Sometimes shows are great because they’re congregations of good people: friends (or at least friendly types) squeezed together in a room, enjoying each other’s presence and the racket made by the musically-inclined kindred spirits huddled yonder. Sometimes shows are great because, irrespective of any personal connection or social hullabaloo, the music on offer is rich or exciting or innovative or clever or impressive or beautiful or fun, and speaks to you in some way. Other times the appeal comes down to atmosphere and spectacle: amazing light shows, energetic performers, musical sets that cross over into the realms of theatre and visual art.
But many of the shows that really stick in your mind are – naturally – all of these things at once, and WATER GRAVES’ self-titled EP launch is one show that feels like it’s going to stick. It happens last Friday, in the auspicious sound-oven of The Bird, set amid the cold and dark moisture of a wintery week’s tail-end.
I pull into The Bird’s car park and carry a few armfuls of gear through the sprinkling rain. I haven’t been this excited about playing a show in a while, as it happens. Something about the whole prospect is just really appealing. Myself and buddy Rupert play first (Amber – see below – just emailed me to say I should say something about this bit of the night, but for obvious reasons I can’t review it, so I’ll say it was fun and Chris Wright the sound-hero was as kindly and on-the-money as ever, and The Bird’s beer was cold and refreshing and the perfect antidote to any synth-inspired nervousness that might crop up when you’re trying to play music).
Then Amber Fresh (as above) – aka RABBIT ISLAND – gravitates onto the stage, with a band of brothers and sisters alongside her. What begins next is a set that encapsulates all the wonderful things about the Rabbit Island project; namely, Amber’s enchanting songwriting, her idiosyncratic, honest and casual performance style, and – beyond Fresh herself – the spirit of community, since Rabbit Island really is an amorphous thing with a rotating cast of wonderful supporting roles. Tonight we’re gifted to a choir accompaniment, – comprised of local musicians Elizabeth Lewis, Jason Pang, Todd Pickett (who sometimes drums for the ‘Island), Andrew Clarke (who tonight also tinkles some ivories), Sam Maher and Jake Webb (both of Sugarpuss, and both Rabbit Island regulars too). The decision to recruit a choral section is a great one, making the arrangements minimal and maximal all at once; delicate but dense. Amber, oscillating between piano and guitar duties, sails through old favourites as well as new originals. There are covers in the mix, too, but covers of friends’ songs: a sublime rendition of Peter Bibby’s “Medicine” proves a highlight, while a pretty but short-lived version of a Ben Witt tune acts as a charming gesture on the latter’s birthday. Rabbit Island will never be about chasing notoreity, or airplay, or attention of any kind; if Amber plays her songs in public, it’s only to transform them into a heartwarming communal experience. I only wish the throng in the Bird could bring their chatting down a few decibels, since they’re drowning out the celestial nuance of the Rabbit Island Choir. Nevertheless, no frustration’s manifest, and the exuberance of this team of harmonic buddies is palpable.
Rabbit Island recedes back into the sea of goodvibe to reveal SACRED FLOWER UNION melting into view. Dan Griffin, the sole practitioner in the union, stands behind a table of drum machines, synthesizers and effects pedals weaving aural magic with the tools on hand. From a cascading wash of thin, new-agey synth texture somes a rich steel-drum driven beat, building and amassing into a hefty undulating monolith of rhythm and goo. Behind him, a purpose-made video flits hyperactively between mundane, suburban images and otherworldly patterns. The word “trippy” if used too liberally in regards to visuals, but when you’re watching a shape drip down a screen that soon reveals itself to be bird’s-eye view of a man swimming downstream which is simultaneously an image of two warping trees, that’s trippy in my books. The Sacred Flower Union set billows and shrinks in intensity; throughout, Griffin is utterly immersed in his craft, evidently putting all of his spirit and body into making these sounds, dancing ferociously when the soundscapes bloom into pounding dance patterns. Finally, as the grooves reach a climax, he screeches into his vocoder, adding a layer of ecstatically harsh noise-catharsis that my ears had been craving. The set finally collapses under its own neon magnitude, and we bask in the afterglow.
“Afterglow” is not a bad way to describe the general sensation of listening to WATER GRAVES, either. The record-launching ensemble arrives on-stage, looking decidedly hip yet unassuming, setting up and gliding effortlessly into their set of shimmering tunes. Ostensibly a duo comprising Coel Healy (who handles beats and keys) and Blake Hart (on guitar and ethereal vocals), this live incarnation also features Pema Monaghan on extra vocals and Jake Suriano on bass guitar. Everything here is super slick and accomplished, awash with toothsome ambience and punctuated by the perfect quota of crunchy rhythmic insertions. Water Graves manage to bridge lush, dreamlike, slow-moving pop arrangements and the funky stutter of new-school hip-hop – in a similar way to international chillwave contemporaries like Washed Out or Toro Y Moi. But, for the most part, Water Graves don’t rely on the nostalgic VHS-style production values that pervaded the aforementioned scene; this stuff dips it dips its toes in the lo-fi end of the pool, certainly, but doesn’t drown in it, allowing the nuances to bubble to the surface in clear, crisp glory. If it weren’t for the daggy associations, I could gladly describe Water Graves as “easy listening” – these are not challenging sounds, nor do they pretend to be – they roll over you welcomely like warm bathwater, water you could totally deal with being buried in.
I bid farewell to the Bird, its good people, its musical satisfactions, its visual spectacles. My high expectations for the night are not only met, they’re long forgotten, floating away in a stream of warm, glittery here-and-nowness. Gigs which are all highs and no lows don’t come along every day; Water Graves should rest happy, knowing that their debut was released into the world in the midst of such a flawless affair.