Release Date: Feb 17, 2009
Record label: ATP
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative
On their fifth album, these unsung Australian art-blues champs hit a terrific peak, where their typically scorching flurry of strangled chords and squalling solos was matched by an unimpeachably great set of songs. Frontman Gareth Liddiard drawls and howls his way through his allegorical tales of Minotaurs, cargo cults and slow-creep apocalypse, often sounding like one of the few rock lyricists worth paying real attention to; he's a vocalist like no other, to boot, his melodic ear never better than here. The songs are long and knotty, often rising from quiet, twangy unease and building up to demolishing storms of noise informed by 30 years of left-field rock heroics (the Birthday Party, Sonic Youth, the noisiest bits of Neil Young), but they're also exquisitely paced and sequenced.
If the Drones have grown a touch more polished and focused with time, it's not at the expense of creating compelling music -- if anything, Havilah even more clearly places the band as one of Australia's best rock bands ever, something that goes beyond the clear twang in the voice of Gareth Liddiard right from the start of "Nail It Down," the album's dramatic start. With guitars moving from the understatedly tuneful to sweepingly angry without losing the pace, it suggests Havilah will be nearly all brawl, but instead it takes a generally calmer turn, Liddiard's voice front and center even as the band artfully and alternately arranges itself around the singing and then bursts forth on the breaks. Even that doesn't always happen, though, with "Penumbra" essentially being the Drones unplugged, the calm guitars touched with a distant wail at the song's end sounding like a lost soul.
I was living in New York the year the Drones’ breakout album, Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By, came out. That tumultuous summer, full of reports from home of race riots on the beaches of south Sydney, the Drones’ sodden mixture of blues and hard-drinking, hard-living wisdom seemed like a bitter but on-point take on life. I gave my copy of the album to my college roommate.
For one reason or another, Australia's the Drones have yet to make much of a splash outside of their home continent. The band has released consistently strong albums since its 2000 inception and garnered high praise from their countrymen-- up against Aussie faves Wolfmother and the Go-Betweens, they won the inaugural Australian Music Prize for their 2005 record Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By-- but still are mostly unknown to European and American listeners. It's hard to say precisely what accounts for this disconnect, but I propose a name change might be in order: there's nothing drone-y about what these guys do.
The thickset blues-rock of Havilah, the fifth studio album from the Drones, makes for opaque and impenetrable listening. Stodgy layers of guitar prevail throughout, and the production is so dense that the end product feels like an hour-long huff on a rusty exhaust pipe. Singer Gareth Liddiard only adds to the bottomless well of oppression, spending most of the album howling like early-'90s grunge angst never went out of fashion.