As any experienced breakfast chef will tell you, no two pancakes are ever quite the same. The act known as PIKELET has comprised its fair share of different line-ups and iterations, and indeed within those, it’s been an ever-morphing, growing, shrinking, fluid, chimaeric thing. The first time I saw Pikelet, it was a solo performance by central brainmother Evelyn Morris. Later, I saw a set which was in the same ballpark with some bonus musicians, effectively delivering a fleshed-out re-imagining of the early solo work. But tonight presents my first opportunity to see “Pikelet the band,” who have actually been playing together for the best part of ten years, just never in my immediate surroundings. By a stroke of luck which is either good or bad depending on how you look at it (and for whom), it’s also their last show in this particular formation. Pikelet’s songs have been among my favourite to come out of Australia in the last decade, so I’m gung-ho about not missing this show. I make a beeline for the Toff.
If you’re reading this, and have hung out a bit in the Victorian capital, I’d say there’s a decent chance you’ve visited The Toff. It’s a well-established joint that’s hosted countless acts from Damo Suzuki to Jens Lekman to Martha Wainwright, and legendary locals like Paul Kelly and Rowland S. Howard. I, however, had never patronised the place – only jogged past it on the long stair-climb that takes you to Curtin House’s rooftop bar/cinema and assorted other establishments. So tonight, after paying my blue-green plastic note and walking through some double-doors, I’m pleasantly surprised by a room that is less “pub” than “theatre,” a hall all brick and wood, with a bar at one end and a wall-length stage – replete with red velvet curtains – at the other.
The curtains soon part for ALYX DENNISON, who’s playing nice and early at a quarter-to-eight. Previously, Alyx was known as one half of the duo Kyü, who I saw play a few years back at Perth’s One Movement festival. The festival was pretty pitiful, but Kyü were excellent, and Alyx in solo mode is, likewise, a total treat. She begins with just a guitar and her voice; her banter is all shrugs and self-deprecation, but the proof is in the pudding and musically there’s nothing but luminous creativity and expert delivery. The first tune – a charming, if fairly conventional, contemporary folk excursion – makes way for another guitar and vocal number, this time deploying a more adventurous approaches to phrasing, melody, lyrics and song structure. There’s something of Joanna Newsom in the delivery; the high-end vocal pirouettes and mercurial meter that catches you off guard.
Things get even more exploratory with the third tune, built around a stellar a cappella that eventually blooms into a hefty arrangement with the addition of (highly inventive percussionist) Callum Moncreiff on drum kit. As the crowd in the room grows, so does the set’s fascination factor: cue an incredible tune that begins with an atmospheric drone of voice and bells, eventually introducing guitar and guest vocalists Gretel Cuneo and Tanjil Eve, before dropping into a deep, unexpected 6/8 groove driven by deft drums and nuanced, chocolatey organ. It’s the sort of beguiling, quietly genius tune you’d expect to emerge from the songbook of tonight’s headliner, and forms an early highlight for me. The set’s rounded out by a slow, thumping 4/4 mood, shimmering gospelly sparseness underpinned by minimalist burgundy guitar twang. I’m deeply glad I arrived at this unusually early hour.
I sip some good local brew (Thunder Road, FYI, get involved) and before long TRUE STRENGTH are poised on the stage. It’s a duo, comprising Alexander Garsden (from Australia) on classical guitar/vocals and Ida Duelund-Hansen (from Denmark, apparently) on double bass, vocals and occasional guitar. Their sound is simultaneously accessible and wholly unfamiliar, a truly remarkable melange of styles and ideas. Both virtuosic players, the duo’s sound is rooted in the complex yet homely sounds of British, European and American neo-traditional folk. Yet at every turn, there are surprising twists and turns that seem to draw on countless curious sources: melodic counterpoints you’d expect from a Bach fugue or Renaissance quartet; unorthodox structures, silences and dissonances that seem to emerge from an experimental composition angle. The parts are sufficiently entwined that is seems foolish to try and dissect and taxonomise them; suffice it to say, the whole is enthralling, slightly baffling, but entirely beautiful. Amid the lovely nylon-string fingerpicking that at times evokes Elizabethan harp, and the double-bass which moves between rich pizzicato and lyrical cello-esque lines, perhaps the only weak link is the vocal capacity of both musicians which – although hugely tasteful, mellifluous and confident – seems limited in its range. The high and low notes sometimes seem like a struggle, when they really need to seem effortless. But truly, I’m clutching at straws to find a criticism. True Strength are amazing, and I don’t know why they’re not famous. Maybe they’re new? If so, simply give them time – no act this unique, impressive and genuinely inventive could hang about on the sly for long.
“ANGEL EYES” sounds like it would be a delicate, ethereal folk-pop act but in actual fact it’s the instrumental electronic music of Andrew Cowie, and is neither delicate nor ethereal. Cowie’s released Angel Eyes material on esteemed labels such as Not Not Fun, Bedroom Suck, Moon Glyph and Siberia, and maybe that gives you some indication of his sound, but maybe not: in any case, tonight’s set is a dreamlike journey through arrhythmic noise and glitch tunnels, which eventually open up into thumping chasms filled with crisp dance rhythms, synth mantras and warped vocals. It’s the sound of ordered chaos and chaotic order, where improvisation and metronomic tempi mingle, bleed and zap each other with lasers. Transportive and transformative, it’s a great set and a brilliantly unapologetic contrast to the gentle, melodic and acoustic sounds that have hitherto floated through the air.
At last it’s over to PIKELET – the four musicians (Evelyn, Matt, Tarquin and Shags) take their positions behind synths, basses and drums, though not necessarily in that order. There’s no slow build-up, no warnings: we’re on a toboggan, perched atop a crisp-edged mountain thick with slushy psych-pop snow, and Pikelet simply nudge us over the edge. As we slide furiously down that kaleidoscopic slope, oscillators and drum-slaps rushing past, I briefly question how I feel about it. Is this the Pikelet I’ve witnessed before and loved? After all, that Pikelet was all about well-defined layers, curious live looping and manipulation, sweet acoustic timbres: this is more like a swirling psych-rock soup, which although great, isn’t so unique. But – me of little faith – I shouldn’t have worried. The soup remains, in periodic waves, but those classic elements I adored appear too. At various points, Evelyn swaps her synth for acoustic guitar and reworks some of her old songs, but it’s worth remembering that Pikelet has always been a forward-gazing project, and tonight’s set is no different. After briefly departing the stage and returning for a tremendous, but unassuming encore comprising the excellent “Fleeting” and “Pressure Cooker,” some small mention is made of the band’s long history together, and some bittersweet sighs are exhaled. But tonight is not about dwelling on the past and what won’t be repeated; after all, treading familiar ground has never been one of Pikelet’s priorities. The project – helmed, as ever, but Evelyn Morris and her steadfast ingenuity – will continue, and the future looks as bright, exciting and surprising as it ever did.
Photo by Karl Scullin