hen rock bands mature, they typically deviate from standard guitar/bass/drums set-ups. They take fuller advantage of the studio, squeezing in every horn, string, bell, and percussive device they can afford. They make the Pet Sounds to surpass their Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), the Led Zeppelin III to one-up their Led Zeppelin II. They simultaneously elaborate upon and break with the identities they’ve cultivated.
Except for The Drones. When these four Australians released Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float by in 2005, they received international recognition for reminding us why we love Gun Club’s Fire of Love and writing lyrics that were worth a damn. Wait Long was far from fully realized, however, failing to make interest payments on its debt to post-punk’s twangy faction and overstaying its welcome by stacking too many forlorn minor key songs on top of one another. Gala Mill, Wait Long’s follow-up and the band’s third LP overall, improves on its predecessor without considerably expanding The Drones’ palette.
That’s not to say that this album’s a monochrome slog-fest. The group takes tentative steps toward spicing up their instrumentation: slide guitar and melodeon beam through their cover of Richard Tucker’s “Are You Leaving for the Country,” a violin peeks around the corner in “Work for Me,” and careful xylophone plinks close “Words from the Executioner to Alexander Pearce.” But The Drones are still rock ‘n’ roll true believers at the end of the day. Lacerating guitar screech and a needlework-accurate rhythm section martial most songs, initiating a dialectic between explosive, lose-yourself catharsis and slow-mounting, controlled tension. This is music that pits the performative against the formal, the gut against the noggin, the authentic against the contrived. Gala Mill realizes rock polemicist Joe Carducci’s ideal of real-time give-and-take as fully as many of the SST releases he touts in his 1990 book Rock and the Pop Narcotic.
Gareth Liddiard’s heart-in-a-clamp howls works to collapse these binaries—just listen to him transform the refrain “I don’t ever want to change” from a stubborn assertion to a resistant assault by aping Nick Cave’s most bonkers yelps. It’s hard to tell how seriously The Drones’ frontman takes himself, to know whether he’s just letting it all hang out, maaan, or hamming it up. Lyrics don’t offer much guidance: Liddiard drops cloying existential stinkers (“Why should we grasp at the / Straws of our lives / When we’re condemned / By our will to survive”) as often as self-deprecating musings (“But these dog eared little feelings never bite”).
Trying and failing to figure out just who The Drones are is much of Gala Mill’s fun—the kind of rockist, auteur-valorizing pursuit that we know better than to undertake. Liddiard and his mates understand that we often desire against our better judgments, though: “Your chaplain loves these death row boys / More than he loves me” claims cannibal Alexander Pearce’s executioner in “Words.” How often do bands who play amped-up cowpunk as meticulously as Slint drive us to close-read their songs and obsess over their personas? How demented (or clever) are The Drones for doing just that? As long as they keep forcing these questions, they’ll remain mature in spite of their angst and stylistic conservatism. So much for being just a rock band.
Reviewed by: Phillip Buchan
Reviewed on: 2006-11-22