Review: Bad//Dreems plant their flag emphatically with debut LP ‘Dogs At Bay’

Mirroring the kind of world-weary tales their songs have told since their beginnings in an old warehouse across the road from Adelaide’s West End Brewery, Bad//Dreems have had their fair share of ups and downs, but they’ve taken their licks well and truly standing up.

Their debut EP Badlands and its soul-stirring lead single Hoping For kicked the band into the big time spotlight, spun all throughout the latter half of 2013 on Triple J, who almost immediately anointed the band as rising stars. They’re just four honest young dudes making music from a city in Australia often largely overlooked by a more metropolitan East Coast, but their unashamed roughness and their larrikinism, particularly prevalent in their music videos, was sometimes lazily criticised as being inauthentic, taking advantage of some kind of bogan aesthetic.

Bad//Dreems just kept playing.

They were due to open for The Black Keys on their Australian tour, a major break. It wasn’t to be after the tour was cancelled.

Bad//Dreems just kept playing.

They opened up the third and final day of this year’s Splendour In The Grass with a set at the amphitheatre. An errant barrier separated the stage from what should have been a seething crowd for much of their set.

True to form, Bad//Dreems just kept playing.

It’s an attitude that is emblematic, or perhaps symptomatic, of their working class upbringing. Their debut record Dogs At Bay, released today, is rough, ragged and riddled with the same blue collar values you’ll find in small towns Australia over.

Most importantly, their flag is planted and they’re ready. Ready to take Australia by storm as one of its most important contemporary rock bands.

News Boys kicks the album off in heavy fashion, chugging riffs and wailing guitars anchored by a rock solid rhythm section. Vocalist Ben Marwes not so much sings but snarls the sordid tale of the bloodshed and downfall of the New Boys, a bikie gang notorious around the Adelaide area. If News Boys didn’t quite open the door wide enough, Cuffed And Collared shows up and kicks it right the fuck in. The twangy guitar riff that opens the song gives way to the bass guitar of James Bartold scuttling all over a mammoth chorus, one that absolutely pleads to be shouted right back at the band from the middle of a deliriously heaving moshpit.

Bogan Pride reels in the initial aggression, if only for a little bit, to tell the story of a nightmare night on the town. The kind of histrionic guitar solo that Alex Cameron slices the song so beautifully down the middle with isn’t heard nearly enough in rock and roll today. The song breaks down into an atmospheric lull, with Marwe crooning about big muscles fucking up his dreams before devolving entirely across a raucous finish, alternating between cries of ‘Get in, get out’ and ‘And up, and down’. When he finally crashes the song to a halt with a primal scream, you sense that the youthful frustrations contained in the story are all too real.

My Only Friend fishtails the album into a completely different direction as its first ballad, one palpable with heartbreak. Though the lyrics may be a simplistic ode to love lost and coming to terms with the pain, when combined with guitars that sob under the weight of them, sung in Marwe’s red-raw delivery that’s riddled with emotional fissures, it’s like salt in an open wound. Poetic lamentations on heartbreak may be linguistically beautiful, but they often fail to capture that kick in the guts bleakness which Bad//Dreems nail in just one simple line: ‘Used to love her, now it’s fucked’.

Hiding To Nothing leaves the heartache of its predecessor in the dust. One of the other singles leading up to the release of the album, it’s catchy as all hell and tells a story familiar to anybody who has known the frustration of growing up in the doldrums of a small, rural town. The yearning to break free of a place that feels as though its weighed down by rocks while the rest of the world ebbs and flows freely around you is something that resonates so deeply with myself and no doubt countless others from similar backgrounds. These stories are important too, and Bad//Dreems are making sure they’re told.

Next up is slow burner Naden. The track is an utter rollercoaster, each verse an uphill build before the chorus kicks in and screams all the way down to the bottom again. Hume immediately following is one of the more beautiful and poignant songs on the album. Taking its title from the highway that separates Yass from Brunswick, by the time yet another stellar guitar solo from Cameron hits you like a tonne of bricks you find yourself wishing that you were listening to this driving along on a muggy night, windows down and the breeze blowing through on that same highway the band have no doubt logged countless miles on.

Ramping the aggression straight back up again is live favourite and a passive-aggressive middle finger to a jilted lover, Dumb Ideas. Like Naden before it, this one is a bit of a slow burner too, but once that chorus belts you like a tonne of bricks it’s an absolute screamer, the guitar riff hooking you by the scruff of the neck and all but forcing you to shout along.

Heading towards the finish line, Ghost Gums paints as vivid and beautiful a picture as Hume, this time an ode to a youthful summertime full of afternoon sunshine and blissful freedom running amuck in the red dirt with the smell of eucalyptus on the breeze. It’s a picturesque moment on an album full of some fantastic Australian imagery. Paradise isn’t quite so romantically idyllic in its almost Springsteen-style delivery of a tale of love and lust set over a backdrop of a dead-end town. The paradise in question in these less than ideal surrounds found in the arms of someone special.

Penultimate track Blood In My Eyes slows things down a bit and is probably Marwe’s finest vocal performance across the album. Lost in the first listen to this album is the fluidity and chemistry between the rhythm section of Bartold and Miles Wilson on drums. Together they drive each and every song like a midnight train. The breathing room afforded by Blood In My Eyes really allowing the listener to take a step back and appreciate how wonderfully these four musicians mesh together. Sacred Ground closes this ripper of an album. The opening riff wouldn’t sound out of place on a banjo, country as all hell for a tale of a lonely bushwalk crossed with what sounds like an out of body experience. Just fantastic.

I had to take a breather after the first listen through. And then I had to listen to it again and again and again. Dogs At Bay finds Bad//Dreems joining the pantheon of classic Australian-flavoured rock and roll. I would stack this record right up there with Gossip by Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls, Diesel And Dust by Midnight Oil and East by Cold Chisel, that’s how big a chord it struck with me. As much as I want them to and as much as Australian music needs them to, by sheer bad luck of existing in the era that they do, Bad//Dreems may never experience the same levels of heady success and cultural importance that those aforementioned bands have, or even some of the myriad of other bands this country has produced that aren’t even half as deserving.

Rest assured though, Bad//Dreems will just keep on playing.

Because they’re not playing for the money or the accolades or the fame, they’re playing because they genuinely love to and because they just want to tell their story. It may not be a life that you have ever lived or will ever experience, but it’s a life that you should know about and an oft-neglected story that merits being told with music this high in quality, a panorama snapshot of life in rural Australia through a set of speakers caked in its omnipresent red dirt. No matter who you are or where you live in Australia though, you owe it to yourself to give Bad//Dreems and Dogs At Bay a fair crack. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

To paraphrase the aforementioned Paul Kelly, it’ll have your heart singing like a low down guitar.