It’s getting cold here in Melbourne and, being the kind of person who quickly becomes utterly obsessed when they find music they like, I think I’ve found my soundtrack for the coming months. Enter Melbourne/Bendigo five-piece Darts and their second LP, Below Empty & Westward Bound. Following on from Dart’s 2012 debut, Habitual Slack, Below Empty… was mastered by Joe Laporta (Yuck, Wavves, Arcade Fire) and is an, at times, frenetic exploration of the relentlessly fretful transition into adulthood.
Initially a two-piece consisting of brothers Angus (guitar and vocals) and Andrew (drums) Ayres, Darts have grown into a five-piece with the addition of Ally Campbell-Smith (vocals, guitar), Paige X. Cho (keys, percussion) and Jessie Fernandez (bass, vocals) since forming in 2008.
Since gaining the coveted title of Triple J’s Unearthed Winners in 2009, Darts have built their sound to nestle somewhere between a nostalgic trip back to the 1990s and something fresher and enduring. It’s a difficult thing to do, and personally, over recent months, I’ve come to look upon the words “90s” and “nostalgic” with a healthy dose of scepticism when it comes to music. The danger in those words is that it can render a band’s sound as dated or something akin to imitation.
Thank fucking goodness then that Darts possess neither of those qualities. Rather, they are a band with a sound filled with abundant (but not overdone) distortion and a thumping rhythm section, offset by intricately subtle keys, matched with biting and ethereal vocals.
Opening track Commanche takes hold right from the start with a throttling guitar riff and energising group vocals. The guitar-fuelled outro progresses so naturally into the thick, rolling bass line and rapidly sharp drums of Geek. The transition between the first and second track is totally seamless and that’s how the rest of the LP goes. Each song relates to the one that came before it without sounding like it’s actually the same track.
Push Me Thru sees a push-pull of guitars that builds to dizzying heights – matched by Angus’ vocals, and contrasted by Ally’s soothing vocal echoes. Aeroplane, the second single off the album, is a softer slice of slightly melancholic nostalgia which see Ally take on the duties of lead vocals for the first time on the record, evoking images of a more carefree, bygone era.
One of the title tracks, and the first single released off the album, Westward Bound, feels like a trip through the city itself – urgent guitar riffs undercut with the sparkling waltz of keys, a bass line that seemingly reverberates from within, and drums as aggressive as Angus’ vocals are raw. Westward Bound marks the second half of the album, and the songs that follow build upon the momentum it sets.
Pony Up and Dead and Solitary Refinement are equally commanding, but it’s Traveling Aardvark Cashmere that takes the cake for me. It opens with the kick as its heartbeat and a single guitar. Angus’ voice stunningly expressive and undone, is met with Ally’s, melodic and hypnotic and they play off one another as the track swells builds with crisp guitar riffs and a commanding, powerful rhythm section.
At the close, My Darling Bendigo starts like a whisper before with both vocalists singing “I’d do anything/For you my darling/And I’ve been wondering/And you know nothing” – an intimate plea that, at the introduction of an extra guitar, rain pattern drums and heavy, haunting keys, builds into a song that resonates long after the song is finished.
That’s how I feel about Below Empty… in its entirety. It’s an album that sticks with you, haunting in its pathos, but not in an uncomfortable or even altogether too obvious manner. There’s a kind of cathartic freedom in the exposed, raw cries and certainly a comfort in the soft, soothing whispers throughout. Vocals aside, the instrumentation, with all its kicks, punches and pummeling aggression and the contrast of occasional sparseness is captivating from the get-go with Darts have continued to build a sound that very much their own.
Below Empty & Westward Bound is out today via Rice is Nice.
You can chuck a listen on SoundCloud, but should 100% be a mate and grab a copy that’s all your own.
Catch Darts live in Melbourne on Saturday June 20 at Shadow Electric Outdoor Cinema (tickets) or Sydney on Saturday June 27 at Brighton Up Bar (tickets).