The follow-up to Brisbane duo DZ Deathrays’ debut album, Bloodstreams, is an audacious head trip filled with tales of conflicted love and cranky hedonism, careening from pub to nightclub and back to the pub again. If the DZ Deathrays’ albums were amusement park rides, Bloodstreams would be the Gravity Drop, an intense freefall and overwhelming burst of adrenalin, whereas the latest album, Black Rat, is a fiendishly designed roller-coaster, twisting and spinning as it hurtles along. It’s still a heady rush but the elaborate convolutions completely disorient you as it pushes and pulls in opposite directions. Thrillseekers will find plenty here to rattle their teeth.
The first dip on the ride came last November, when “Northern Lights” was released as a teaser track, leaving many fans entranced and just as many bewildered. The pensive song was a radical departure for the Deathrays – had the rad-punk noisemeisters “sold out” or, worse, been stricken by the common Coldplay-itis? Fans were worried this was an ominous sign of things to come. “Northern Lights” turns out to have been a ploy, a means by which to confound their audience’s expectations. There is nothing else resembling it on the album. Also, it happens to be a great song.
Whatever fears fans may have had are instantly dispelled by the fuzzed-up guitar riff that begins the opening track, “Black Rat”. It’s a bilious grunge epic that toasts lurid nightlife and drunken procrastination. After establishing a lumbering groove, it is suddenly lightened by ’60s girl-group-style falsetto harmonies and a chorus that is simply gorgeous. The fragmented melody here reminds me of when Cobain used the same device in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Nirvana meets the Shangri-Las? Not a bad way to begin an album.
“Hit rock bottom” is the opening line of track two, but this is where the album actually hits top gear. “Gina Works at Hearts” is a furious punk-pop masterpiece, up there with the best of the Undertones and the Ramones. I’m guessing Hearts is a strip club or perhaps even a brothel. Whatever it may be, Gina herself is definitely not in a good place, with her “dead eyes and a wasted smile”. This song is bloody terrific and in a perfect world this would be a chart-topping single. Of course the DZ Deathrays know the world is far from perfect so they intentionally sabotage their classic pop song with blistering guitars and swear words, anathema to radio programmers everywhere. Diehard fans should never wonder about the intentions of these guys.
Two-piece bands have been rather plentiful of late. The White Stripes, the Black Keys and the Mess Hall. The archetypal two-piece band was Suicide, which consisted of vocalist Alan Vega and Martin Rev, who was credited simply as “Instrument”. Suicide’s stripped-back aggressive music remains unsurpassed and, frankly, they have never received their due. They are as important to music history as the Velvet Underground, the Sonics and the Ramones. What they knew, and what every two-piece band always has to learn, is that there is no room for error in that restricted format. Every note – and the space between them – has to count. For bands like that, playing live can be a bit like a boxing match: there’s nowhere to hide in the ring.
Of course, in the studio liberties can be taken and, apart from the rigorously minimalist Suicide, all of the bands I mentioned have happily exploited the possibilities offered by multitrack recording. The Deathrays are no exception. I wasn’t surprised to read that DZ Deathrays may add an extra member for the album tour to help re-create some of the denser textures on Black Rat. Happily, the restraint and pungency of their two-piece origins hasn’t been diluted one whit by studio trickery. Credit for that must also be given to producer Burke Reid, who is the person behind arresting albums by the Drones, the Mess Hall and Dan Kelly, among others.
The Deathrays haven’t only stretched themselves sonically with this album but also stylistically. “Fixations” and “Night Slave” have very overt disco influences – honestly, it’s hard to think of a more disco name for a song than “Night Slave” – which sit comfortably amid the straight-ahead rock grooves elsewhere. The splintering of music into myriad subgenres has always mystified me. If it’s good who cares what it is? Recently the dubstep phenomenon has seen half-tempo pro rock grooves appropriated by the creators of dance music, so it’s only fitting the DZ Deathrays claim back some classic disco beats.
Bloodstreams earned DZ Deathrays an ARIA Award in 2012 for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Album and this album is no less fierce than that – more so at times – but I always heard more psychedelia and punk than metal on Bloodstreams, and Black Rat has added a few extra musical colours to their palette. Maybe ARIA can create a Best Multi-Hyphenate Album award: grunge-punk-alternative-hard rock? The playing and the arrangements on the album are pure perfection. That doesn’t mean it is genteel – a lot of what’s on the album could be used to strip paint around the home. Frontman Shane Parsons, however, has grown incredibly as a vocalist, even allowing himself to sing “proper” and, dare I say it, emote more than merely yell. But he is still a superb yeller, by the way.
DZ Deathrays’ lyrics aren’t particularly revelatory but they ably cover the always-fertile terrain of sex, death and getting fucked up. Nihilism will always be “the new black” in punk rock. Regardless of any lofty literary content, they have a brevity and a rhythmic urgency that helps to propel the songs and I can easily imagine them being shouted back at the band by their concert audiences. The words and the melodies seem made for each other, which is always the hallmark of good lyric writing and, most important of all, they ring true. “Reflective Skull”, for example, tries to hide its tender sentiment behind an exhilarating glam-rock stomper. Musically, it might be a headbanger but lyrically it’s more of a head scratcher, with the singer trying to come to grips with that old devil love. It’s far from a new theme in art, but it’s dealt with honestly here and without cliché.
The album has been sequenced to take full advantage of the diversity in the songs and styles. Distortion epic “Ocean Exploder” follows hard on the heels of “Fixations”, almost repudiating it, and is probably the loudest, brattiest song the Deathrays have ever recorded, featuring what can only be described as a truly sick fuzz-tone guitar intro. Concluding the album with the dancey “Night Slave”’ is a bold move and one that once again is probably designed to wrong-foot a few of their more myopic rock fans. But in the context of the album it makes perfect sense. It’s quirky riff sounds like Kraftwerk, if Kraftwerk had played distorted guitars instead of synths. I’m also reminded of the closing track on the Buzzcocks’ debut album, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, the hypnotic “Moving Away from the Pulsebeat”. The rhythm-heavy “Night Slave” is a similar hard act to follow so they rightly let it conclude proceedings. Kraftwerk meets the Buzzcocks? Not a bad way to end an album either.
In interviews DZ Deathrays have said Black Rat is best suited for late-night listening, perhaps with your head propped on one hand and a drink propped in the other. That may be so, but for me their album also makes for a great way to start the day: spitting in the face of adversity and mocking the world’s stupidity, and your own.
Nihilism never felt so uplifting.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "Armed and dangerous".
This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.
To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.
Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.
Select your digital subscription