As the tram glides down Swanston Street, Spring is in its final hours, and Christmas is in the summery air. The decorations dangle above the footpath. The giant Christmas tree is mounted. The town hall is bathed in projected light, carefully designed to swathe the 147-year-old building in bright, digital festive motifs – neoclassical columns become giant, twirling candy canes; tinsel and toy trains dart across the walls.
I duck into a more modest facade: the fairly daggy glass double-doors that lead down to the Hi-Fi. The entrance is dingy in an obsolete ’90s shopping centre kind of way, but once you get down the stairs, you’re in a big dark theatre – like a hollowed out cinema or concert hall. Not as cosy as the venues I associate tonight’s acts with, but not a bad vibe, either.
Almost immediately the HIEROPHANTS grind into gear. There’s four of them, spread uncommonly sparsely across the large stage, cradling guitar, bass, keyboard and drumsticks respectively. I’d never heard them before tonight. Turns out they’re bloody great.
The Geelong-based quartet (with links to Ausmuteants and Frowning Clouds) trades in contorted DIY pop, channelling punk and garage into a sound that (while still rough) is more sanded-down than it is sandpapery. A deadpan australian drawl, half-spoken half-sung, drapes itself loosely over filtered Op-shop key stabs, thumping, businesslike bass and pummelling drums. The latter, particularly, have a real snotty momentum, which sits in weird poetic counterpoint to the hungover lethargy of the vocals. At this point you could be imagining a pretty run-of-the-mill Melbourne band – the signifiers so far are certainly pretty common – but Hierophants rise above the norm by taking risks and putting inventive twists on their songs. For every familiar kick-snare-kick-snare-twang-thump chug, there’s a curious deviation: it could be a lyric out of left field, a handsomely skeletal guitar melody, a tempo shift or an unexpected time signature (pretty sure one song alternates between 7/8 and 4/4, or something). They’re not being gratuitously weird – this isn’t some sort of “prog punk” genre exercise. They just have interesting songs, and a great tight-yet-shonky delivery. Get ‘em in ya.
The NATIVE CATS are up next, the Tasmanian duo crossing the Bass Straight for a special one-night-only performance. Self-described (with tongue indisputably in cheek) as “electronic pub rock,” Peter Escott and Julian Teakle place themselves near the front of the vast platform and fire up a clunky, emphatic drum machine.
Escott, looking good in a summery floral frock, delivers an impassioned cabaret-style vocal performance – nailing (sometimes pretty tricky) melodies with the ease of a Professional, even if his countenance is a little crestfallen. Between or before lines he loops surprisingly emotive GameBoy keyboard, and interjects with melodica refrains. Teakle’s bass plucks away at the other end, providing a stringy and organic complement to the other textures – though the sound is unfortunately thin, lacking in body, at least where I’m standing. The Native Cats don’t win me over quite as readily as Hierophants, but ultimately I really do enjoy the set. They’re one of the more unique acts I’ve seen in a while.
I duck out for a bit of fresh air or – perhaps more accurately – a cup of coffee and a couple of Christmas-themed Krispy Kreme donuts. I know, Krispy Kremes are kind of shit, but Perth has just gone bonkers for them and the dorky furore made me kinda homesick, so ironically I guess I’m eating these iced Xmas Tree/Snowflake fried-cakes as a sort of tribute to Perth. On the street, where a cool breeze mitigates the warmth, I hear a bit of some percussion ensemble, see an elf-man with prosthetic ears introduce the Australian Youth Choir, and listen to a bit of their carols medley. Then, it’s back down the stairs into the Hi-Fi basement.
HOLY BALM are up now, and I’m excited to absorb them. They’re a band who I’ve enjoyed (aurally) since their 2012 LP ‘It’s You,’ and finally got to see earlier this year when they supported No Zu. That set was a cracker and got me all juiced up for tonight, which is admittedly a more subdued/less dance-oriented evening, but that doesn’t stop Holy Balm from serving us a generous platter of rhythm and bounce. The trio perch fashionably behind their gadget racks, wringing out layers of sound in an unhurried fashion. There’s the smoky cool drum thump, which notably doesn’t emphasise a four-to-the-floor kick sound, but nevertheless provides a solid house-y thrust. There’s the click and pitter-patter of the upper register percussion, and somewhere near the ceiling, ghostly vocal motifs swirling and repeating like hypnic pop choruses. The keyboard comes in sideways and overlays itself like a satin sheet on a sweaty summer night. There’s this overall breezy propulsion to their sound, a depth of groove that can’t be weighed down. Amid this vibe, a small but dancefloor is forged. The tunes sail on, like smoke carried on a vigorous gust of wind.
DICK DIVER are the unofficial (probably official, actually) stars of the show tonight. They don’t play too often, and this show marks their last for some time, probably until their new album comes out next year. As such the room’s now full of their starry-eyed, grinning fans, me among them: these poignant larrikins bring out a special devotion in those who take to them. I wrote about Dick Diver not too long ago, and I normally wouldn’t re-visit an act in this column so soon, but there is plenty to mull over with Dick Diver, and tonight they offer up quite a different set to that last one, which was a cosy, straightforward, casual affair at The Tote.
In contrast to that pub rock vibe, tonight’s set sparks up with an acoustic rendition of the obliquely lovely “Lime Green Shirt” off Calendar Days (you can see a similar version, performed in a cemetery, on Youtube). It’s somewhat daring to start so stripped-back after the groovy onslaught of Holy Balm, but then again it’s a clever move: come in from a completely different angle, stun ‘em with quietude. The song showcases the deft guitar touch of Alistair McKay and Rupert Edwards, and the flawless yet neighbourly vocal of Steph Hughes, who stands front and centre, bereft of drums or guitar for once.
From they’re we’re back into rockband mode, with magical bushcore hit “Alice” ushering in the loudness. Unfortunately the mix is weird, and crucial elements of the hook don’t really come through, so an excellent song ends up sounding a little bit lacklustre. But from there, the sound gradually improves throughout.
Tonight introduces a “Dick Diver Big Band” featuring Lewis from Footy and Mikey from Eddy Current/Total Control etc, plus horns(!). It’s awesome to see and hear the lineup swell and contract, and feel in real time this quintessentially bedroomy band expand their sound into Peter Gabriel-esque soft rock journeys, or John Farnham-worthy oz-pop stadium singsongs. Though the Go-Betweens remain the primary touchstone for Dick Diver’s sound, the additions of piano, sax, synth and more into the set bring to life influences that have long been latent (and occasionally patent) in the band’s music: the likes of Men At Work and Australian Crawl. There’s a celebratory mood, and an overall spirit of playfulness and irreverence. The crowd is grinning, and so is the band.
It’s not all fun and games: there are sporadic political injections into the band’s lyrics and banter, and a song like recent single “No Name Blues” – which speaks of white colonialism’s erasure of indigenous culture – is tragic truth wrapped in a deceptively pleasant indie-pop jam. That the song is sonically laid-back and nice to listen to doesn’t undermine the message; if anything, it’s an acknowledgement that there is no songwriting equivalent for that kind of reality. Instead, Dick Diver opt for a poignant juxtaposition.
The set goes from good to better, with new, instantly memorable tunes like “Alphabets” and “Private Number” slotting in handsomely alongside older favourites like “Calendar Days,” “Amber” and “Water Damage.” They close with vintage DD number “Head Back,” which features Steph on guitar and Al Monfort on vocal-only, doing his best faux-Jagger, whilst sneaking in hilarious ad lib topical nuggets like “Lateline, axed! 7:30 report, axed! Australia Network, axed! Save the Palais!”
As they leave the stage, you get the sense that the members of Dick Diver are just like you, except a bit better.
The following evening, I see guitarist Rupert Edwards on the tram, carrying a “Grumpy Cat” 2015 Calendar. Exactly.