It’s difficult to quantify and describe The Drones. They’re noisy, chaotic, punk poets; it’s brash and wiled-eyed; it can be difficult, even stressful to listen to at times. On paper, that sounds terrible. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In 2013 they last released I See Seaweed, and until mid-last year, appeared dormant, save for a brilliant performance at Golden Plains 2014, the first gig which saw the reinstatement of original drummer Christian Strybosch after a decade-long absence. 2015 also saw a nostalgic reissue and tour in celebration of ten years since their groundbreaking Wait Long By The River And The Bodies Of Your Enemies Will Float By.
Around their anniversary shows, the band began to debut a couple of new tracks on stage, and soon afterwards came news of a new record coming our way. The news was met with excitement, and perhaps a little fear: where were they going next? How much will they change? Would they become wilder, would they explore even stranger territories or would they peel back a bit? How would it all play out? I See Seaweed was so critical, where could it possibly go next? Considering some thought the band were splitting up entirely, it was difficult enough to consider their future as a whole, let alone the what that future might specifically entail. Three years is huge in musical release years these days, and many wouldn’t dare take such a long leave of absence. Then again, many wouldn’t dare do anything The Drones have done.
When I chatted to Strybosch last year, he revealed that the album was “a bit of a departure from what The Drones have ever sounded like…. It’s crazy, unorthodox. It’s not verse, chorus, verse, that’s for sure.”
So I came into this record knowing what to expect: the completely unexpected. And that’s exactly what I got. What’s remarkable about this album is that it’s not a shift or something entirely new; The Drones are still here, as strong as ever; they haven’t changed, refined, or even stripped anything back, they’ve added a few new elements to their repertoire.
The album begins with a spiralling whirlwind of synthetic noise, as though deliberately announcing off the cuff: “We’re back. Oh, and we’ve discovered electronic music.” It’s a bold move to make the opening track the longest, but I’d expect nothing less. Private Execution quickly spindles down into a stomping, spitting, ominous poem, Liddiard welcoming death with open arms, having stopped bothering with anything else, including fear. Marrying the concepts of death and freedom, it feels like Private Execution could have shared its title with the album, with the chorus sporting lyrics including, “I’m feelin kinda free, I’m going straight to DVD, I’m losing my ambition, going into remission, I put it all behind me.”
It’s sinister and menacing, but not in a threatening way; it’s like Liddiard is that voice inside you, saying what you might have been thinking, but wouldn’t dare to actually voice out loud. Thus, we stumble upon a core theme of the album: not just letting go of the past, but letting go of caring about the past.
Taman Shud was released last year – The Drones’ first new song in two years. Musically, it’s a skeleton. Lyrically, it’s a demented beast, all in all sounding like one of the more obscure songs you’d hear on an early 2000s Tom Waits record (in fact you could say that about most of this album). Taman Shud is wickedly funny, a black comedy in the form of melodically stripped back anti-nationalism, anti-activism, anti-everything theatre. One of the best songs of 2015, hearing Liddiard wax lyrical about how he doesn’t give a fuck about anything that everyone in our politics and media and society gives a fuck about was nothing short of a breath of fresh air.
Then They Came For Me brings the tone and intensity down. A raw, grinding rhythm and bass feels like a nod to some of The Drones’ earlier works, but with a really gorgeous, haunting melodic chorus, blending heavily distorted guitars with the heavenly lilt of bassist Fiona Kitschin.
To Think That I Once Loved You is probably my favourite song of 2016 so far. Every so often a song comes around thats not only so musically, lyrically moving and poignant, but it has an incredibly strange relevancy to your life at the exact point at which you hear it. On a number of levels, this song has had a strangely personal meaning for me, but it’s phenomenal far beyond any personal resonance. Opening on an unusual droning tone, each layer adds something stunning to the atmosphere. From Liddiard’s broken, calmly spiteful melody, to the soft bulge of the backing synths, and the choral vocals which add a reverent, almost pious feel to the solemn chorus, this is a flawless song. From the smallest embellishments, like tiny guitar squeals and distant cymbal rolls, to the lyrics, which you can hear literally being spat out of Liddiard’s throat, this is the perfect post-breakup song.
The album constantly traipses up and down, with almost every song a direct reaction to its predecessor. Tailwind is perhaps the most electro-centric, not to mention soothing song on the album, if not their entire career. Opening on what sounds like extra-terrestrial theremin waves, the track quickly softens, allowing the listener a moment to collect themselves before Boredom kicks in. One of my favourites on the record, I adore its spindly and spiky plucked strings, and Strybosch’s shuffling rhythm dancing playfully around Liddiard’s vocals, more spoken word than melody. It’s a weird song on a weird album, lacquered in gritty Australiana and some of the most experimental music we’ve heard from the band. The track loosens out into an experimental instrumental breakdown before immediately opening up to the soft and spooky Sometimes, featuring Kitschin on vocals. Sounding like something out of a Tim Burton soundtrack, with a twisted cabaret atmosphere and a seductive, syncopated rhythm, it’s perhaps the most non-Drones song on record.
Finally, we arrive at final track Shut Down SETI, which feels like Taman Shud’s angrier, drunker older brother. The contrasting vocals of Liddiard and Kitschin inject a really amazing two-pronged environment. In fact, it kind of feels like a finale overture, as though drawing elements from every single prior track on the album.
The Drones go against every single grain. They don’t stick to convention, but they don’t stick to not sticking to it, either. It’s not that they put effort into being obscure or strange or extraordinary; they just are. Feelin Kinda Free is a masterpiece, menacing at times, surprisingly touching at others. It’s dramatic and powerful, poetic and poignant, dark and difficult – and that’s precisely what I wanted.
The Drones Tour Dates 2016
Friday 29th April: The Gov, Adelaide
Saturday 30th April: Rosemount Hotel, Perth
Friday 6th May: The Triffid, Brisbane
Saturday 7th May: The Northern, Byron Bay
Saturday 14th May: The Metro, Sydney
Friday 20th May: 170 Russell, Melbourne
Saturday 21st May: Brisbane Hotel, Hobart
Saturday 28th May: The Tote, Melbourne (12-25 afternoon show)
Saturday 28th May: The Tote, Melbourne (over 18)