Offering an extended trek into coolly manic garage, the Drones' second album, 2005's Wait Long By the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By, announced the band's raison d'etre with its ramblingly spot-on title. The Australian quartet traffics in dark subject matter, duration, and water. To further establish the correct mood, speak the title slowly and let their sodden, anti-anthemic/anthemic rock make you feel like a giddy kid stumbling upon something for the first time all over again.
Vocalist/guitarist Gareth Liddiard and guitarist Rui Pereira formed the Drones in early 2000. They released an eponymous EP in 2001 and a debut long player, Here Come the Lies, a year later. Then came last year's gem. Now this, the excellent third full length, Gala Mill. The collection has similarities to Wait Long, but does everything better; for instance, "Shark Fin Blues", my favorite from Wait Long, is buried by any number of more powerful clips. They've also outgrown the "garage," pushing things into the richer, more sophisticated outdoors.
You could assemble a parade with the X, the Gun Club, the Birthday Party, the Cramps, or Laughing Hyenas' John Brannon with a tad less snarl and a teetering collection of historical texts. That's getting somewhere, but mix in Nick Cave's post-Birthday Party patience, spaciousness, and literate pronouncements. A couple songs are close to eight minutes and one is just about ten; each is packed with Liddiard's wonderfully unadorned words.
Gala Mill begins with the faint sound of "[we're] recording, shut up" and a few seconds of muffled discussion. When "Jezebel", one of the single most compelling tracks of the year, finally kicks in with its rising/falling, herky/jerky motion at the album's 18-second mark, the nearly eight-minute roller coaster moves from airborne cancers to nuclear rain, cruise missiles, infanticide, vanity, calamity, questions ("What's best for the West and the greed?/ Kill 'em all? let 'em breed?"), civil war, Daniel Pearl: "They cut your head off on TV/ But I am not a camera/ A man is not an effigy."
A current event roll-call's as novel as Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire", but Liddiard turns it into a nervous, tough apocalyptic epistolary love song. Toward song's end he howls: "Oh, new scar/ You have raised the bar/ Goliath rides an oil drum raft/ Through a cyclone in my ear drums/ You don't want a tyrant/ We're sure/ You'd prefer a civil war/ And I am gonna lose my skin/ I ain't gonna see you again." This realization, which you know was always bubbling, brings on a toll of crashing drums and feedback.
It's by far the best track, but there are a number of seconds. An elegant ballad that expands and explodes, "Dog Eared" nudges a straight-up love song. Issuing a rousing chorus, "I Don't Ever Want to Change" finds a character in "a house made of stone and a thousand mistakes" trying to commune with nature. He burns down the store he runs and lives awhile off insurance money. When Liddiard informs us "I seen the Zoloft put my baby in the grave" he goes into a spate of babbles and yowls.
Liddiard reminds me of William T. Vollmann in his quest for historically based happenings. "Words From The Executioner to Alexander Pearce" is based on the 19th century criminal, Alexander Pearce, who escaped prison in Tasmania on two occasions; both times he was recaptured, it turned out he'd eaten the folks with whom he'd jumped the fence. Six men in all. Liddiard inhabits the executioner's mind for a discussion of guilt, empathy, experience, forgiveness, and jealousy. One of his metaphor-rich queries: "Tell me how do we taste?"
The band also enters story hour on the closer, "Sixteen Straws". In the liner notes, we're told, "To avoid damnation by suicide, groups of Catholic convicts would draw straws. The long and the short decided the deceased and his killer." Incorporating a verse from the traditional song "Moreton Bay", Liddiard carefully paints a scene in colonial Australia, backed by just the faint sound of guitars, a harmonica, and his own spittle. An escaped prisoner by "the Brisbane waters" tells of his arrival from Ireland to Australia and his work on the chain gangs. In the prisoner's story, he rats out two guys for building a knife and planning to murder the head of the place. The perps each get 300 lashes; everyone slowly goes crazy for different reasons-- they for their wounds, he for his conscience. They decide to draw straws, and then the story actually begins. The Drones are fascinating in their approach to painting these tableaus-- the confidence in allowing details and power to accrue sans some final crescendo.
I've seen the band live, so their interest in this kind of spacious slow build makes even more sense: Plenty of room's needed so Liddiard can cock back and explode into his meditational, transcendent rants. New Jersey has Springsteen, Minneapolis, Craig Finn, and Liddiard's painterly sense of place and nation is equally stirring. You get the sense he could kick both the Boss and Finn's asses, actually.
Words by - Brandon Stosuy, November 20, 2006 - www.pitchforkmedia.com