The Australian music scene. Having been oft-forgotten in other parts of the world for many a decade, over the past dozen years or so we’ve seen this country’s musical output burst from the underground and make waves the world over. Indeed, many a publication has spoken of the fact there seems to be something in the water down under, with countless terrific young bands rising to prominence in a host of genres. Not the least among them are metal and rock, particularly of the progressive variety, and we thought it was high time to dig back through the archives, leverage our past interviews with Australian artists and really dive deep into what makes this scene so special. We found numerous key themes emerge, such as the increase in quality tours heading to Australia, Australia’s geographic isolation from larger markets and the role of the internet among others, and we’ll explore each of these in turn.
Given the enormous breadth of music being produced in Australia over a very long period of time, we need boundaries in place in order to do this piece justice. Consequently, we will focus on progressive/extreme rock/metal from the early-mid 2000s onwards and as such there is no better place to start than Karnivool. Together with COG and The Butterfly Effect, Karnivool helped put progressive music on the map in Australia, both for domestic and international listeners. According to Chaos Divine, that “original wave of alternative rock is always going to be a distinctly Australian signature of what makes our music scene remarkable. This style really has formed the foundation for why we have such a good source of talented bands with really dedicated and passionate fans.” Such effects clearly ripple onto the rest of the scene, with Ron Pollard (Tangled Thoughts of Leaving) explaining that “older bands inspire the newer bands, and every time another band reaches acclaim or tours overseas, younger bands know they can achieve it also.” Ben Boyle (Hadal Maw, A Million Dead Birds Laughing, Vipassi) echoed this sentiment, describing how “the overall Australian scene inspires itself, when we see bands like King Parrot or Ne Obliviscaris really capitalising on the opportunities their hard work has garnered them.”
Fellow Perth band Chaos Divine largely agreed with this assessment, adding that much of Australia’s growth over the past couple of decades has been “about volume – the volume of new bands, tours, promoters and festivals”. This huge growth has allowed local bands to play “bigger shows and… gain more connections” whilst local listeners and musicians have had the chance to see and be inspired by top-tier overseas talent. “Australian artists are quite competitive”, continues Ron from TToL, “it’s easy to be disregarded being so far away… [and] the rise of promoters such as Life is Noise and the Birds Robe Collective has seen way heavier and experimental bands touring from USA/Europe. It only takes being crushed once by a really good touring band to send local bands back to the drawing board for new material. The exposure is priceless.” Hinted at here is Australia’s geographic isolation from the rest of the world, and we soon discovered a strong consensus that this isolation is one of the driving factors behind the quality of music being produced on these shores.
Our good friend Michael Gagen (hazards of swimming naked, Echotide, agrammeofsoma, ex-Arcane) did a fantastic job of explaining just how different life is for a young touring band in Australia, compared with “European bands and American bands [who] can tour a little bit easier. I don’t want to diminish any achievements of US or Euro bands, but when young Australian bands get out of Australia and go tour somewhere else in the world; it’s a big deal. Our country is geographically enormous, and it’s a huge flight away from anywhere that isn’t New Zealand or Japan. So the first logical step for a young, first time touring band from Germany might be, ‘hey, let’s take a few guitars, jump on a train and go play a show in France, or Switzerland or anywhere else in the EU’. And suddenly, you’re playing in a whole different country and your band’s street-cred has leveled up exponentially. Australia doesn’t have that, we have this one enormous place, and it takes 5 and a half hours to fly coast to coast. If you’re in a young (Brisbane. for example) band, your first step into the world of touring is to go play a show in Melbourne or Sydney, or a few regional centres along the east coast. So you spend most of your time and money and resources in your first 5 years trying to conquer the Australian gigging scene before this pipe dream that is an international tour can happen.”
As a result of this isolation, touring as an Australian band is “difficult and expensive” explains Ian Dixon (Gods of Eden), leading to a form of natural selection. The difficulties “weed out those who, for whatever reason can’t or don’t want to do it [touring], which leaves the rest who have the drive and passion to find each other and work on bigger and better projects.” Andy Marsh (Thy Art Is Murder) agreed that “isolation and struggle” are key drivers behind Australia’s success, as “only the cream rises and can afford to get out onto the world stage.” The result, according to Ben Boyle, is that for the bands left over “touring becomes second nature, and producing the best material possible to create noise in an over-saturated world almost becomes a necessity. Australians have a very down to earth, gritty approach to things, and I think we breed talented and unique artists. We see things a different way [and] the world is looking for more of that.”
Yet, as hard as it is to establish yourself as an Australian band it’s important to note that not all cities are created equally, as our Perth natives were quick to point out. Chaos Divine said that “it’s very tough” with the band often “limited to doing short-run shows [along the east coast] unless [they] land a bigger support tour, which is a rarity.” Ron Pollard agreed that “it’s hilariously unfair… to tour with Perth as your base” given that it’s “separated from the East Coast by a seemingly endless desert. There aren’t places to play on the way, and if you’re an experimental band there is no love from regional towns.” Consequently, “that competitive, chip on your shoulder ‘Australian Artist’ attitude… is even thicker in Perth” and that may go some way to explaining why a band such as Karnivool “blazed a trail” for Australian heavy music garnering international recognition.
With these struggles, one other notion becomes clear; the sense of camaraderie that pervades the scene. Michael Gagen passionately spoke of how “everyone in the Australian music scene is really supportive of one another regardless of genre, because we all get it, we all understand the frustrations and the toil of living in and touring this land that’s geographically so far from the epicentres of musical culture.” The same is true for established artists such as Thy Art Is Murder, who feel that their home scene supported them to “make records and tour the world”. Thus, they see it as their “responsibility to find other talents in Australia and help them out by taking them on tour internationally so they can see that exposure, and make new working connections that can assist them in taking it further themselves.”
Along with isolation, another key trend identified was the threefold impact of the internet. Firstly, as Michael Gagen makes clear “the quality of Australian heavy stuff has been there for years (see Alchemist or Astriaal or Portal for example)” and the internet made it much easier for the existing and established talent to get noticed. Secondly, it has helped inspire a new generation of musicians. As we’ve already mentioned, talented international acts didn’t often tour Australia in large numbers, and so the internet has allowed people to consume a much wider variety of music than was previously the case. Ben Boyle believes that bands “have started striving for the same level of professionalism and quality as the bands they idolise, realising that there really isn’t much between them and us. The veil has been lifted thanks to constant social media interaction… [and] it shows young bands that it’s possible”.
Finally, the internet has made it possible for young bands to find a voice. “With social media, and Youtube and Bandcamp, a band can find an audience no matter what country they live in,” says Michael Gagen, and this has certainly been the case for Tangled Thoughts of Leaving. As Ron explains, “I don’t think we could have achieved even half of what we have without the internet. We rely on… the fact that interesting music will find an audience if it’s worthwhile. There’s no way we would have been able to play Dunk! festival in Belgium without a growing audience in Europe thanks to cool people spreading the good word online. The less accessible your band is, the more you need to use the net to find your audience and let them find you. For Australian bands, it’s essential.” However, as we know, this last point can be a double-edged sword. As Ian Dixon put it, “sure it [the internet] opens you up to the world to be recognized and accessed by millions more people than can be reached by the old ways, but in doing so you find yourself screaming in a sea of voices. And it just becomes expensive when you have to pay for every post on social media to reach even a small percentage of those people who already like you.” Chaos Divine shared similar sentiments, noting that in a way “it’s harder for new bands to have their voices heard” with so much competition. Thus, the channels with which the internet has affected the Australian music scene are the same as those in other places in the world; however, our geographic isolation has seen these effects amplified. Whilst this isn’t always a good thing, on balance it has certainly helped the scene as a whole grow.
The connectivity brought about by the web has also allowed labels, distribution chains and social circles to grow around niche sounds and genres. These organizations enable the consumption of esoteric music all across the board. The internet offers these organizations to access enough audiences to fuel their work, beyond specific genres and into a focus on weird, niche or underground music in general. Perhaps the most prominent Australian example is Art as Catharsis, a label which releases excellent albums from all across the avant-garde gamut. They’ve released albums from act like COAST (who make a kind of progressive, modern jazz), Lack the Low (a chamber-pop/avant-garde, dream-filled project), SEIMS (a fantastic mathrock/post rock/fusion ensemble) and of course the seminal We Lost the Sea. And that’s just to name a few; seriously, check out their roster. They’re at the forefront of the proliferation of Australian music, with their hand in all sorts of pies. Art as Catharsis, based in Sydney, is an example of the kind of passionate, high quality organizations that fuel the Australian music machine and its expansion, providing exposure and reach for the myriad of bands operating within the geological unit.
Whilst we’ve explored a number of key reasons as to why Australia seems to be producing such high-quality releases, it’s important to note that things are far from perfect. As Andy Marsh points out, due to the enormous difficulty of making it as a band in Australia “what the rest of the world sees is only our best, and I think that distorts the view that everything that comes from Australia is amazing”. Nobody can argue that there is a heap of immensely talented bands coming from Australia, but the sheer volume of hard work that went into getting that band noticed often gets forgotten. Case in point is Ne Obliviscaris, who didn’t release their debut album until almost a decade after their formation. Further, as Chaos Divine point out, “the local scene has changed a lot. It is now harder for local bands to pull numbers to small shows, which is a shame because that’s where their biggest margin for profit is. On the other hand, there is a big focus on venues now hosting larger touring shows which also gives the scene more exposure. I think the local industry and venues all need to work together to ensure that local shows are kept feasible for bands that can’t afford the costs associated with large promotional campaigns to compete with bigger tour shows.” The scene has done incredibly well to get to the shape it’s currently in, and it will take just as much blood, sweat and tears from all parties to keep it there and continue to grow it. Despite Australia’s reputation as a killing ground for music festivals, the success and expansion of PROGFEST over the past several years and the recent addition of Download Festival will hopefully keep giving local and international bands a platform from which to grow their fanbases and inspire others.
Having now looked at why the Australian music scene is as good as it is, let’s now turn to whether or not a distinct ‘Australian sound’ exists. We agree with Ron Pollard that “there’s no doubt… an Aussie modern heavy prog sound, forged by ‘Vool, COG” and others that have allowed the likes of Caligula’s Horse, Chaos Divine and Dead Letter Circus to follow. Yet, as Sean Thomson of Gods of Eden mentioned, there can also be a “backyard ruckus vibe” to much of Australian music. Ben Boyle expanded on this when he said “Australia produces unique musicians and voices, we have a certain attitude down here that doesn’t really align with anywhere else in the world, which can be hard to put into words. King Parrot as a recent example, they nailed it.” When you watch music videos such as the below, you certainly can’t argue with those points, and we see a similar vibe emerge in the fantastic videos of younger bands such as Triple Kill as well.
Finally, Michael Gagen had an interesting take on “a little bit of a thing with Australian post-rock, even if it’s a bit of a stretch. Australia has a lot of space, our skies are vast, our flora is quite sparse and we’ve got a lot of emptiness between cities. A lot of Australian post-rock music to me has this same huge atmosphere and huge space to it, and I get a similar vibe from This Will Destroy You, based in Texas, another place with big skies and big lands.” As we can see, it’s difficult to pin down a single ‘Australian sound’, but there are clearly elements here or there which have a distinctly Australian feel to them. Ron Pollard put it well when he said that “the binds that tie” Australian bands together are “less a tangible musical observation and more about noticing the wooden, broken and burnt tones and expressions of desolation.” Even when bands aren’t displaying such elements in their sound they’re likely acting in resistance to them, and so it has an impact none the less.
Now that we’ve devoted a large amount of time to the Australian scene more broadly, let’s take an opportunity to drill down into my hometown – Melbourne. Whilst I’m unashamedly biased here, I must say that I feel Melbourne stacks up with any city in the world as far as local metal is concerned. Ne Obliviscaris, Be’Lakor, Eye of the Enemy and (in practice, if not in spirit) Psycroptic rank among some of my favourite bands and I feel incredibly privileged to live in a place where I can see them more often than most. Fellow Melbournian Ben Boyle is equally proud, noting that “it’s a strong and diverse scene in Melbourne, not just with metal, but with everything. It’s very much an artistic place to be… and Melbourne has always produced extreme bands and has been home to a lot of bands who were pushing the envelope dating back to the 90’s. So its always been a motivating and inspiring place to be. I think the groundwork and reputation of the Melbourne metal scene has always inspired and generated people and artists who want to uphold that and attracted musicians from other states to move and be a part of a thriving scene. I feel it’s unmatched anywhere else in Australia.”
Whilst we’ve focused predominantly on progressive and extreme rock/metal in this post, as mentioned at the beginning Australia’s recent successes are far from limited to those genres. Case in point, a massive thrash metal revival has been underway over the past 5-10 years that has seen the like of In Malice’s Wake, Harlott and more earn international recognition. If you retain even a passing interest in thrash, I urge you to read Josh’s fantastic piece on the state of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay Area thrash metal.
So there you have it folks: that’s what’s been happening in Australia over the last few years. As is always the case with a topic so broad, we’ve only been able to look at a fraction of the scene, but we hope you’ve enjoyed it none the less. Whilst not perfect, the Australian scene has done remarkably well over the past decade and we hope, along with Ron Pollard, that it “continues to flourish here”.
To conclude, we leave you with links to the full interviews with each of the musicians featured above, as well as a M A S S I V E list of fantastic Australian artists for you to sink your teeth into.
P.S. genre tags are taken from Google if I didn’t know the band, so don’t blame me if they’re wrong.
Michael Gagen’s interview and recommendations
Osaka Punch (progressive/alternative rock)
Golden Age Of Ballooning (psychedelic rock)
Flynn Effect (alternative rock)
Toehider (weird rock)
Weightless In Orbit (progressive rock/metal)
We Lost The Sea (post-rock)
Vipassi (atmospheric tech-death)
Hope Drone (atmospheric black/sludge metal)
Graveir (black metal)
James Norbert Ivanyi (instrumental goodness)
Plini (nu-prog). “Plini’s a cool guy.”
Ben Boyle’s interview and recommendations
Departé (atmospheric black/death metal)
Blackhelm (melodic death/black metal)
Gods of Eden’s interview and recommendations
Anno Domini (symphonic black/death metal)
Diminish the Gods (tech/prog death)
Rise of Avernus (symphonic death metal)
The Seer (symphonic death metal)
Sumeru (stoner/groove metal)
Lo! (post/sludge metal)
Ron Pollard’s interview and recommendations
Race to Your Face (experimental rock)
Tilman Robinson (electro-acoustic)
Mt. Mountain (psychedelic rock)
Fourteen Nights at Sea (post-rock)
Bear the Mammoth (post-rock)
Andy Marsh’s interview and recommendations
Disentomb (brutal death)
Psycroptic (tech death)
Chaos Divine’s interview and recommendations
The Siren Tower (folk/blues)