With Feelin’ Kinda Free, the Drones have reasserted themselves as the enfant terribles of Australian music. They’re willing to go where others aren’t, and they bring an unmatched intensity to their music.
Anticipation has been building for this release since “Taman Shud” dropped last year, a single that showed that this album was going to sound different to 2013’s I See Seaweed. “Taman Shud”, basically a three minute kiss-off to Australian mainstream culture and politics, is typical of the iconoclastic style of this fierce LP, and its obsession with mysteries.
The cover art recreates file notes from the real life Taman Shud case, in which a man was found dead on Somerton beach, Adelaide, with no identifying marks except for a scrap of paper reading “Taman Shud”. Both the translation of this phrase (“it finished”), and the broader mystery of the identity of the victim, play into the themes of the album – after listening, you genuinely do believe that western civilisation may disintegrating before our eyes, and you’re also left with questions that can never be answered. Who are we? What have we done?
The full album, which arrived back in March, begins with what on one hand is a fairly common Drones move – a huge opening song that stretches way beyond a radio-friendly running time. But the sound is very different to previous releases. The guitars are doing their best to sound anything like guitars, and the bass is more present than ever. This is the most heavily-produced Drones album ever, in a good way. The track, which namechecks the 2015 execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukamaran in Indonesia, among other grim situations, continues the theme of degradation and disintegration began by the lead single – lead singer Gareth Liddiard mumbles of “losing my ambition, going into remission.”
The brutality and cloying conformity of Australian culture are explored on the following two tracks, the aforementioned “Taman Shud” and “And Then They Came For Me,” another standout, referencing Martin Niemöller’s famous poem about Nazi atrocities. Again, the sound is completely different to the bluesy feeling of previous albums – the feeling is just as melancholy, but in a more electronic way. Bassist Fiona Kitschin’s heavily processed backing vocals provide an eerie musical motif throughout most of the songs.
Next we have something perhaps even more unexpected from The Drones – a love ballad. “To Think That I Once Loved You”, is a genuinely beautiful pean to lost love, and a thoughtful meditation on the concept of songwriting as therapy. Liddiard’s voice, not exactly classically beautiful, is at its most empathic here, and the multilayered harmonies give the song even more pathos.
Another standout track is “Boredom,” which has to be one of the few songs getting regular Triple J airplay that is sung partly from the perspective of a terrorist. With Kitschin performing her own sample of the Buzzcocks song of the same name, and Liddiard essentially rapping, the song tries to delve into the psychology of people who succumb to extremism.
The music on Feelin’ Kinda Free ranges from blistering static to quiet soul, but the electronic element is ever-present. The feel is eerie and cloying, while also being endlessly listenable. The lyrics continue the Liddiard tradition of being clever and well-read on one hand, and silly and colloquial on the other, but political topics are covered in a much more forthright way here. All in all, this album somehow manages to improve on previous releases, and cements The Drones as the premier alternative Australian band, giving our culture the sledgehammer to the head it so often deserves.