It’s Thursday night, and I don’t know anything about any gig or anything. But as I’m boiling the kettle my housemate J____ says some words like ‘Zond’ and ‘Goodtime Studios’ and ‘$5 entry’ and ‘$5 drinks’ and suddenly I have a plan for the next few hours of my life. It’s already dark; we drink a few beers in the loungeroom before darting round the corner and down to servo where the tram will soon slide by, with its bright, warm windows, and scoop us up.
Neither of us really know where Goodtime Studios is, and as we begin to slither into the very epicentre of the city, we realise we’ve missed it. We say something to that effect, and the man with glasses who’d been sitting next to us with a pizza on his lap pipes up.
“Goodtime Studios!” Pizza boy exclaims.
“If I’d known you were going there, I’d‘ve said something. It was a few stops back – where we rounded the bend – look for the red Uni Lodge sign.”
We thank the man, whose dinner’s appetizing aroma is dispersing rapidly through the carriage.
We walk through chilly air to the red sign, a glowing prism on a wall we’d frequently commuted past, never stopped to investigate. Goodtime Studios is right below Uni Lodge, and I suppose it’s a university initiative. What it is, basically, is an empty whitewashed basement, the sort of space which, although simple, is high on the list of things DIY creative persons froth at the mouth over. A blank three-dimensional canvas. We pay the turnip-coloured fiver for entry, and another for a can of beer. The room is half-full of jacketed bodies, and a projector precariously dangles in front of a central column, yawning a bright, coloured square onto the opposite wall, ceiling and floor. Some TVs are dotted around, showing slow-motion footage of Freddie Mercury in concert.
The band playing is called STATIONS. They seem pretty serious: quick but unhurried, stern punky rhythms layered with distorted, droning synth and gothic vocals. Self-consciously “dark” stuff (they are all unsmiling, darkly clad, and the singer is wearing a translucent black veil over her head, if you want proof). Which only works if you’re (a) good enough to take yourself seriously and (b) totally convincing in terms of your grimm vibes, and these guys are certainly not far off the mark but they don’t exactly nail it either. The delivery is not quite sufficiently assertive, the rhythms not accurate enough to be darkly clinical, nor sloppy enough to be darkly messy. And their overall synth-punk sound – which is as much doom metal and Bauhaus as it is The Screamers, really – isn’t innovative enough to be exciting of its own accord. But give them a year or two, and maybe let them get a bit more pissed off, and they could be a fantastic group, instead of merely a good one.
We have a fresh air/ciggie break up on the street, where a lady talks to us under the fluorescent lights about snorkelling, and how global warming has already fucked most of the Great Barrier Reef. We also have more cheering chats about camping and music festivals and stuff, before heading back down to experience ZOND.
ZOND could never rightly attract the same criticisms I just levelled at Stations: they are about as assertive, convincingly brutal, and unabashed as a band gets. With a searing “wall of sound” approach that reminds me of how people describe seeing My Bloody Valentine, they manage to turn Sonic Youth-y rock jams into vividly swirling sound experiments that play silly buggers with your ear drums, mostly by virtue of simply being so loud and dense. A relatively stark, traditional pallette – loud, distorted guitars, growling bass, heavy drums – take on a weird psychedelic, psychoacoustic quality, where shimmering overtones ring out, hum and squawk. Rathering that relying on this intriguing sound-monolith to constitute their whole performance, they allow each new tune to be slightly more structured, delineated and vocal-driven than the last, giving the set a sense of gradual coalescence, or the feeling of climbing out of a surreal well – getting ever-closer to the world of shapes and light that peeks at you from above.
To close out the freak parade are Dunedin-born group THE AESTHETICS, who are based in Melbourne nowadays. They describe themselves as “sick-making fizzer gigs smart-meter scrape-punk” and while there’s nothing more eye-rollingly lazy than a music journo poaching a band’s bio in lieu of an actual considered description, I’ll defend my decision here ‘cause there are instances where an artist’s take on themselves tells you more than a straightforward account of their sound ever would. I mean, in essence, these guys are playing fast-ish noise rock songs with a heap of outlandish vocals barked incomprehensibly over the top and a whole lot of dogshit-mental “solos” (read: abstract, dada-esque noise ejaculations) from guitarist/keyboardist/singer Matt Middleton. The natural reference point is the kitchen sink avant-punk of their homeland/town: The Dead C et al, though apparently they often feature a sax which draws its share of James Chance/NY no-wave comparisons… anyway, you should go and see The Aesthetics if you get a chance! Nothing about layering abstracted devil-may-care weirdness over punk jams is news to anyone, and anyway rock-and-roll is largely (roughly) exhausted of any revelatory newness by definition, but when you channel the raw, reckless energy of this kind of music with conviction and subversive gusto, it’s still jaw-droppingly crazy and knee-achingly energising. I found myself in a pool of sweat, sipping a stranger’s bottle of cleanskin white, quicker than you can say “this might be the most fun I’ve ever had in a room with no windows!”
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about the Melbourne music scene that I’m pretty sure is not my imagination, it’s the willingness to dive into the world of rock that seethes with dark, “negative” energy. As much as The Aesthetics were life-affirming in a cathartic sort of way, there’s no denying a sense of nihilism in their sound; ZOND sound a bit like the end of the world, and Stations are channelling gothic ghosts like it’s going out of fashion. This is neither intrinsically good nor bad, but an observation: and I don’t know if it’s the weather, but something geographical does seem to manifest in these tones and visuals… compare to a Perth band, like Electric Toad, who share The Aesthetics’ penchant for destructive abandon, but do it with a wholesome-frat-party sort of love-spreadin’ vibration. I’m generalising here, and you can find opposite examples in either city, but I do wonder to what extent these specimens are defined – or indeed, to what extent their music flourishes in its location – by existing parochial tendencies. Does Perth eschew darkness out of sheer habit? Can the same be said of Melbourne rock bands’ proclivity to pursue it? I dunno, but if tonight’s literally and figuratively dark affair teaches us anything, it’s that bleak energies and rollicking vibes are far from mutually exclusive. After all, ‘Goodtime Studios’ is a whitewashed, windowless basement… and there’s nothing wrong with that.