In my year of unforgivable treachery (i.e. living in Melbourne) I was #blessed with the opportunity to scope a lot of local Victorian acts. Some of these left such an impression that I’ve counted them among my favourite Australian music-makers ever since: there was the exhilarating NO ZU, the ebullient DOCUMENT SWELL, the bamboozling MANGELWURZEL and the beguiling MAGIC HANDS, to name a few. Of these newfound favourites, one was particularly good at fusing utterly soothing synth-moods with airy pop hooks and covertly energetic analogue beats – the remarkable SUI ZHEN. Naturally, I was beaming when I saw the announcement that she’d be making her first visit to Perth, thanks to certified ledge-bombs Girls Who Chat and Good Company.
I swap a Budgie for entry and drift into the warm, mellow Bird-cage. There are good people all around: some I know, some I don’t, but you can tell they’re all good people, they’re oozing goodness. Over at the decks MIRANDA MENZIES and NINA BOWER CROOKE are already shifting the waxmobile into a relaxed but steady 3rd gear, cruising effortlessly down the breezy backstreets of funk, house and beyond.
I wander through the wobbly, snaking corridors created by the negative space between gently bobbing bodies. I talk to friendly faces about life, Albany, Buddha, movies (tail-end of Revelation debrief) and buildings. Buildings are particular topical given last night’s great ‘Between The Sheets’ architecture talk that the aforementioned Miranda Menzies spearheaded, and the fact that is second and most well-established speaker, Go Hasegawa from Japan, is now grooving out vigorously in the crowd.
It’s not a long wait – just a perfect warm-up duration – before Becky SUI ZHEN fires up her apparatus. Typically, songs begin with a drum machine: crisp, warm 808 kicks, hats, toms and claps in patterns that are intricate enough to hold your attention, but never too busy for you to discern each individual hit. Over this clean, geometric skeleton Sui Zhen begins to layer light astral pad-synths, hollow electronic basslines, as well as live clean guitar and high, restrained, echoing vocal lines. There’s a childlike – or at least innocent quality to these vocals, such that even if you can’t make out specific lyrics through the reverb haze, you feel like they must be pretty pure and uncynical. Whether or not that’s the case I’m not sure; anyway, that’s the affect. The words float over gently shifting major-minor progressions, in a sort of luxury-hotel-lobby mindspace that exists between the hypnotic sensory escapism of ambient music, and the immediacy of highly structured, hook-driven pop.
But wait: artistically polite, aurally pleasant, pop sensibilities, analogue gear, and a super-specific elegant visual aesthetic to boot. Does this all amount to Sui Zhen’s music being merely “nice,” fluffy soft-edged retro fare for the fashion-conscious pop listener? Well, no. Not quite. There are moments here that upset that sort of straightforward reading: beats that hit a little too hard, punching you in the gut, or melodies that stray off the beaten track; noise intrusions; tempos that err away from common pop pacing, or peculiar Y-Gen lyrical leitmotifs like “Safari can’t find the internet.” Rather than resolving into to something that’s momentarily pleasant, but effervescent, Sui Zhen’s tunes boast enough idiosyncrasy and intrigue to leave a watermark on your brain, and to lure you into her aesthetic universe. Like the video clip to the excellent “Infinity Street,” most of what you get are clean lines, soft pastel colours and comfortable textures – but then she’ll hold up a dead fish or eat a pink jelly brain with her bare hands. Sui Zhen offers us a jazzy, charming, quickly lilting tune on just guitar and voice (apparently something she hasn’t done in years – but should do more) before returning to the full electronic kaboodle for a final slew of groove-laden whoppers. Oof.
She steps down from the (beautifully decorated) stage and it’s back over to Menzies and Bower Crooke. What follows is one of the absolute best b2b sets I’ve heard in living memory: vivacious sample-driven funkiness, uptempo disco, lo-fi minimal house, smooth slinkery. I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about DJ technique or even vernacular, but all the transitions and attention to mood and flow here were notably on point. And we danced up a little storm, a kind of willy-willy, up in the Bird’s hallowed quadrangle. I have a stupid good time. And then I head back out into the chilly night, and you don’t care about the rest. But you should dig into Sui Zhen’s recorded output if you haven’t already. Music from the top shelf.