The new year is upon us. Twenty-fourteen; it rolls of the tongue nicely, and arrives in North Fremantle, where the sky is wispy maya and the air a cool autumnal feint. Past handsomely flaking facades and seasonally shuttered shopfronts, Mojo’s Bar embraces us again.
We chat and contemplate the summer, the year that is to come, the hopes and the dreams that go with it. Before long, the evening’s musical entertainment begins with Mai Barnes, accompanied by Alex Vickery, the pair functioning as a duo reduction of Mai’s brainchild band GOLDEN STRING. Beginning with Mai and Alex on their secondary instruments of guitar and piano respectively, the first tune is a curious, though by no means unsuccessful, introduction to a set of utterly beguiling songs where moody progressions underpin gently intoned vocals, glowing loops and shimmering string lacework. Not even the daylight still streaming in the windows can belie the magic of the moment. There’s a crucial alchemy going on between Mai’s compositional nous/lyricism and Alex’s savvy violin counterpoint: inspiration, expression, rigour and technique mingle in a way whereby it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins; the finished work is so convincing it wouldn’t be amiss to draw comparisons to post-folk wunderkinds like Joanna Newsom or Andrew Bird. The terminally modest pair would, of course, laugh off such a suggestion, but it’s there for all to hear; this is really something special. “Silk Carapace,” one of my favourite local songs of the last couple of years forms a late highlight and a solo-Mai rendition of Elliot Smith’s “Roman Candle” closes things out. Sunday evening is off to an impressive start.
The light through the window panes dims to a moody sunset hue and Jake Webb surfaces in front of us. Sprite-like, he hops atop a tiny wooden chair and squats on it, his brown brogues curling under his frame as he peers at his keyboard. A smooth, patient, trip-hoppy beat drops and this evening’s METHYL ETHYL set begins.
This initial tune floats carelessly on a tepid sea, sky-blue synth-wash dripping down your face and slyly filling your head from all angles. Drawn out, hazy vocals glide over the sanguine tranquility like a rosy-cheeked ice-skater smiling with a bellyful of red wine. It’s a slow-burn, sparse groove that ushers in a seemingly new sound for Webb’s solo project, which has previously erred more towards skewed, guitar-driven chamber pop. The next song, with its insistent crotchet-heavy loop that may or may not be a piano sample and twisted, twirling choral refrain, is strictly reminiscent of Panda Bear. Throughout the set, live vocals frequently sit atop dense layers of harmony, while hypnotic beats undulate within; the influence of Mr. Lennox never seems too far away, though nor does Methyl Ethyl stray into the realms of cryptomnesia or pastiche. It’s an exciting shake-up of a formula which had hardly outstayed its welcome, implying that Jake won’t be looking to rest on his laurels any time soon.
SEAN O’NEILL emerges from the woodwork. Formerly a Perth-based soundweaver, he’s been in London for some time now playing with British indie band WOLF and honing his solo talents in his spare time. Clad in stern stage blacks, he and a trombone player appear to share those talents.
Wringing his trademark volume-swells, fingerpicking patterns, echoing loops and crisp tapping lines from a clean electric, O’Neill provides a melodic landscape that is at once loose, neat, folksy, abstract, mellifluous – often lacking any obvious beat, though always maintaining a smooth organic flow. Following a flash of haunting instrumental compositions and downbeat songs, local drum wizard Sam Maher jumps up to join the pair for a final tune – adding stormy clicks, rolls and shimmers to bring the set to a heady crescendo.
At last it’s over to SQUAREHEAD who are not, in this instance at least, a garage pop band from Dublin as Google will have you believe; this Squarehead is a trio out of Melbourne, comprising Tobi (bass, synth programming), Billy (drums) and Zac (electronic drum pad). And if the name comes across as a sort of unconscious amalgam of monikers belonging to electronic darlings Squarepusher and Radiohead, well, it wouldn’t be the most misleading title they could have given themselves, nor would it tell the whole story (natch, a name rarely does).
What the three conjure up is part indie electronica and part jammy, loopy math/prog rock with heart – heart being the crucial ingredient, since so much work in the latter sphere ends up sounding like little more than a well-rehearsed masculine boffinfest. Nay, among the intricate riffings and tight, sometimes jagged grooves (see’ Raindrops’) there is the warm clang-and-bellow of steel drums, the satisfaction of melodic chord progressions, the free-spiritedness to improvise and let loose over the foundation motifs. Tobi frequently lays down a thick, tonally decisive bass line to anchor things but soon warps his instrument to sound like a high-pitched synth or wailing, overdriven lead guitar. The only danger with injecting so much emotive content into technical, high-energy jams is that it can start to approach that sense of bombastic melodrama that makes bands like Dream Theatre so damn awful, but Squarehead do an admirable job of steering clear of that particular territory. It might sound weird to praise Squarehead on the basis of what they succeed in not being, but it’s worth commending given the trappings of the sounds they’re bringing together, and the connotations their approach might usually bring to mind. Ultimately, it’s a hugely satisfying sound and they ought to be heard by more people across our fair land and beyond. I have to leave to catch my train before they play their last song, which is a bummer. They seem like the sort of band that would play a corker of a last song.
The train whip-cracks back towards Perth city, the mellow glow of Mojo’s fading into the winking lights of the curving bay’s horizon. Tonight was nothing if not a reminder of the untold wealths of understated talent simmering away even in the seeming doldrums between Christmas and festival season. It would have been quite intimidating, really, if everyone wasn’t such a damn lovely human being. Things work out nicely sometimes.