“Standing on the deck I watch my shadow stretch…”
The Drones’ “Shark Fin Blues” is a monumental behemoth of a song – the story of Jonah and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” chewed up and spat out via almost six minutes of the most gloriously sloppy, fucked-up roots rock. It sounds like a ship sinking. A relatively restrained guitar intro begins to lurch disconcertingly out-of-tune after only a few seconds and by the end of the track we’ve capsized and are being dragged, inextricably, into a sonic maelstrom. “Fin by fin” screams front man Gareth Liddiard as the sharks move in, sounding as desperate as Ishmael at the end of Moby Dick. But there’s no coffin lifebuoy here – and that final, clanging guitar chord is the sound of the sharks dispersing, their feeding-frenzy over and the water red.
“Shark Fin Blues” was the first song I heard by The Drones and it’s a damn tough act to follow, which is maybe why, on the first few listens, I wasn’t overly impressed by their second LP “Wait Long By the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By”. The songs were too meandering and unfocused, the dual guitar parts muddy, undefined and sonically repetitive, and all too often Liddiard seemed to resort to screaming (ie the lowest common denominator way to communicate rage and frustration) as a method of vocal delivery.
I was very wrong though. As its title would suggest, “Wait Long By The River…” is an album that rewards patience and in this case it was Liddiard’s lyrics that kept drawing me back. One verse in particular from “Locust” kept gnawing away at my brain:
“Ether was the town where I was born
They pulled iron from the ground
And knife wounds from the port
They built a prison and it tempered in the sun
It rose up off a plateau like the last tooth in a gum”
You don’t write like that unless you know what you’re doing. Though nowhere near as immediately likeable as “Shark Fin Blues”, “Locust” is just as fine a piece of songwriting. A vivid snapshot of a life in a shitty Australian port town that’s a melting-pot of violence, racism, suicide and alcoholism, it reminds me of Shane MacGowan at his best and is distinctly Australian in the way that MacGowan’s work is distinctly Irish. Liddiard’s vocal delivery is impeccable too – somehow he manages to do that whole ‘non-singing’ thing in a way that sounds unique, effortless, engaging and relevant. The bastard.
“Locust” and “Shark Fin Blues” are fairly literal pieces of songwriting (though one could have a field day speculating on what the latter could be a metaphor for) but Liddiard is equally able to wield more oblique imagery just as effectively, such as on the album’s penultimate track – the eerily ominous “Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots!!!”:
“I have searched London and I have searched Rome
I have spent thousands, most of it loaned
Now probes straddle asteroids with spider-like chaste
You were not easy to break”
I have no idea what “Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots!!!” is about but it somehow manages to conjure up a sense of vast cosmic foreboding whilst wallowing in self-obsessed earthly squalor. Both elegiac and crude (bringing to mind Henry Miller), it’s an uncomfortable listen – and while the repeated refrain “You were not easy to break” makes the listener feel as if they’re somehow being complicit in torture (this wasn’t long after the Abu Ghraib scandal) it’s not without a wry humour either:
“I have been subject to shovel and lime
Have studied core samples of the anus bovine
All manner of myopic misgivings deflate
You were not easy to break”
The guitar work on the album revealed itself over time too. Far from being muddy and undefined, Liddiard and Pereira’s guitar parts play off each other in a way that’s both subtle and intricate (albeit often behind a wall of distortion). The band as a whole sound welded together with the kind of focus that only comes from some serious time on the road. They are beyond ‘tight’ to the point where they can relax enough to play in front of or behind the beat in a way that makes the arrangements open up and sound spontaneous even on repeated listening, rather like a particularly gnarly Crazy Horse at the top of their game (most obvious on the rootsy and uncharacteristically optimistic-sounding closer “This Time”).
God knows how I missed all this the first few times around. Maybe it was because the (in retrospect, obviously deliberate) meat-headedness of “Baby” coming right after “Shark Fin Blues” made me switch off? Maybe it was the formless and atonal second-half of “Locust” (which, on further listens, mirrors the protagonist’s descent into alcoholism and therefore kind of works)? Or maybe it was the rather meandering and scream-laden “The Freedom In The Loot” (which, despite ending with a searing piece of guitar work that sounds as though it might take the top of your head clean off still doesn’t really do it for me)?
Whatever it was, I’m glad I persevered. “Wait Long By The River…” might be hard work but I can’t think of another band that’s produced anything quite as raw, vital and intelligent this side of the millennium. It might be over ten years old but it sounds as fresh as if it were released yesterday.
Next, of course, The Drones went and released “Gala Mill” which validated their greatness in my eyes exponentially – and then some. But more on that later…