The new world of The Drones is an exotic place, one populated by dark corners, rarely explored avenues, sparse canvases and dense, exhilarating peaks and troughs - and that's just the neighbourhood surrounding their recording studio. Actually it's not just a studio. It's a house in the middle of a forest that the Melbourne band's singer Gareth Liddiard and bassist Fiona Kitschin, his partner, discovered in January this year and decided to make their home. Once settled, they realised it was also the perfect setting to record The Drones' fourth album, Havilah, which was released in Australia on September 20 and in the US/Europe on Feb 16.
The splendid isolation in which Havilah was created lies in the foothills of Mt Buffalo, once goldfield territory, outside the town of Myrtleford in country Victoria. In February Liddiard began writing new songs for the album there. Two months later guitarist Dan Luscombe, the Drones' most recent addition, and drummer Michael Noga joined Liddiard and Kitschin to rehearse the new material. Then producer and engineer Burke Reid (The Mess Hall, Gerling) lugged his recording gear through the door and off they went - two weeks flat out - until it was done.
"It's like a little world unto itself in the forest," says Liddiard. "It's a beautiful place. You can't always find a good spot to record, but if you can find a house like this that's a bonus." Havilah, like everything The Drones have done, is an album of contradictions, where bombast meets beauty, melancholy wrestles with violent guitars and singer Liddiard's incendiary voice lights up his angular poetry, this time on the nature of, in no particular order, the moon (Penumbra), divorce (The Drifting Housewife) and the acquisition of godlike power and the cult of John Frum (I Am the Supercargo). It's an album that's brimful of the innovation and artistic integrity that has made The Drones one of Australian rock's most critically acclaimed acts here and overseas during the past four years.
It was that spark of originality and blunt-edged chaos that won the Melbourne band the inaugural Australian Music Prize in 2006 for their breakthrough album Wait Long By The River and Your Enemies Will Float By. That same need to push boundaries took them to an old mill in Tasmania to record the follow-up album, 2006's award-winning Gala Mill, and in 2008 their invention, innovation and isolation have combined to produce the fireworks of their most accomplished work to date, Havilah (the name, in case you didn't know, refers to a biblical land near the Garden of Eden and the valley in which the album was recorded).
There are vaguely familiar nods to Neil Young's paint-stripping guitar spasms on Supercargo and Oh My, while the deliciously meandering pop dirges of Suicide and the Velvet Underground echo in Careful As You Go and Luck in Odd Numbers. The outstanding ballad here, Cold and Sober, is a song The Drones have recorded several times during their eight-year reign without it ever making the grade.
"This time it just worked," Liddiard says. There's also the relative immediacy but still complex structure of the first single The Minotaur, Liddiard's scathing rant on the wasters of the world, while the lengthy opening Nail It Dow n perhaps best reflects The Drones' grand scope, flitting as it does between acoustic ambience and rumbling rock 'n' roll meltdown. It's melancholic, certainly, but Havilah, in its tone and its delivery, is also a celebration. It's a more positive statement than its predecessor.
"Gala Mill is pretty fucking depressing," is Liddiard's take on that particular work. "It's not like going on a summer holiday. This time we were ready for something that was less of an ordeal every time we had to play it. And I wanted to write songs that were a bit more abstract, so you can make up your own mind about them." Once you've been around these 10 songs for a few hours, it's not hard to make up your mind about them. They are bold. They are romantic. And they are dangerous.