A Different Kind of Free: A Review of The Drones’ Feelin Kinda Free (TFS Records)
By Alexis Late
When I first heard The Drones it was hard to force them into a genre, thank fuck. I mean, are they blues? They’ve covered Blind Willie Johnson and Leadbelly, and songs like ‘The Miller’s Daughter’ are of that tradition, but could be folk too.
Are they garage? They can make a racket in the vein of The Birthday Party but they also write lush ballads like The Triffids.
Are they punk? Gareth Liddiard spits out his transgressive lyrics with a 1977 aggression yet most songs clock in at six minutes.
Are they gothic? Their lyrics oscillate between dark, despairing and plain disturbing, but they’re far noisier. One thing is for sure, they’re outlaw music for a time when outlaws are hung and quartered on the Internet.
The Drones bubbled up out of a lukewarm Perth scene in 2002 with Here Come The Lies, a haphazard medley of dirty bluesy punk garage rock (if that’s what it is). Liddiard was like the erratic love child of Nick Cave, Kim Salmon, David McComb and Rowland S Howard, that intense creativity, moodiness, and the poetry. Tired of apathy, the band moved to Melbourne and recorded The Miller’s Daughter (a howling, thrashing riot) and Wait Long by The River and The Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By (a quieter but no less murderous display of vulnerability). It cemented their reputation as non-conformist literary troublemakers.
Gala Mill and Havilah further exhibited Liddiard’s obsession with history, literature and mythology. He references executioners, convicts, minotaurs –it’s like entering the underworld and finding Gareth in a wrestling match with Hades. I’m not sure Hades would win.
Some people say Gala Mill is their best album and it’s the one that convinced me that good songwriting is not dead. You catch yourself singing along and it dawns on you that you’re singing along to your own extinction. Not many bands can do that.
Four years later, The Drones dropped I See Seaweed. It’s awash with childhood nostalgia, and a growing apprehension about worsening politics (could it get any worse?), and even the first dog in space. Liddiard sounds tired. The music is subdued. “And they only ever treat you kind/when you’re talking like you’ll change your mind” he says wearily on ‘How To See Through Fog’ and anyone who’s ever talked to a Young Liberal can relate. There’s a fog in Australia and it’s getting harder to see.
Then there’s Feelin Kinda Free, out this week. Our cultural and political landscape hasn’t changed much. Australian politics is more of a joke than it ever was. Children are being abused on Nauru and the abuse is covered up. A law is passed to say those who work on the camp can’t talk about it. Border Force. Another Indigenous Australian dies in custody. The Catholic Church continues to protect their kind despite child abuse. Remote Indigenous communities are threatened. Cuts to the ABC and to the arts. The government wants you to pay for cancer checks. What the fuck is going on?
Feelin Kinda Free is menacing. There is a paranoid and end of the road atmosphere pervading the album. It’s different musically – sparser, more electronic (there’s hints of Eno in this, I’m not kidding). First single ‘Taman Shad ‘is a seething “Fuck You!” to Australian society and politics. It’s a Rant with a capital R. Last year Liddiard told The Guardian that it’s directed at those who “try to lay down the rules and the terms, tell you what you have to do to be Australian”.
‘Taman Shud’ is a litany of insults against all that is problematic about this country (land of the fair go, yeah), from Anzac glorification to the carbon tax reaction to “stop the boats” to Gina Rhineheart to Masterchef, you name it. It’s framed by the mysterious case of an unidentified man found dead on an Aussie beach in 1948 with the prophetic words “It is finished” (Taman Shud in Persian) in his pocket. The Drones are no strangers to pulling forgotten people out of history for you to acknowledge.
Liddiard makes it clear that he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about offending people. He is the angriest he’s ever been. Seven minute opener ‘Private Execution’ has a dangerous air about it. If previous albums were about impending apocalypses this one acknowledges that the apocalypse is already here, and The Drones are broadcasting from an underground bunker somewhere. “The best songs are like bad dreams” Liddiard opens, and he’s been doing a good job of infiltrating our heads for years. “And I’m feeling kinda free,” he admits, “I’m going straight to DVD”.
We all know that the movies no one wants to watch are the ones that go straight to DVD. Liddiard’s aware that ‘Taman Shud’ alienated a lot of people. He doesn’t give a fuck. There’s a freedom in this admission – you can say whatever you want, and your ‘real’ people will find it anyway. “I want a private execution” is the ominous refrain that builds up with a haunting industrial rock touch. There’s a claustrophobia in the sound as he references an Indonesian prison. Liddiard mentioned last year that he was influenced by both German band Einstürzende Neubauten and Wu-Tang Clan and you might think that wouldn’t work, but it kind of does.
Less is more on this album. The stripped down drums work well on tracks like ‘Then They Came For Me’ (no doubt ASIO have got a nice little file on Gareth by now). Fiona Kitcshin’s bass lines are sinister. Both Luscombe and Liddiard’s guitars are like brief psychotic whimpers from a patient receiving electric shock. And I can’t help but think if this was the 1800s The Drones might be executed for treason, you know? And listening to them might deliver you to the gallows, but it’d be worth it.
This is an album that demands you think. The Drones are no longer asking nice. They’re saying you need to think about the state of things and where you stand, because ask not for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee. The industrial rock feel is the most intriguing thing about it, though. It’s a huge departure, but it’s refreshing. And it’s weird how you can dance to this record. It’s like dancing to Joy Division – it’s doable, but slightly uncomfortable (like grinning at a funeral).
The most surprising track comes halfway, the tender ballad ‘To think that I once loved you’, Liddiard harmonising beautifully with the three singers from Harmony, a fitting name. It’s a relief track, letting us disappear into our love lives for a while. Fiona and Harmony do some eerie singing on the track ‘Sometimes’ too, which counteracts Liddiard’s spitting and seething nicely.
This album isn’t as Gala Mill or Wait Long By The River. It’s not as lyrically rich – it’s more upfront and blunt. And The Drones prove they can turn their back on guitar rock and still deliver an interesting sound. So go on, dance a little. And think about how fucked things still are. And if you’re like me, you’ll be grateful that The Drones, with their AMP win, Triple J adoration, and songwriting accolades safely behind them, feel free enough to rant and accuse and diverge like never before. That’s a good enough freedom for me.