It’s not just because they’re Australian, I swear. The Drones, hailing from the land of Oz where I’ve been living for the past six months, are one of the most forward-thinking and exciting rock bands in the world right now, and I’m here to tell you why. As a group, they’ve been at it for a long time: almost twenty years, having started out in 1997 as an aggressive but fairly straightforward punk blues/garage rock act.
But over the course of those twenty years, the band has done nothing but evolve their sound and their last two albums have found them pushing bravely at the boundaries of experimental rock. 2013’s I See Seaweed was a colossal but beautiful monster that all fans of weird rock music absolutely need to check out, and last year’s Feelin Kinda Free, my second favourite album of 2016, was their very best yet.
This record is loud, slow, sinister, and mysterious. Its eight songs are shrouded in sour synthesizers and huge, enveloping basslines that create an overwhelming wall of sound. It’s hard to pin down exactly what instruments you’re hearing at any one point on this record, which goes to show just how far The Drones have moved away from their humble punk blues beginnings.
‘Private Execution’, opening the record off, begins with a cacophony of psychedelic noise that erupts into an unsettling and unstable groove when the rest of the band comes in. The production is fantastically soupy – like wading through a nightmarish sea of static and distortion. And the very first words that frontman Gareth Liddiard sings on this track make the bands intentions clear: ‘The best songs are like bad dreams / If you can cover all the exits’ .
But if Feelin Kinda Free is a nightmare, then it is one conducted with eyes wide open. Gareth’s Liddiard’s lyrics have always had a strong political and social edge, and this album is no different: Feelin Kinda Free finds him taking on privacy, freedom, immigration, surveillance, ISIS and a whole range of other topics. For as apocalyptic as the music on this album is at points, Gareth’s lyrics are always witty, darkly poetic and firmly rooted to the ground.
‘Then They Came For Me’ is a blast of enigmatic pessimism about how much of Western society and Gareth himself are ignoring the ongoing refugee crisis around the world. Against a monstrous, shuddering bassline, Gareth imagines himself ‘Stranded on a pier / Watching waves of emigration / Being rewound off the beach’, and then in the chorus growls about his own inactivity and failure to do anything helpful.
I couldn’t help but think of this song when I visited the South Australian Art Gallery in Adelaide and came across a really moving piece by an artist named Ben Quilty. Quilty had taken hundreds of fluorescent life jackets intended for Turkish refugees that had washed up on the shores of Greece, and then sewn them together to create one huge, twenty foot life jacket – a moving collage of all the lives and stories that aren’t being told.
Like Quilty’s piece, ‘Then They Came For Me’ is affecting in its sheer size. The rumbling bass and the sharp guitar lines in the chorus, as well as Gareth’s scathing and very pointed lyrics, combine to create one of my very favourite songs of the year.
The record shifts from political to highly personal with its next track, ‘To Think That I Once Lived You’. Here we have Gareth detailing a break-up with an absolutely primal vocal performance: his heartbroken lyrics are delivered with the passionate howl of a wounded wolf, while the band conducts a grand orchestral noise behind him.
‘Taman Shud’ and ‘Boredom’ are musically adventurous tunes that absorb the rhythms of hip-hop into pointy rock songs, and are full of strange, uneven grooves. The staccato guitar picking on ‘Boredom’ in particular creates a very sinister mood in combination with the dissonant synths in the background of the track.
And final track ‘Shut Down SETI’ is a suitably apocalyptic closer to the record. Against a martial drum rhythm and squirming synth line, Gareth scrutinizes the human search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and asks why we keep looking to the stars when everything on Earth is so perpetually fucked up: ‘You can’t defend the open sky / Let alone our actions’. The album then ends with another blast of chopped up psychedelic noise that is the sound of the Earth being totally destroyed by aliens. Hows that for fucking climactic?
Twisted, poetic and totally unique, Feelin Kinda Free is an album that doesn’t have much of a precedent. It found The Drones embracing their weirdness to the maximum and coming out with their best material yet. Although it certainly won’t be for everyone, and probably won’t do much to help the bands stature in the music world, Feelin Kinda Free was one of my absolute favourite albums of 2016, and ended up being topped only by one other. We need more artists in the world like The Drones who are able to make music that is both politically charged and rich in imagination.