They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. The relationship between musician and listener is not so different. Crucial as it may be, no amount of promotion or airplay or hype can actually impel a listener to engage with a band’s music: this act, of devoting one’s senses and attention, of attempting to connect, must be a voluntary – and therein lies its magic. When Perth kvlt-doom luminaries DROWNING HORSE chose their band name, they picked a pair of words that would brilliantly evoke the dark, suffocating, muscular and mythic nature of their music. In light of the aforementioned idiom, however, the moniker is also a pretty accurate description of their fan base’s attitude: you can’t make a horse drink, but fans of this band need no encouragement. In fact, DROWNING HORSE faithfuls are so eager to chug it down that they end up submerged and entombed (in the best, healthiest possible way).
If you needed proof, observe this surreal moment: tonight, as Drowning Horse are about to play, the entire crowd milling in the Bakery’s rear courtyard falls dead silent and flocks – calmly, purposefully – inside. If anyone’s here to drink or socialize or find a partner with whom to copulate, it’s a not their top priority. Really, everyone’s here for this band – a phenomenon which is unheard of at a Friday night gig in a popular public venue. The throng moves as one and prepares to drown in sound.
Sever hours earlier, I arrive under the adder-black sky and float through the still-sparse crowd. The ever-beguiling sounds of CRAIG McELHINNEY are tenderizing minds early on. Craig’s DJing, eschewing decks for a 404 sampler setup, and although that means he’s proffering other people’s tunes, there’s something undeniably Craig-ish about it. A mythic haze, a shimmering aura of Turkish coffee steam and wispy space dust and dankness from the deep woodland undergrowth. Be it the freak-dub of Sun Araw or the Canterbury psych of flare-wearers Caravan, no-one is immune to the McElhinney treatment; the subtle effects, the seamless blends, and the alien comfort vibes that are sometimes even greater than the sum of their parts.
GRIEF CONTEST now rise to the occasion. I was under the impression they must’ve been a Melbourne or Sydney band – (a) because the name is unfamiliar (shows you what I know!) and (b) on account of Life is Noise’s penchant for bringing loud and grim acts over from that side of the country to this one. But, it seems, they are a pair of Perth guys of who appear only rarely in public.
My first thought is how versatile and dynamic this guitar-and-drums duo is – alternating between skull-bruising sludge/doom and pared back instrumentalism that, if pigeon-holed, would probably most resemble the “post-rock” pigeon. There’s an ambition and a scope to the sound that is quite immense, and the execution is admirable – when it falls short, it’s in terms of sheer density and low-end heft. One guitar can make a hell of a racket – especially when amplified to 11 and shot through plenty of pitch-shifting and distortion effects – but nine times out of ten it still sounds like one guitar. There’s a sense that an extra layer (I’m hesistant to use the “b” word, but…yknow) might complete the ominous panorama. Apparently Grief Contest do have a third member, but he’s off in Sydney while his girlfriend photographs ominous panoramas for National Geographic. Perhaps we’ll hear them in three-way configuration one day soon.
After another round of McElhigrooves it’s over to Nick Sweepah – who goes by the entirely fiendish moniker “OUROBONIC PLAGUE” and thereby makes a fitting contribution to tonight’s bill of dopely macabre project names. Sweepah’s sounds are informed by his background in hip-hop, but refracted through about a million weird lenses; what we get are séance drones, post-dubstep gurgles, glitch nasties and straight-up noise violations. Tonight, somewhat unusually, he introduces his rap chops (kinda) – pitch-shifting his voice down to a Darth Vader wheeze and intoning unsettling rhymes over his claustrophobic, festering dungeon beats. Ourobonic Plague is a fantastic foil to Drowning Horse – seemingly taking a similar departure point (the desire to make somewhat distressing, dark-as-hell, drone-centric music) but opting for a completely different fork in the road (electronic production and the gamut of influences that go along with it). This is one of his best sets to date.
By now, the Bakery is bulging with black-clad bodies. And at last, that strange moments comes. The hush, and the swift relocation into the drone-room. DISCLAIMER: Right now, for the next paragraph’s worth of time, I’m going to avoid the words “brutal,” “loud,” “dark” and “heavy,” because they tell you nothing you don’t already know about Drowning Horse, but if there was any doubt, rest assured that tonight they are all of these things in hyperbolic abundance. What’s interesting, though, is not that they manage to pop eyeballs with their ever-substantial quantities of brute force. It’s the way in which they elicit goosebumps with an unprecedented artistry.
Tonight, Drowning Horse have stepped up the theatrics: smoke machines, rope lights, a projector flinging black-and-white landscape time lapses onto a big white screen flanked by mammoth amp stacks – and yet, here on this elaborately adorned stage, they still seem as unpretentious and down-to-earth as they might playing to a small crowd at 208s. It’s a testament to the band’s palpable personality and no-nonsense attitude. “Nonsense” should never be confused with quality embellishment, which is what they’ve gone for here.
The set begins not with a crushing drone but instead with several minutes of blistering fastness: black-metal inspired riffing, frantic beats and blood-curdling shrieks. It’s arresting, and it sends a clear message: Drowning Horse are no one-trick pony (oh god, that pun really wasn’t intended. I promise! Sorry. Moving on). This outburst is followed by a somewhat ambient interlude and sampled spoken word, before – about a third of the way into the set – more familiar DH sounds set in. And it’s better than ever. Every guitar strum is a glacier of scalding-hot mud; every drum hit is a meteor. Nothing happens without tremendous weight and impact. The vocals, thick and abrasive, are on point. If Drowning Horse’s music is simple in concept and minimal in musical terms, it’s by no means lacking in finesse. No-one “plays” low-end feedback like these guys. No-one appreciates the fierce potential of light-and-shade like these guys. Their performance tonight makes Boris’ a few months ago look like a school rock eisteddfod. Which says more about Drowning Horse’s ascension than it does about Boris’ decline.
I move away from the stage, drained and altogether uplifted. It’s clear as day why Drowning Horse fans are so avid. Who needs to be told to drink when the water is this intoxicating, and this nourishing? Not me, and certainly not the glowing throng of fanatics – new and old – who file out of the Bakery, leaving in their wake one of the year’s finest performances.