross-thatching of writhing free-rock interplay, wasted blues moan and free jazz peaked blow, his main outfit, The Lost Domain, are one of the most stunning unheralded propositions this country offers. They spend the '90's creating under the name The Invisible Empire, and their line-up in the mid-late '90's was truly DEVASTATING - a three-drum attack over which genius guitar-wrangler Greg Hilleard (also of Tripod and Grubbage) drew spiked, angular thrash, sleazy blues ooze and not-of-this-world feedback scree. MacKinnon held down the pieces with his more restrained, folk-pick-gone-crazy style, and vocalist Simon Ellaby mutters and drawls like Leadbelly on strong acid. Their third cassette, Blondes Chew More Gum, stands to me as their definitive work, although there have been CDR releases since which are unheard by me, so they may have exceeded that highpoint. Doubtless they're all classics of their kind, anyways. Best news yet, I hear that Shytone will be releasing a Holy Ghosts live CDR soon. MacKinnon also moonlights as a writer for the local street press - he's a great, intelligent writer, articulate and spot-on, and his 70-page essay included in the double cassette set The Dead Set, which draws parallels between Brisbane improv and early American folk-blues music (such as that documented on John Fahey's Revenant label), is a head-clearing read indeed.
- CHRIS SMITH Chris started out in Geelong as a member of the Golden Lifestyle Band, whose sole CD, I've ruined the mood, is great if you never bothered buying an SST-era Dinosaur Jr album (or, if Chris wrote the song, a Codeine record). Chris lived in New Zealand and Tasmania for short periods of time and you can hear the impact of the isolated conditions of both places in his early solo music. His debut 7" "Altitude/Cold Ears" was a suffocating swarm of guitar wash, a lagoon of splashing noise-pop which harked back to Xpressway days and also shared headspace with early flying saucer attack recordings. Both tracks featured on his astounding debut album, Cabin Fever, which mopped up three years of solo home recordings and moved from aerated guitar dronology to scratchy melodic improvisations, introverted minimal pop etudes and arched field-recording/piano duets. Although Cabin Fever still betrayed a fixation with the Xpressway school, it sufficiently opened out Smith's oeuvre to show that a complex and intelligent sound thinker was at work. Recently Chris has released a collaborative single with Peter Jefferies (which seems to have sealed off his NZ-era for good) and an awe-inspiring second album, "Replacement", which is a selection of elongated, icy wall-of-guitar architectures. The album itches the same spots as Surface of the Earth, but has more emotional warmth and depth. There's been talk amongst people who know that Replacement is Chris' 'definitive statement' and that it far outweighs his earlier work - I'd have to disagree, and say BOTH albums are unequalled evocations of soul-splurge via guitar/e-bow configurations. Replacement is a more coherent record en masse, yet Cabin Fever is as touching as a great Alastair Galbraith or Talk Talk record. Chris is currently working on a duo album with guitarist Justin Fuller, who he has previously collaborated with in short-lived trio Gaf Control, and is also heading a new rock band Library Punks.
- DWORZEC Dworzec are a truly fascinating bunch. Their musical history isn't as wide-reaching as characters like David MacKinnon and Julian Williams, yet in the space of two years they've achieved a small overseas reputation larger than a lot of Australian experimenters. Indeed, it was the out-of-nowhere feel to their debut 7" single, "Shore", which totally enamoured me to the outfit. In a collective of creators where everyone seems to know everyone else, the appearance of non-connected folks like Dworzec was a fresh blast of free air. Dworzec are an improvising quartet from Melbourne - Louise Conroy on accordion and saxophone, Antony Eagle on percussion and treatments, Arek Gulbenkoglu on prepared guitar and tapes, and Henry Krips on synthesiser. They work in a similar vein to New Zealand's Metonymic Records crew - free-floating, unhinged group-think improvisation which revels in a rich heritage, starting with AMM, MEV and their ilk. Over the course of one 7", one lathe-cut 10" ("Kairow") and their self-titled CD (all self-released), they've charted a course of idiosyncratic free-sound float which is rather wonderful to steep deeply into. Their work has also progressed, from the thick, reamy drones of their 7" (kinda like NNCK meets Rain) to the spacious, free-falls of their full-length, which is one of the few discs in the recent splurge of group-improv out-sound exploration to trace any new steps for the development and growth of the oeuvre. Since the release of that CD, Antony Eagle has moved to America to study - he still contributes field recordings, and returns to Australia for three months a year, so is definitely still a member of Dworzec - yet the performances I have seen have been the trio configuration of Dworzec, and they've shown a further refinement to their work - barely there, hushed and moody sound slivers, accordionist Lou letting the instrument hang slowly, oozing the sounds out in a most relaxed, unhurried and profound manner, the air of the instrument creating an incredibly deep and riveting performance. Arek's guitar has become more 'electronic'-sounding and less rooted in the traditional lexicon of the guitar as time has moved on, and at times it is hard to discern what is coming from his tabletop techniques or Krips' analogue keyboard flotations. Dworzec are a truly incredible outfit - slow-breathing, time-melting, mind-expansion group thought of a most beautiful kind.
- PIMMON Pimmon is one man, Paul Gough, who - more than any other acts listed here - connects the current upsurge in experimental music with that of the burgeoning early '80's scene. Indeed, Paul edited a cassette zine in the early '80's devoted to the M Squared label (from Sydney) and acts like Severed Heads. Fast forward a good fifteen years, and now Pimmon music is at the head of Australian music much like his heroes Severed Heads were way back when (though I doubt Pimmon will devolve into tedious dance-pop choogling). There's been an incredible explosion in the creation and reception of abstract electronic music world-wide in the past five years; so much so that it's getting incredibly hard to find the truly innovative artists among the ugly, tedious pretenders. Pimmon are definitely one of the great electronica innovators of recent times, and his work is receiving more and more kudos world-wide as his records spread their feelers through the world like tendrils.
His oeuvre is wonderfully eclectic - his releases so far have moved from abstract beat canopies (the "VPE" 12" on ERS) to noisic, scrabbly DSP (the Farmers Manual-ish Waves and Particles CD on Meme), moody tone miniatures (the "Vovul II" 7" on Static Caravan) and his recent and most head-cracking release, the incredible cracked-media distortions of the Assembler CD. Only just released on Scottish label Fallt, Assembler feels like a year zero for a new kind of electronic music, refining the eclectic output of the Mego label and their ilk into a contained, explorative and daring new vessel. Bristling with life, wild flora, metallic sheens and mandelbrot-set refractions, "Assembler" is a wild ride - I wouldn't hesitate to say it is among the five most inventive and sonically startling releases in the electronic field in the past few years. Remember how those two Fennesz albums kept you turning your head to the stereo, wondering "what the fuck is going on - this is amazing"? Well, that's how you're gonna feel about Assembler. Trust me. Pimmon has a bunch more releases on the way - a 12" on Fat Cat, a 7" on the Bad Jazz label - and he's also recently appeared on the Afternoon compact disc on Ritornell, a documentation of the collaborations between Oren Ambarchi, Pimmon, Pita, Keith Rowe and Fennesz during the 2000 What is Music festival.
- MINIT/DAVID HAINES/SIGMA OK, I'm stretching the boundaries of the Australian thang here. Because the Sigma Editions label was started by ex-Thela members Dion Workman and Rosy Parlane, from New Zealand, and it is currently based in the Netherlands. Yet Dion and Rosy were based in Australia for a few years, until only recently, and Sigma is one of the most focused and fantastic record labels of recent times. Their first two releases were a solo Rosy Parlane CD, and Dion and Rosy's duo project, Parmentier, who specialise in slow-seeping, gradually evolving minimal electronica. The Parmentier CD Luxsound is a masterpiece of unresolved tension and elongated sound construction. Since then they've hooked up with renowned Finnish artist Vladislav Delay, releasing his debut CD Ele and a 12" under the name Conoco, entitled Kemikoski. Most importantly, they also released the debut CD by Sydney duo Minit. Torben Tilly and Jasmin Guiffond have rich histories in outsider music - Tilly was the drummer for New Zealand's classic noise-pop-folk outfit Garbage and the Flowers, and Guiffond worked with Alternahunk, and she also records solo as Mysterious Girl. The Minit CD Music is a miniature classic of restrained, incredibly minimal pulses - slow, stripped-back and yet incredibly rich pieces of moody electronica. Played at high volume, their work is incredibly penetrating and fixating - Music is one of the best records I've come across from Australia's electronic music vanguard. Sigma has also documented the work of David Haines, a sound artist whose CD Blither documents manipulations of recordings of a Boesendorfer piano - a fascinating and singular work. The Sigma Editions label has documented some of the finest Australian music of recent time, and there's more on the way - a Minit 12" and CD is all I know about of now, but rest assured there'll be more from this most fascinating axis of cross-continent collaboration. (Minit have also recently released a 7", "Bootleg", on the Tonschacht label.)
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as such. There's plenty of other names out there you should be checking out too. There's some interesting electro-acoustic crazies in Melbourne, like Delire, Squinch, and so forth, loosely based around the Plant Syntax venue (which I'm hoping is still open). Artists Marco Fusinato and John Nixon have branched out into noise-brut feedback excess with their duo Solver and their label Freewaysound, which has just released a Thurston Moore disc, and has a Handful of Dust title on the way. Brisbane's Terminal Moraine does a stunning line in keyboard dronology. Eugene Carchesio, once of the Holy Ghosts, is still painting and occasionally recording more Lol Coxhill-esque saxophone etudes under the name DNE (whose self-released 47 Songs Humans Shouldn't Sing album is a lost classic). Outsider sound visionaries like Stevie Wishart, Rik Rue and Alistair Riddell are still as active as ever. Ace concret-turntablist Martin Ng is working solo, broadcasting his Hydrogen Jukebox radio show in Sydney, and also collaborating with improviser Jim Denley (who himself has a fascinating history within Sinfonie and Machines For Making Sense). Lucas Abela runs the Dual Plover label and performs on his self-invented noise machines in Peeled Hearts Paste. The more disjointed, noisic and Bananafish-sympathetic strand of invention is well represented by Volvox and its offshoots, the work of Lester Vat, and New Waver (whose Greg Wadley has presided over many a fine recording at his Spill studios, and released several fine compilations on the Spill label).
Tasmania has a rather intriguing scene centered around Hobart - apart from throwing up some great rock bands (The Frustrations, The Sea Scouts, Little Ugly Girls), they also have an ever-evolving home-spun noise scene circling around the Consumer Productions label - top acts include The Human Host, HMAS, and Do You Mind If I Stab This? And my home town Adelaide is way behind on all this stuff, but ex-pats Pretty Boy Crossover (now Melbourne based) do a nice line in melodic electronica that's way ahead of their contemporaries on, say, the Skam label (who they've actually just signed to), Matthew Thomas explores the outer reaches of radio static minimalism, and local digital-fucker Pix has tracks on the fals.ch compilation and is looking like becoming a major visionary.
So, far from being behind the starting line as far as experimentation goes, Australia has a burbling, ever-growing and quietly inventive community of acts that appear to be expanding exponentially. I don't know why you, dear reader, haven't heard of it yet, but surely that's just a sign that you've got some serious work to do. Try Synaesthesia, at www.synrecords.com, do some web searches, email me and ask them questions at email@example.com (but don't go expecting a coherent answer, I'm by no means an 'expert', just an enthusiast), do whatever you can to kick Australia's truly essential underground musics out of your peripheral vision into direct glare with your eyes right now. It'll be well worth it. Trust me, I have a vested interest.
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