The Nation Blue released two albums today after a decade of illusory purgatorial existence. Get this straight it’s not a double-album or anything but two distinct albums recorded about 12 months apart in an historic building in Kyneton, Victoria. It’s a dense listen and a fair slog to work out which album you prefer and exactly how they differ. There’s definitely layers to Black and abstract compositions that take a few listens to open up and for one to sink their teeth into. Blue is more readily listenable without being any more commercial or slow or soft or pussified. It just hits more in the centre than the sprawling, chaotic Black and stay heading in one direction for longer. OHMYGOD there’s so much spread across this churlish kaleidoscope you could never touch on every element so mia culpa in advance.
Black is more experimental, not in the sense of unlistenable pedal-worshipping wankery, but in its refusal to stay in one speed or overarching mood. It’s beautifully recorded so that every shrill, distorted squawk makes it into the mix. It’s one of few albums that manages to capture the energy of a live performance. Awesomely thick and stalwart bass tone with a wonderful crunch of dissonance to the guitars. The vocals hint at Nick Cage circa Birthday Club era grunts, shrieks, calls and moans. It’s hugely instrumental as well, helping to shuttle the tracks along. Some great imagery in the lyrics that have a stark poetic quality to them and unravel in an authentic Australian idiom that repaints many typical Australian ideologies for what they have become.
Black opens with a vociferous acapella assault on the eardrums with the short track I Have No Representatives which has some of the most impassioned criticism of this country in music since Peter Garrett had the pipes rattling. It’s a vile condemnation of contemporary Australian values and governmental apathy and it builds brilliantly from blind rage to whatever is beyond that, some homicidal aggression.
Next track Australian of the Year kicks open the doors and sets a gruelling pace. It’s a stomping syncopated track with a wall of noise. A 90 second burst of blue collar Aussie aggression. Following that is Caroline, which is a demented post-punk song by people who’ve never participated in the genre’s tired gimmicks. Manic higher-pitched vocals doubled with a low-octave apathetic groan create a drunken farrago. It’s just so much more unhinged when you don’t know whether they’re gonna shift gears into glam-worshipping riffs or take off into a breakneck circle-pit grooves.
Then follows the one-two punch of Come in Stinger and Erectile Disfunction. There’s a lot happening on these tracks– lots of noise and other effects-loving, neck-jarring behaviour creating a grunge-industrial delirium. Come in Stinger has some wonderfully jarring feedback and a baseline that catapults things along at whiplash speeds while the guitars talk estuary english over the top. Crazy crying, almost moaned, vocals on the hook typical of the cathartic nature of the album. Erectile Disfunction starts off with a super ominous crunch, alternating between two chords and letting the ringout go for all its worth. Perfect amount of reverb on the vocals to leave them both crisp and legible with a massive sound like a pundit at a pulpit. The guitars are very expressive and abstract on these tracks with the bass and drums really pushing things along like the subterranean bass on intro to Come in Skinner. The low-end (and often the franticly inebriated singing as well) structures and propels the tracks while the guitars eke shrill sonics like Jackson Pollock painting the canvass. Similarly on the intro of Rendition, the drum and base create a momentous mechanical groove; the guitar comes in, does a few curtsies, and leaves. Probably gonna have these one’s stuck in your head.
Black is an album that is bipolar even when it is most calm. There’s dystopian punk tunes like CCTV which sound like a mesomorphic Joy Division with added shred. This and Australia Day are salient as meditations on National values. There’s some real lyrical street-magic on this album that I think right go under-appreciated because the vocals are at times so frenetic its easier to listen to them as an instrument. Take these golden bars on CCTV: “our Christmas-eve wrap party at a military drone school/flying one-handed drinking whisky running black ops hypotheticals/ and I can see your fiends on the other end and i pretend that god is my co-pilot/guiding my raid while I’m still stationary on C-CCTV”
Wild is a sing-along for a fucked generation and is probably my favourite track on Black. A belter that wastes no time and is completely emaciated of all pomp. This is followed up by the melodic Nations Capital that uses a good punky three-chord guitar riff to frame a pretty catchy vocal melody that, once again, has as much of a percussive element as it does a melodic effect.
Don’t think its too daring to say that this is an album with an agenda, saying a lot about this country even if its not all good, which makes them reformers, probably more patriotic than any Young-liberal in parliament. its got stark monochrome imagery of a hallucinogenic parliament house the almost looks like its been floated away on some aegean sea, while blue has the photo of the blue mountains?? but definitely something important to say more than, ‘Hey we’re back with more songs” It;s almost like the condition of Australia right now, the social disaffection, equidistant racism and over political-correctness, dehumanisation of anyone not a part of the general lowest-common denominator, has summoned the boiz back to make crazy pub-punk because after all where is the best place to talk politics. Nation Blue start this dialogue then recedee to the corner to play knife games and wonder when you’ll get it. youthful vigour to the songwriting + they just released two albums at once, yet a maturity to the voice and the way they handle their anger.
There’s heavy moments on this like on The White Death- probably the heaviest track on Black. It’s pure noisy tribalism almost getting to Butthole Surfers levels of pummelling too-much-happening tantrums. Then there’s softer moments like on Mansion Family and Be That Man which evidence songwriting chops easily on par with national darlings like The Drones. There’s moments for party Come on Stinger and moments for reflection (Nations Capital). A lot to keep the ear guessing and will really repay attentive listeners. For others it may come off as slightly confused, too bipolar and hard to get a strong purchase in. If this is the case, Blue is the album for you. It’s more linear and consistent in it’s emotional-spectrum.
Blue is a less claustrophobic, more traditional listen. It’s still mad idiosyncratic and done in their highly personal style, but it’s just more approachable in its consistency. It’s very loud, the songs are quite quick, and there are more bop-along moments and melodies. It’s got its roots more in the traditional punk cannon but it is no way derivative or lazy or not entirely it’s own thing from the outset. It’s got whoah-ohs and oi’s over it making melodies the real DIY way, and some eminently listenable guitar riffs that should inspire a few bedroom karaoke sesh’s and TAB requests.
It opens with the blue cheer of Rotten, which is definitely a tune for late nights and bad decisions. Punk meets post-rock meets kitchen sink to the teeth with teeth. Green Around the Gills follows, a fast-paced stomper with some fucken awesome riffing that is both hairy and incredibly danceable. It’s characteristic of The Nation Blue on this album to create these really heavy riffs that blow your hair back but you can still dance to. Tired is another angry catchy song that you wanna yell along too, once you get accustomed to the angularity of what they’re giving you. Its got a really saucy, accented riff holding it down that occasionally jets off into more introspective territory. They create these dynamics on lots of the songs on Blue where one instrument will become hegemonous before the whole band comes back in again on the beat to pummel you an excoriating panorama of sound.
There’s a weird little interstitial track Short on Air which repeats the title words maniacally like the singer has caught the holy spirit. It does seem to borrow some of the post-apocalyptic stylistics from Black and is a bit anachronistic here.
There is more unity and melody tempering the entropy on Blue. Black is like this monomaniac fugue that has a lot to say and sometimes get’s lost in itself. Less flat out and avant-garde songs like Blue Blood and Always Keep a Light On that sound like the Bronx with smarter melodies. You really get these fuckers caught in your head. Theres just some way-too-deadly guitar riffs on these, like the little lead lick that accompanies the chorus of Blue Blood.
There’s also more sensitive moments like Blue Bloods which is almost a ballad (almost) with croons of “I won’t let you go, I won’t let you go” on the chorus and an unashamedly slower tempo. Male vocal melodies are always a dubious thing and can come off as super gauche when not executed right but they’ve done a good job here to not sound cheesy at all but appear ingenuous and stoic.
They do the same things with songs that contortionists do with their bodies. On Blue there is this transcendentalist rejection of forbears. It’s hard to really place this album between other releases because there is just so much here and it really rewards having an open mind. They do things that shouldn’t be done, like have really emotional, abreactive moments in the middle of otherwise upbeat street-punk songs. Like on the superficially straight punk fun of Always Keep a Light On and I’m an Ape there are these beautiful melodic moments. God the bass on this album sounds like Pompeii going off too. I’m an Ape seems to be a forgotten song from the British Oi Punk days before it shifts into the chorus, dons a new costume, and become something only The Nation Blue could make. Truly peerless.
There’s moments on this album where, if you’re not paying attention to the anarchistic social commentary or serious emotional palette, there’s just some really good-time, brisk punk songs. But it would be rude to suggest that’s all this is. There’s definitely something more here. It’s got great dynamics, and is crystalline clear in the recording, not wanting to sacrifice any accent for the sake of being ‘heavy’ or anything preconceived. Like on Black Fax which starts heavy, with a heavy larrikin chorus, and then becomes soft and dulcet immortalising the banality of white collar office jobs. Like, it’s all backwards but only they could do it and make it this natural.
The incendiary, intoxicated sing-along of Baby Blue towards the end that just really makes sense being here. As does the stadium-ready classic of Paranoia which sounds like it could belong in Bad Religion’s oeuvre. Then there’s the grandiose, magnificent chunkiness of closers Soft Power and Black Light. Soft Power has this super stylistic jazzy texture and builds tension to a sleazy breakdown. Black Light is a sludgy closer that is just gargantuan in size with a melody that will trepanate you so you’ll be walking around singing it wondering where you heard it. It’s ponderous and brilliant and ambitious. For such a good song it almost disappears in the odyssey that is getting through this album. But it’s a wonderful way to close nonetheless and it like nothing that has accompanied it on either release. Just another arrow I the quiver, I spose.
Blue is definitely less lamenting and paranoid in tone. It’s the album you can put on when you’re kicking it with your mates and everyone will catch the groove of it. It’s more uniform in both structure and timbre and the songs are each more comparable to typical punk rock/post-punk tunes. But it’s noisy and shiny and upbeat like a mix of early Unsane x Japandroids x The Living End. Sometimes it sounds like it sounds like a stadium rock album, sometimes a dirty pub classic. It revels in both in everyday-ness and it’s singular intelligence. All with a distorted craziness genuinely lurking under the surface. Brilliant stuff. A treasure trove of creativity from muses fully unleashed.