There are echoes all across Gala Mill (ATP), the new album by the Australian band the Drones. Seeing themselves as descended from a national legacy of brutality and suffering, the band catch something of the plainspoken vision of history-as-horror-show that the Pogues expressed in “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” Working on an often vast sonic and narrative scale, the Drones can recall Neil Young’s widescreen epics “Cortez the Killer” and “Powderfinger.” At times the music suggests people trying to blast their way out of a history, personal or political, as in the fiercest music from the Mekons or Eleventh Dream Day. And Gareth Liddiard’s vocals can recall Dylan (on “Dog Eared,” which features a line Dylan would be proud to call his own — “My heart might hang me if I gave it an inch”) or, on “Words from the Executioner to Alexander Pearce,” Leonard Cohen, but a Cohen who has seen too much for his sense of irony ever again to be so precise or insulating or pleased with itself.
TOUGH LOVE: Ambition and audacity provide the thrills.
As you might gather from those antecedents, the Drones make music that ain’t particularly fun. But ambition and audacity provide their own brand of thrills, and Gala Mill abounds in both.
The title comes from the 10,000-acre farm in rural Australia where they recorded the album. The spirit that permeates Gala Mill might come from there too. It’s not just the twittering birds and barking dogs and squeaking barn doors you hear between tracks. It’s the sense of being out of time — which doesn’t mean out of touch. The stories are told in voices that suggest the convicts taken in shackles to Australia nearly 200 years ago rising from the dead and rattling their chains to rob us of our sleep. The merely topical and contemporary are thrown off in order to get to what is elemental and abiding. The present horrors that pop up over the course of the opening “Jezebel,” from suicide bombers to the murder of Daniel Pearl, are conjured not by the sometimes puerile lyrics (“What’s best for the west and the greed? Kill ’em all? Let ’em breed?”) but by Liddiard’s bad-news-town-crier delivery and the way Rui Periera’s attempts to chart a chiming guitar phrase are ground down by Mike Noga’s drumming and Fiona Kitschin’s bass, the sound of grime being ground into silver. Liddiard’s repeated “I would love to see you again” seems to reach us from farther and farther down a black hole. The final crushing beat is repeated again and again, like a lash that never stops coming. There is no easy way out of the horror the song evokes.
The Drones sustain this mood over the full hour of Gala Mill, and in the final number, “Sixteen Straws,” they make it the stuff of a bad dream. A man relates a tale told him by a convict: to escape the endless suffering of the Australian penal colonies, groups of inmates draw straws. The long straw murders the short straw. One man is put out of his misery, the killer has a chance to repent, and all claim responsibility so that they are sentenced to death, thus arranging their end without the sin of suicide on their soul. As Liddiard sings it (12 of the 42 verses he wrote), the song is an inversion of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” Dylan’s fantasy about the discovery of America found a land corrupted before Columbus but still a place that offered the freedom of a good joke. The Australia of “Sixteen Straws” is a one-damn-thing-after-another saga that opens into ever more horror. Its abrupt stop leaves you hanging, wanting to know what’s next, wondering who could ever bear more.
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