Mining Tax is Alex Griffin and Mitchell Henderson-Miller: two young men who, in their respective projects (including Ermine Coat and Mitchell Freeway) have long since betrayed a shared affinity for raw production, Australian mundanity and sonic experimentation. After a string of unpredictable drum-machine and synth-loop driven live wig-outs featuring scattered references to Rick Ardon, Clive Palmer and the generally surreal landscape of Antipodean life, they’ve finally given us a release, out now on Workplace Safety CD-Rs and Bandcamp.
There are five tracks on the concise but substantial EP. “Our Future” drops Gina Rinehart’s infamous poem of the same name into a quagmire of (literally) industrial noise, low-pitched drone and mining-doco narrator samples. The soundscape is oppressive and expertly wrought, but the vocal delivery of Rinehart’s poem is the clincher… Griffin assumes a dark, weirdo-cabaret baritone (presumably pitched-down) not unlike that of Sydney’s post-everything delinquent Kirin J Callinan; in doing so he transmits Rinehart’s nauseatingly earnest/inept verse with all the impotent flair and sham-emotion of a Vegas crooner. Two diametrically opposed points on the conviction/competence axis, colliding in a distressing, absurd manner that underscores the grim hilarity of calling a pop band ‘Mining Tax’ in the first place.
“Footy” is an easier pill to swallow. There’s a ripper Kraftwerky synth riff, a propulsive punky drum-machine beat, and catchy-as-heck vocal melodies. Of course, it’s not all sunscreen and frosty fruits. Tune into the lyrics and you encounter a gloomy indictment of Australian masculinity in its twofold obsession: physical domination and casual sex (“Out on a saturday night, With touches on your mind / This arvo you were kicking goals, now you’re out to score behinds”). The climatic vocal barks, in which the words “you’ve got to” are alternately tailed by verbs like “run,” “jump,” “kill,” “punch” and “fuck,” might seem excessively blunt and cynical, bordering on trite – but after a slew of neat verses and sly double entendres, you feel like they’ve earned this not-so-subtle digression into animalistic mantra.
“Budget Emergency” is more specific in its protests. As the name suggests, it ironically parrots and mercilessly unwraps the rhetoric of the Abbott administration. A motorik beat chugs and a coldwavey synth patchwork blares, while somewhere in the fog, scathing lyrics highlight the hypocrisy of closing indigenous communities while you smoke cigars on your mansion’s balcony, or of cutting funding to basic public services while you build submarines and coal ports ad nauseum. There’s an Alan Vega type of faux-rock’n‘roll sensibility here, and some great melodic keyboard hooks, which offset the potential didacticism of the lyrics and balance the sincere politicking. As such, it’s a shame the vocals are so buried in the mix. Good words deserve to be heard.
“Int’l Investment” combines new-agey analogue pads with an insistent, gliding groove and an oblique, poetic 2nd-person narrative about a farmer facing hard times. Herein, you’re blighted by drought, “the subsidies are off” and the livestock is dying. “You add it all up” throughout the chorus. By the time the song reaches its outro, and Griffin starts quoting Slim Dusty’s “The Day We Sold The Farm,” the song has quietly burgeoned into something utterly devastating.
“C.Y” begins with gushing water sounds – no prize for guessing which C.Y. we’re dealing with then – and becomes a gooey lo-fi synthpop jive that gives John Maus a vigorous run for his money. The bittersweet bop of the instrumental sits in heartbreaking counterpoint to the fictionalised O’Connor missive: “Oh from the arch I watch the tongues wag about me / I scan the maps and lay the pipes down in my dreams […] Water’s flowing through the pipeline / As it laps, as it laps around my feet.” The allusion is to a sad ending we all know, of course (or else: spoiler alert) – Charles Yelverton’s fabled suicide at a South Fremantle beach. Largely, then, it’s a kind of tragic historical pop song, but the engineer’s ghost haunts the present day, too: “You’re building a quay / Oh you’re building a stadium / But when the future comes it will wash you out to sea.”
So ends the 5-track “Degenerational Report.” What does it all amount to? I can tell you what it doesn’t amount to: a cynical, misanthropic, ironic-Australiana record made by a joke band. Which in the hands of lesser musicians, it might have become. Certainly the EP has a critical if not pessimistic bent – “Our Future” is pretty apocalyptic, while “Footy” and “Budget Emergency” cast savage aspersions. But contrary to what their name might suggest, Mining Tax aren’t a one-liner joke. Contrary to what their bizarre, parodic, hedonistic performances might imply, they aren’t predominantly shit-stirrers, or nihilistic punk-ass absurdists, either. Because if you peer through the haze of lo-fi production, the tongue-in-cheek genre exercises and the cruder variety of gags, you’ll find a band that gives a shit. It gives a shit about sounds (every tone and beat on this record is carefully, beautifully honed) and it gives a shit about people. It gives a shit about the people who are being booted off country to make way for holes in the ground, it gives a shit about asylum seekers languishing in offshore hell-holes, it gives a shit about the people who can’t afford to go to the doctor, it gives a shit about bright young men being contorted into toxic stereotypes, it gives a shit about the farmer who can’t sustain the only life they know and love. My biggest concern is how dramatically the lyrics are shrouded, sonically – not many people are writing songs this good and even fewer are making the words so inaudible. On the other hand, I think the three-fold shroud of irony, humour and ambiguity is more than apt. Indeed, it’s essential – it lets these ideas transcend mere polemics, drifting away from fixed meaning and becoming fertile, haunting works of art.
Question One: Do Mining Tax know all the answers to the problems they’re building their songs around? Almost certainly not, and they know they don’t know, which is partly why it works. “Political” bands who propose singular, straightforward answers are always awkward at best, and often, they’re in entirely the wrong business. But by reframing these issues in the way that they do, Mining Tax imbue these themes with humanity, a raw and wry humanity that is – if you’ll excuse the phrase – distinctly Australian. A humanity that seems grotesquely absent from much public/media discourse at present.
Question Two: Did I expect to be writing such a seemingly hyperbolic, heartfelt review about an outrageous duo that started as a messy experiment for a “mystery bands” concert? Almost certainly not, but Mining Tax have outdone themselves. In its musical brilliance, its devastating real-talk, and its crucial counterweight of humour, compassion and empathy, “Degenerational Report” must be one of the most surreptitiously breathtaking records to emerge from WA in some time.