Gareth Liddiard, frontman for Melbourne, Australia-based band The Drones describes his group’s previous effort Gala Mill as “pretty fucking depressing.” While that album was a slept-on gem, a garage rock classic that makes a case for The Drones as being one of the best bands spawned from their Australian homeland, he’s essentially right. Its dusty ballads and mournful dirges of drug addiction make for an exhausting, if incredible, album that requires a bit of space between listens. A little more than two years later, The Drones return with a slightly less ominous shadow on their excellent fourth album Havilah, a set that continues the group’s twisted garage rock tradition while letting just a little more light into their agitated barroom stomp.
The extra bits of positivity on Havilah go a long way, making a transition from their previous album’s dark dirges toward a more energetic, yet still sinister collection of epic rock songs that stands as their most impressive set to date. The album kicks off with the surprisingly bright and upbeat “Nail It Down,” with bluesy major key riffs chiming beneath Liddiard’s repetition of the song’s title in his heavy accent. As the song stretches on, however, it kicks into explosive, thunderous breakdowns, melancholy bridges and Liddiard’s exasperated refrain of “I’ll try anything, before it’s banished from my sight.” Yet even as the song seems about to run out of steam, a short silence soon gives way to another explosive verse, and the band sounds invigorated and more aggressive than before. And this is just one song, mind you.
First single “The Minotaur” is hands-down one of the most savage pieces of music to be released this year. With a skronky, Birthday Party-like riff, the song’s melody stumbles and careens like a drunken pugilist looking to ruin someone’s night. It’s violent and it’s intense, and it’s thoroughly awesome. And for reasons I haven’t quite figured out, Liddiard ends the song by repeatedly shouting the name of onetime KISS member Vinnie Vincent. Meanwhile, folky “The Drifting Housewife” finds the group taking a break from the vicious riffs for a softer, yet no less dark tune with the chorus of “don’t go getting married/ you can only change your name.”
Standout “I Am the Supercargo” is another epic rocker in the vein of “Nail It Down,” albeit with a slower, slinkier plod rather than a gallop. Its dissonant textures recall Sonic Youth at times, while its abrasive gothic balladry is pure Bad Seeds. Acoustic blues number “Careful as You Go” eases off the distortion, but Liddiard’s imagery is no less striking as he recounts “the morning is like a walk into a blunt, narcotic fog.” An even greater contrast emerges in the incredible “Oh My,” a soaring rock anthem that initially sounds a bit more cheerful than the songs preceding it, until you realize that Liddiard is singing “people are a waste of food…they’re only happy when they’re burying their friends.”
Even on a relatively subdued track like “Luck In Odd Numbers,” there’s something menacing lurking beneath, particularly when Michael Noga’s drum snaps and Dan Luscombe’s slide guitar erupt between each verse phrase. While Havilah may not necessarily be as “fucking depressing” as Gala Mill, it’s a far cry from bubblegum pop. The Drones’ latest is a jagged epic, a kickass album that’s managed to reinvigorate everything that’s great about guitar-based rock while twisting and tweaking it into noisy, disturbing territory. Havilah is uncompromising and powerful, an acid-tipped reminder that, every now and again, rock `n’ roll can still be dangerous.
Video: “The Minotaur”