The Drones played for a packed out Forum last Friday night, but not before King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard dazed onlookers with their raucous brand of surf-punk.
I say ‘onlookers’ because, by King Gizzard standards, they didn’t have much of an audience; not in numbers, but in spirit. My first, second and third impressions were of a band that likes a mosh in front of them – so it was unusual and oddly sobering to see people listening to the music and not mauling about in a sea of fists, knees and blood. Yet there was something uneasy about just standing around, and for a moment I considered the merits of starting a circle-pit, or jumping around with my fists out to the side. ‘Muckraker’ (12 Bar Bruise) said hell yes, but the assortment of old and young in the Forum said no.
There was also the question of how they would pull a live show out of their latest release, Eyes Like The Sky: a self-described “psychedelic western audiobook”, narrated by Broderick Smith (The Dingoes).
But the cynicism was short-lived. Tracks from Eyes Like The Sky translated into long and engaging instrumental jams and the show was peppered throughout with songs from previous albums. At one point some of the hardware on stage stopped working, so front man Stu Mackenzie led the band into a chant which eventually erupted in the final track, ‘Sea of Trees’; making the interruption seamless, feeling almost staged.
If supporting acts are supposed to serve a definable purpose, then King Gizzard were definitely there to provide some kind of light-hearted escapism before the storm.
For anyone who knows the lyrics, the creeping-in of ‘I See Seaweed’ – the title track of The Drones’ latest record – could hardly be interpreted as the band easing in their crowd, even despite its relatively sombre instrumental opening. By “locksteppin’ in our billions”, front man Gareth Liddiard was literally spitting his way to the chorus, where the first wave of pounding riffage broke, bringing the seaweed to our lawns.
This was the harrowing yet gritty point of no return, but it’s worth acknowledging the tasteful addition of Steve Hesketh on keys. On I See Seaweed and in their live shows, the keys are far from game-changing for The Drones. Hesketh’s contribution is subtle; it in no way undermines the characteristic intensity of their sound.
Perhaps my only criticism of Hesketh is that his playing is so inoffensive that it almost seems gratuitous, even at odds with the hardcore drive behind the rest of the band. This is a minor gripe, but I don’t think I’d be easily persuaded by any argument that vouched for, say, a ‘grounding’ or ‘tightening’ or ‘gluing’ effect the keys have on The Drones’ material.
I See Seaweed made up most of The Drones’ setlist, with old favourites like ‘The Minotaur’ and ‘The Miller’s Daughter’ appearing throughout.
‘Shark Fin Blues’ seemed an obvious choice for the encore; Liddiard introducing the track by demanding guitarist Dan Luscombe play the Jaws theme.
Coming in towards the end of the main set was the staple cover of Australian singer-songwriter Kev Carmody’s ‘River of Tears’ which The Drones recorded for the 2007 compilation tribute album, Cannot Buy My Soul.
Listening to The Drones provides about as much emotional enjoyment as watching Requiem for a Dream or reading Naked Lunch. They’re about challenging over entertaining; frustrating over pleasing, and pushing genre to its gruesome and heart-wrenching limits instead of indulging in the security that comes with familiarity. And yet, there’s something endearing in all this: there’s some rock-fucking-solid musicianship, well deserving of the oft-thrown-around ‘best rock band in Australia’ claim. But also, there’s humanity behind the vitriol. After all, they’re on our side: “Forgive me for talking straight,” croaks Liddiard towards the end of ‘Why Write a Letter That You’ll Never Send’. “I’m only trying to make the world a much less painful place”.