Wednesday, November 18, 2009

#42. The Drones - Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By (In Fidelity, 2005) and Havilah (ATP, 2008)

Man, I've started and restarted this about a half dozen times already trying to find a good way to introduce these two, everything from anecdotes to a long-winded bit of critical fellatio for "Shark Fin Blues," and I'm still nowhere near finding one. So I'll just go about it in an uncharacteristically straightforward way if only to try and get this written.

The Drones fucking rock. It's as simple as that; even when they lapse into a few acoustic numbers on their latest album they just fucking rock. I could try to dress it up a bit, but that's not necessary. The way that the quartet go about their business is primal, ferocious and deceptively deep, so describing it as anything else just doesn't seem right. I remember the first time I heard "Shark Fin Blues" back in 2006 and it became the sort of song I would listen to for days on end without caring that I had some 50-plus albums sitting on my computer waiting to be listened to it became clear that they were gonna be a band to watch, and while no moment will ever match the power of that first blast ("Jezebel" from the un-represented Gala Mil comes close though) hearing the band's evolution through their past three albums (still need to sit down with Here Come the Lies and The Miller's Daughter yet) has been one of the most exciting listening experiences I've heard this decade.

The contrast between 2005's Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By and 2008's near-masterpiece Havilah isn't so great that it sounds like two different bands, mind you, but there's a definite maturation between the two. This is especially clear in frontman Gareth Liddiard's lyrics, which went from great little vignettes whose memorability had more to do with his raw and unpredictable vocal style than the words themselves to first class poetry over the course of the three years between the albums. While "Jezebel" is quite rightly sen as the highest point of Liddiard's lyricism, the bulk of Havilah is almost at the same level, especially moments like "I Am the Supercargo" and "Oh My" where there's a perfect synthesis of excellent lyrics and the distinctly raw vocal style that will always be a Drones trademark. That's not to shortchange the lyrics on Wait Long... at all, as the bitter and rousing closer "This Time" might be the first indication that Liddiard would become one of the decade's best writers, but the evolution between the two in that department is nothing short of astonishing.

Musically there's been evolution as well, but I wouldn't characterize it as being improved or worsened so much as matured between the two albums. Wait Long is more exciting, taking all manner of unexpected twists and turns to get to its destination while Havilah is much more composed, still keeping the loose feel of its predecessor but focusing its attack to make for a much smoother listen. Once again, there are hints of this maturation on Wait Long..., as both "The Best You Can Believe In" and "Another Rousing Chorus You Idiots!!!!" have a degree of restraint that makes them sound a bit out of place in the midst of such a rocking album, but even the most primal moments of Havilah are so much more composed, "Oh My" especially sounds just as ferocious as something like "Baby²" or "You Don't Really Care" yet there's a much higher degree of control and overall musicality to it that makes it stand out above the fray. The only thing I'd lament about the more composed nature of Havilah is that it robs us of another song like "Shark Fin Blues" where Liddiard and co-guitarist Dan Luscombe weave a series of variations on a few basic riffs in and out of each other. That sort of guitar tapestry is gone on Havilah but really none of the songs need it. I guess I just wish there were more songs like "Shark Fin Blues," in and of itself one of the best songs of the decade if not all time.

What it boils down to is that Wait Long... is the visceral album and Havilah is the mature one. The former is energizing, rousing and affecting on a much rawer level while the latter is slightly more contemplative while still managing to hit all those notes. It's not really possible to call one album better than the other, though on a purely objective level there's not denying that Havilah represents a huge step forward, because both are equally enjoyable in their own way. They both have their strengths and no real observable weaknesses - though a couple of Wait Long...'s longer tracks don't exactly justify their length - and both work equally well depending on the mood I'm in. They both represent one of the most interesting and accomplished new bands of the 00s on top of their game, albeit in different ways, and both are deserving of a lot more praise than they've received from the world at large.

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