Sunset has come and gone by the time I make it out of the house and jump on a tram. It slides down Lygon Street and lets me out a brisk, dark walk away from the heart of Collingwood. I make a beeline for a pub on the horizon, just past the Keith Haring mural. This will be my first experience of the fabled Tote.
I walk in to the strains of YES I’M LEAVING. The low, crusty ceiling stretches forth to the stage, which is backed by dorky warping sci-fi screensaver type projections. The band plays songs that are sweaty, heaving, nonchalant – passive-aggressive, you might say – transmitting a punk attitude but betraying plenty of metal and hard rock influences. They’re good, perfectly blurring the line between well-rehearsed accuracy and stylized sloppiness. They conclude with a hefty chord and a deafening shrug.
Upstairs, thrashing beyond a gurgling pit of energetic silhouettes, I find BEAT DISEASE. Seems like I won’t be able to penetrate the small but dense crowd without inflicting a fair bit of discomfort upon myself and those nearby, so I opt to hang near the bar, sipping a can of Melbourne Bitter, casting my eyes on the backs of nodding heads and the Tretchikoff prints dangling on the nearby rose-red wall. But my inability to properly see Beat Disease barely (if at all) lessens my enjoyment of their tunes – unsubtle, obnoxious, crusty but with healthy proportions of melody and intelligent songwriting. I lean back and soak it up, the music smacking me in the face in that pleasant, numb way, like when someone bites you hard when you’re really drunk.
The real drawcard for me tonight – the reason I don’t mind paying the $25 entry fee – is a band called BASEBALL. Baseball haven’t existed as an active band for some time now (their Wikipedia page refers to them in the past tense, and says they “quietly disbanded” in 2010). But here they are, and I feel a certain charming symmetry in being able to see them at this moment: on my first trip to Melbourne, about seven years ago, I bought Baseball’s 2008 album Animal Kingdom from Polyester Records. I took it back to Perth and became slightly obsessed with it, not yet realizing that I would also go on to love the various projects of its members (like singer/violinist Cameron Potts’ Cuba Is Japan, drummer Evelyn Morris’ Pikelet and bassist Monika Fikerle’s Love of Diagrams). Since my current journey to Melbourne signals a real relocation, it feels like my most significant visit since the first one, and here are Baseball, a welcoming ghost of Melbourne sounds past.
And, it must be admitted, there is something gently dated about their sound now: it’s firmly rooted in the mid/late-2000s preoccupation with barking atonally, venomously, over post-punky drums, “angular” riffs (remember angular riffs?) and furtively poppy chord progressions. It’s worth remembering that Baseball have only reformed “for old time’s sake,” these are “old” songs, and it’s crucial to embrace them as such – without holding them to a benchmark of “nowness,” to a benchmark of stylistic trends which are just as arbitrary and just as doomed to date. But in any case, where a lesser band may have relied solely on the aforementioned fashionable tropes, tonight proves that Baseball’s talent, chemistry and songwriting prowess well and truly transcends its music’s epochal signifiers.
Potts’ violin screeches like a rabid bat over the taught rhythmic canvas woven by Morris, Fikerle and (guitarist) Ben Butcher. His voice screeches in much the same way – having never seen these guys live before, I had no idea his vocal chords were so inhumanly brutal in the flesh. But where the fiddle introduces husky melodies and instills a jittery old-world mood, Potts’ voice conveys entirely specific imagery and strange, erudite worthsmithery. “The Wedding at Susa,” which perfectly pits Potts’ punky, warbling bleat against Morris’ sweetly melodic intonations, invokes a mass wedding in the Persian city of Susa in 324 BC – not exactly your stock-standard indie rock subject matter. In fact, many songs in the Baseball repertoire reference Middle Easten history and culture, even drawing on Sufi poetry, Persian writer/singer Shusha Guppy, and the tales of 10th-century Arab traveller Ahmad ibn Fadlan in far-north Europe and Asia. Baseball – educational, not just blisteringly powerful on the eardrum! Unfortunately, my favourite Baseball song “Where We All End Up,” gets a bizarre instrumental rendition on account of Evelyn Morris’ mic being entirely silenced for unknown technical reasons (she sings lead on the track). In fact, the whole performance is beset with frustrating issues – a faulty kick pedal, low-end feedback, high end-feedback, guitar signal dropping out; the only thing that carries on hassle-free is Monika Fikerle’s bass. But, despite it all, Baseball successfully screech and hurtle through a set which is not only convincing, it’s utterly captivating: brutal, nuanced, slightly scary and hugely entertaining – all the things which made them such a great band in the first place.
And on the reformation front, BIRD BLOBS are here to provide even more of a throwback. Their original existence predates my awareness (spanning the years from 2000 to 2006), but apparently they were much-loved and seem to have retained a pretty loyal following if the crowdedness of the room is anything to go by. Their sound is heavy, riff-driven, rough around the edges – but markedly tight, with rhythms tessellating like pieces of loud, ear-piercing Lego. You could trace their sound to that Birthday Party school of cacophony, but (to my ears, at least) they seem to draw on dance music to underpin their jams: the steady, blaring grooves roll out in a brutally unremitting way that recalls techno or minimal house, kind of like those Melbourne masters of post-punk repetition, My Disco. It’s a total skullbuster of a set, and the room seems to absorb its fierce energy and throw it back towards the stage.
Me and my gang have had plenty to sip and plenty to damage our hearing for one night, so we begin the chilly journey home. Still, I already can’t wait to explore more of Melbourne’s loud and nasty music – a field in which the city excels so well. Both Perth and Melbourne’s punk music scenes have long compelled me, but I can’t claim to be an authority – let alone an expert – on either. Will my suspicion be confirmed that Melbourne harbours a more distinctively “Australian” sound – perhaps an antipodean self-awareness – that is less detectable on the west coast? Or that Melbourne bands are better at guitar noise? That Perth bands are less concerned about genre distinctions and competing ideals? It’s entirely possible the answers are more convoluted than I’d have supposed, and maybe that trying to intellectualize and taxonomize the differences is futile. In any case, I’m looking forward to more ringing ears in weeks and months to come.