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The tom-tom beats out a military rhythm, pauses briefly, then repeats insistently. A Farfisa organ strikes a simple, deep octave on the downbeat and the singer begins.
It’s strictly physical, our bodies on the line.
No more cheap conversation, use that oxygen to sate me.
I know you’re feeling it, I think I feel it too.
Slide my hands a little higher, make you work a little harder.
These are the first words heard on Animal, the remarkable new album by Melbourne duo Big Scary. Its opening track, “Oxygen”, is a paean to erotic asphyxiation, an unpalatable subject for a pop song but the transgressive fetish is presented here without censure. “Oxygen” certainly throws Big Scary’s audience in at the deep end because, sonically and lyrically, this is a radical departure from anything the band has done before. Gritty, challenging, naked and raw, on Animal they have released the beast within.
Animal’s 13 tracks have been divided into four clusters of songs, each one embodying a different state of animal consciousness. They are “Hunting”, “Lurking”, “Resting” and “Waking”. When I recently interviewed Tom Iansek and Jo Syme, the two halves of Big Scary, they explained that the concept wasn’t imposed on the material beforehand but was only discovered midway through the recording process. Iansek in particular felt they needed to find a harmonious way to sequence the diverse songs into a coherent whole. “We started out as this dark to light, or dark to less dark flow,” he told me. “Then once that happened I noticed that they fell into these neat little packets of tracks. So we thought it might be interesting to develop the idea a bit more.” The carnal lyrics of “Oxygen” are not an isolated case. “Lyrically, the first four tracks are really … quite animalistic,” he continued. “They’re the most animalistic for me, in that they’re dark and perverse … a lot of sexual undertones to them.” Along with “Oxygen”, he’s referring to “Organism”, which was the first single, “Double Darkness” and “Savior Add Vice”. These four songs comprise the album’s “Hunting” subcategory.
“Organism” gets down and dirty quickly. Syme’s rock-steady drumming anchors Iansek’s flippant organ riffs to a hip-hop beat, both of them sparring toe to toe with the baritone sax. The song’s minimalist texture reminds me of Morphine, the ’90s band, and that’s in a good way. To my ears “Double Darkness” seems to be more about depression than anything sexual, while “Savior Add Vice” hints at pornographic images, but then it could just as easily be about morphine (the drug this time). Either can lead to addiction and torment. Without a lyric sheet we can’t be entirely sure. Musically, both songs grind away in the same austere fashion, with Syme’s drum kit being fed through distortion filters to make them sound even ruder. Other people might find this opening quartet of songs disturbing or unappealing but I think they’re simply magnificent.
If we compare Big Scary’s Animal with their 2013 masterpiece Not Art, it would be a study in contrasts. The two albums differ markedly in nearly every respect: in their texture, their tone, right down to the way the songs were written and recorded. Not Art was painstakingly assembled in a computer by Iansek over many months from fragments of riffs and loops of Syme’s drumming ideas. He twisted and manipulated the musical shards into an elaborate mosaic, constructing the album and the songs at the same time, bit by bit. This time the two musicians jammed together in the studio and Iansek later used their freewheeling recordings as a basis for the finished songs. As he explained to me: “I wanted to make this album more about what Jo and I are as a band in our natural playing dynamic and capture a lot more of that energy.” Syme even described Animal as having a bit of a vaudeville feel, which was not something that occurred to me. “I think of things like ‘Organism’, there’s a bit of that coming through more than ever before… The playfulness is amped up for us rather than mysterious, emotional moments.”
Another important decision they made was to bar the use of any digital editing tools. For every song, they recorded their parts together to analog tape in a single take. “We took a month to hang out and get the songs worked up,” said Syme, “knowing that we were going to be doing these live takes. I think it helped.” They also used two different bass guitarists on the album, and their contributions went live to tape at the same time, which was another departure from Big Scary’s usual two-piece configuration.
It wasn’t just the energy of live performance that Iansek sought to capture; he wanted to let chance and intuition affect the outcome, too. “I’ve come to learn that a lot of the energy is in the mistakes, if you can call them mistakes,” he said, “as much as it is in the perfection of what we’re trying to make.” This was a complete about-face from the way things were done on Not Art.
“Lurking” is the second subset of songs to appear, consisting of “Lone Bird”, “The Endless Story”, “Flutism” and “Up & Up & Up”. The mood lightens considerably though the arrangements are still sparse and unfussy, giving the harmonics room to breathe. The separation of the instruments and the clarity of the mix are notable features throughout the album and it imbues the music with a classic, timeless quality. Very few albums these days are this spacious and focused. Usually everything is processed within an inch of its life and squashed flat into a digital paste. The audio acoustics of Animal sound cutting edge in comparison.
The cloud may have lifted from the music in the “Lurking” phase but the lyrics still address serious concerns. For instance, “Flutism” portrays a protracted, heated argument between lovers, ending with one of the combatants brandishing a kitchen knife, caricatured as someone “securing love through the use of kitchen utilities”. This was based on a real incident in a share house as witnessed by one of Iansek’s friends, and the songwriter summed up what happened this way: “No one got hurt but knives were drawn, and things got a little crazy.
I can’t love it if I can’t cut it.
If I can’t cut it then I’m only gonna let you down.
“Resting” is the third suite of songs on Animal and, for me, these form the emotional core of the album. Iansek’s lyrics become quite explicit about some very difficult personal situations. Again without a lyric sheet for half the songs on Animal, it’s possible I’ve misheard something or, even worse, misconstrued the songwriter’s intent. But here are the ambivalent opening lines of “Breathe Underwater”:
Go waste some time, go be with friends who love you.
I’ll fall into line, I’ll fall into feeling okay.
I trust you now but May was a different story.
It’s all very well, so call me when I am sleeping.
This sounds like a relationship on the brink of collapse to me. “Heaven on Earth” is in a similar vein but very much bleaker. “The Opposite of Us”, the current single, sits between “Breathe Underwater and “Heaven on Earth” in the track order and is more playful and erotic but, even here, hints of sexual insecurity can be found.
I feel the pressure like I hear music.
I’m only doing the best I can, the best I can.
I am trying the best I can.
Of course, the intricacies of intimacy and sexual attraction are the preoccupations of a lifetime and are much more than mere sticking points for bickering lovers. I also may be drawing a long bow here because the protagonists of these three songs may be completely unrelated to each other. This is art, after all, and artists always draw inspiration from personal experience only to abstract them in the service of universal truth. When I asked Iansek who specifically he was addressing in “Breathe Underwater” he wouldn’t be drawn. “I can’t tell you who it is about but it’s about someone very dear to me and their relationship problems,” he said, “and I wrote the song sort of from their perspective, but for them as well.”
“Someone very dear to me” was also the answer when I asked about the subject of “Lone Bird”.
Am I a bird that flies, flies into a new day?
Am I a bird that finds? I’m finding you some other way.
“Waking” forms the final link in Animal’s chain of cause and effect. It’s body meets soul, spirit nature shackled to base drives. “Waking” connects the creature back to its instinct to survive another day in the wilderness. Iansek actually had a specific animal in mind when he was conceiving the arc of the album. “A wolf was the image that I thought of for all four of them,” he told me. “There’s ‘Hunting’ and the brute force and aggression in that, and then the playfulness [of ‘Lurking’], and then, when the animal’s sleeping [‘Resting’], these other things appear…” He conceived the four states as a continuum, circular in nature, with “Waking” closing the loop. This section’s two songs, “Over Matter” and “Lamina”, serve as a fitting conclusion to Big Scary’s song cycle. Epic in scale but personal in their concerns, they are a microcosm of the entire album. I sense an undercurrent of despair in both of them, but there is the promise of rebirth, too.
After they had completed work on the album Syme wasn’t entirely sure whether she liked what they had done. “I had challenging moments with this album,” she confessed, “wondering if it was too strange. But as is always the case, Tom was always ahead of me. Then I catch up and now I’m totally in love with it. I’m just so proud of it and excited by it.”
Syme needn’t have worried because Animal is a brilliant album. Visceral and confronting, oblique and intimate, some of its style and content may be unsettling for many listeners but I find it continually surprising, rich in nuance and deeply evocative. Big Scary have produced another masterpiece, perhaps one that is even more satisfying than its celebrated predecessor. Technically and artistically, Animal is a triumph. If anyone’s released a better album this year I’d like to hear it.
FAMILY Sheffield Medieval Festival
Redwater Creek Steam and Heritage Society, Tasmania, until September 25
CLASSICAL Intimate Beethoven
Melbourne Recital Centre, until September 26
VISUAL ART Sally Gabori - Land of All
Ian Potter Centre, Melbourne, until January 29, 2017
FASHION Fashfest Canberra
National Convention Centre, Canberra, September 29-October 1
GAMING EB Games Expo
Sydney Showground, September 30-October 2
DESIGN Asia Pacific Space Designers Alliance Conference
Adelaide Convention Centre, until September 26
CINEMA Queer Screen Film Fest
Even Cinemas George Street, Sydney, until September 25
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2016 as "Animal instinct".
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