Aarti Jadu Auto-Tunes Sound of the Sacred on Debut LP L’Ecole De La Caz

Photo Credit: Nicole Reed

For Aarti Jadu, sound – whether voice, instrument or digital manipulation –is how they make sense of the unmapped inner geography connecting their Indian heritage and their own identity as a first-generation Australian. Jadu’s explorations have manifested as trauma-informed workshops for voice and somatics, and neuroscience-informed artworks that explore how the interplay of voice, music and physical space can convey human experience and perhaps address emotional trauma. Jadu is an anthropologist, an explorer, and an experimentalist when it comes to sound – and on February 11, they released their debut album L’Ecole De La Caz via Heavy Machinery Records.

“The concept was to try and make it like an alien choral folk album,” Jadu states. It was made under the multi-directional pressures of COVID lockdowns, an unstable home situation, financial pressures, and their own personal expectations, doubts and insecurities. But with funding from Flash Forward, the opportunity to make new work was impossible to pass up.

“You do what your life’s calling is and the gamble is that you might not feel stable,” they concede. “I called it ‘school of house’ in French; learning what it is to reinvent the idea of home and house and strength in the self as opposed to the material world around my body.”

Jadu was raised in Perth before following their brother across the country in 2011 to settle in Melbourne. Though they loved singing, their life’s calling seemed to be another creative form at first.

“I just came out of studying fashion and did an internship with a fashion designer here,” Jadu recalls. “Through doing that and seeing how much of my energy was not being used for singing, which was a really important part of my being, I decided I should put more focus on music and make fashion a secondary creative outlet.”

For nine years, they’ve been a student of Vinod Prasanna, a performer and teacher of traditional and contemporary Indian devotional music. “I started off in devotional music, singing chants and group songs [or] bhajans, which are primarily used to activate a spiritual or deeper sense of self with a community. Only when I was 20 or 22, I started writing songs of my own that were more poetic and not for that purpose, but for my own enjoyment.”

Yoga, too, has been elemental in their mind-body-spiritual practice. Jadu’s teacher, Nina Alfers, is depicted on the album artwork, having planted the concept of finding home within the body within Jadu’s mind.

“I think yoga reminds one that it’s always a practice and that it cannot be sold and that we always have a responsibility, and an opportunity and right, to reach for something that is spiritual, and that comes from within through expressing outwardly, a recognition of ritual,” Jadu says.

Jadu’s intention on their first album was to make sense of how their two worlds – making devotional music and their artistic and electronic works – could share a language and an intention. “How do I create devotional music and also these wider spaces of my self in a club, or a performance space where the shrine is the person as opposed to this other, greater, higher existence?” she asked herself.

When the State of Victoria/City of Melbourne Flash Forward project arose, providing funding to create an album to a brief deadline (a couple of months maximum), Jadu was conflicted since they had another artistic commission and a course in public art creation underway simultaneously. On the other hand, they felt compelled to create a cohesive body of work that channeled two of their biggest fascinations: Auto-Tune and devotional music. These explorations into the digital manipulation of sound, voice and instrumentals inform L’Ecole De La Caz through each of its seven hypnotic tracks.

First single “IT/THAT” feels akin to fka twigs’ strange, digital, ghostly RB harmonies, punctuated with breathing, gasps, moans and whispers. As the twisting, modulating voices in their upward lilting melodies – both celestial and artificial in tone – layer and build, they embody the nature of gospel, hymns, chanting and sacred ritual. It begs the question: are these sounds sacred purely because they mimic all the elements of sacred music? Does it matter whether these sounds are made by human or machine? And then, where do we define who exists, who is holy and who is laity, and why do we insist upon divisions when all beings are drawn to the very natural, organic act of making music in harmony and praise whoever our Gods or higher powers are?

Arranged like a choral album, but with a twist, Jadu used multiple Auto-Tune sources to create an Auto-Tune choir of some sort. “Choir music indicates that there’s a sense of leaving yourself and joining others and becoming one big instrument rather than having individual ego or something to say that’s separate to the other,” Jadu explains.

It’s a unique sense of comfort, one Jadu desperately needed when circumstances left them without a stable home. The impermanency was emotionally exhausting, and as Jadu speaks about it, it sounds like it remains a thorn in her soul. “Unfortunately for many musicians, it’s always a transient space – to have the rug pulled from under your feet so many times,” they reflect.

But despite all that, Jadu offers the sense of soothing too often in short supply on L’Ecole De La Caz. Even without intellectualising, or trying to tackle the big existential queries Jadu has been in dialogue with in the making of this album, it is thoroughly immersive and transportive. Listen without analysis, be moved, and perhaps be transformed subtly and incomprehensibly.

For the string arrangements, Jadu called upon Aurora Darby and Esther Henderson. Their vocal ensemble comprised Abbey Howlett, Aurora Darby, Emma Ovenden, Joli Boardman, Melanie Taylor, Olive Yaah, Siobhan Housden, Stav Shaul, Xan Coppinger and Yannick Rosette.

“A lot of the fleshing out was done at home in the beautiful room that I eventually left, so it was precious to have it as a time capsule. We set up in an empty room in the house [in Coburg]… to record strings in and the choir,” Jadu says. “I was fortunate enough to also jump into a studio and track some of the vocals that I needed to sound fairly intimate and clean.”

They’d been accustomed to Auto-Tune pedals after becoming hooked on Algerian and Spanish pop songs that heavily relied on vocal tuning. They’d been experimenting with manipulating their vocals for a couple of years and gigging with the pedals between lockdowns.

The heavily treated vocals make it difficult to differentiate between human and computer, inviting listeners to question why and how they are drawn to this sound that is both ancient and familiar, but also strangely artificial and engineered.

“I varied the microphones considerably and I also used Auto-Tune or hard tuning effects – what you’d hear on Cher or T-Pain,” they clarify. “I find Auto-Tune a very sophisticated pedal and I used software and hardware to create various version of that. Some of the synths sound like vocals and some of the vocals sound like synths. That was a whole lot of fun to try things out.”

Jadu used Logic to make the whole album and the Antares plug-in, as well as the Boss VE-20 Voice Manipulator and looping station. “I just enjoyed how crisp and tacky to process it through hardware before putting it into the digital world,” they explain.

The result on L’Ecole De La Caz is indeed an alien choral folk vibe. After the intensity of making it, discovering what they knew and didn’t know, and proving they could improvise under pressure, Jadu says it’s a relief to share it with the world. “I didn’t want to let it go. I wanted to keep fixing it,” they say. “But it’s a good process to let it go and I was quite happy to move on and make something else.”

Follow Aarti Jadu on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Bitumen Dance Through a Dark, Industrial Soundscape On Sophomore LP Cleareye Shining

Photo Credit: Emily Herbert/Joshua Watson

Dark, viscous, harsh and dramatic: fair to say that Bitumen lives up to their moniker with a sonic offering that weaves elements of metal, post-punk, synths and layered harmonies. On sophomore album Cleareye Shining, the four-piece sounds like the lovechild of My Bloody Valentine and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. It skins your knees one moment and soothes the rawness with dreamy, nuanced melody the next. This month, the album finally sees release on vinyl and CD, having been available digitally since November 2021 via Heavy Machinery Records.

Melbourne is laying claim to them, but Bitumen – Kate Binning, Bryce, Simon Maisch and Sam Varney – originated in Tasmania’s capital city of Hobart. Binning and Varney have been partners for eight years, while Varney and Maher had been best friends for even longer. And Maisch? “We knew Simon peripherally, but he was in this punk band [Bears] – he was this intimidating guy with bleached blonde hair and a cool tattoo,” Binning recalls. “We moved to Melbourne in dribs and drabs over six years ago. We were all in bands in Hobart that ended when we moved so we were all, individually, looking to start something. Simon was really the catalyst because me, Sam and Bryce were all living together and Simon invited us over to his shed in Preston [in Melbourne’s inner north] for a practice, and it came together super well.”

Bitumen, having established a solid camaraderie as musicians, and with the bonus of Maisch’s production and engineering skills, made waves with their 2018 debut Discipline Reaction, recorded at Magnet Studios in four days.

That debut showcased the metallic echo of distorted, furied post-punk guitar on “Twice Shy,” which rubbed up against the clanging percussion, mewling guitar and ghostly vocals on “At Bended Knee.” The vampiric, wild spirit of Bauhaus lurks in the wings, along with a sprinkling of the pop-driven catchiness of The Cure and the midnight splendour of Dead Can Dance.

Cleareye Shining was financially and artistically supported by City of Melbourne and the Victorian State Government’s Flash Forward program. It sounds like an organic evolution, a consolidation of their sonic identity, rather than a left-turn from Discipline Reaction. “We wanted to keep, even expand on, the drama, really, [and] the cinematic nature of the songs, make them even more dynamic,” proffers Binning. “I think of the songs as little movies that have act one, act two, act three and they really go somewhere.”

Whereas their debut album was recorded with the intention of capturing their live energy, Cleareye Shining was very much an investigation of what they could create with layers, synths, production and with the financial and creative freedom given by the grant. When the pandemic struck in February 2020, the band had most of the songs for Cleareye Shining in draft stage. Their intention to create an album that captured the fizzing, unvarnished effect of their live performances transitioned into the sharper, more polished studio album of nine tracks.

“We just leaned into doing a studio record and we weren’t as concerned about capturing the energy of playing live. [Instead] we went about crafting something really meticulous,” Binning says. “We’d been listening to ‘80s big production – Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush – where the production is its own element as much as the instruments and the words; the way something is recorded and put together is an artistic choice.”

Theirs was a decision made in the dire circumstances of lockdowns, but rather than lessening the impact of their lusciously layered, immersive, and savage metal-dance dramatics, the careful production emphasizes the almost mathematically precise measures of bass, synths, piano, menacing guitar and honeyed vocals. If you put a bunch of ‘80s goth anthems, ‘90s Nu Metal bands and a bunch of lusty machines through a meat grinder, it might sound a lot like Cleareye Shining.

“The beat or the percussion is evolving all the time as the songs are evolving. It’s constant. We’ll be making a demo, thinking about it for the next week, then going back to practice and adding or changing,” says Binning. “On this album, we started using synths because we let go of the idea that it was something we’d perform live. So we leaned into layering it up and having people making a few different instruments on the same song. My lyrics and vocal melodies would usually come in at the last second.”

Binning had a notebook of words, ideas, and phrases that she translated into lyrics once she could decipher the mood, energy, and visuals associated with the instrumentals and melodies. That cinematic quality was the overriding essence of the album. She’s already envisioned the film it would soundtrack.

“We said it would be like an erotic thriller meets a dystopian action movie,” she reveals. “I love Paul Verhoeven movies, I think he’s a genius. I said it was like Basic Instinct meets Robocop. A lot of the songs are futuristic dystopian, or utopian, leaning. It’s intrigue, it’s romance, and it’s drama.”

Photo Credit: Steven Patrick

The band, a tight unit that thrives on collaboration, experimenting, live drum sequencing, looping and sampling, were determined to only create when they could be in the one space together. Trading files and Zoom meetings were not on their agenda. So when restrictions allowed, they recorded the majority of the album at their Brunswick studio, then did a final block of six days at The Aviary to achieve the final overdubs, vocals and re-amps.

Bringing in accomplished Melbourne engineer, producer, and guitarist (in metal band High Tension) Mike Deslandes on mixing duties was “invaluable,” says Binning. “When we handed it off to him, there were 80 different tracks in the sessions, so he had to go through all of them and mix it all together, which I do not envy.”

“Because we’re so insular and work on our own all the time,” she continues, “it was the first time someone had listened to the whole thing with fresh ears. So it was interesting hearing his take on certain songs. He’d say, ‘This is a pop song,’ and we hadn’t thought of it like that… Mike is genuinely almost like a savant! Watching him use the computer… it’s all a mystery to me. He’s able to wrangle sense out of a fairly nonsensical arrangement, sometimes.”

Billing readily nominates “Spun Gold Heaving” as a favourite from the album.

“That is just so fun to play live. The germ of the idea for that came from listening to – I hate name dropping Nick Cave because it’s so cliched! – but listening to [1996 album] Murder Ballads, and even that whole genre that goes back to the whole blues tradition of murder ballads,” explains Binning. “What does that mean, not to write a song that’s personal or confessional, but as a character who’s awful and a murderer? The guitar parts the boys came up with were really intense and made me feel really powerful so that was a great song for me to make my murder ballad. It’s tongue-in-cheek and also so raucous and heavy.”

The last song on the album, “Luxury Auto” slithers in like a ravenous viper seeking prey. Binning’s ghostly, femme fatale vocal bristles with malevolent, vampiric intent. The guitars shiver with kinetic energy, letting go into frenzied metallic whips. It’s elegant, sexy, and full of glamorous, gothic drama.

“That’s the last one we wrote in the chronology,” she says. “We had all the other songs ready. It came from quite an organic jam. The boys named it ‘Luxury Auto’ when it was still an instrumental because it felt mysterious, thinking about espionage, spy movies and that European feel. Then I found it to be really emotive and was thinking about the espionage theme. In life we all have our missions, and our allies, our enemies. It can feel very mysterious not knowing other people’s intentions and who’s out to get you. The vibe of the song emerged from the music and I just naturally went from there. We haven’t worked out how to play that one live yet, but that’s one of my favourites as well.”

As long as they’re crafting melodic, utopian, immersive synth-guitar soundscapes worthy of an Alex Proyas, Luc Besson or Paul Verhoeven movie, Melbourne is going to lay claim to Bitumen. Just don’t tell Hobart.

Follow Bitumen on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Lady Lash Pushes Boundaries with Power of the Feminine Divine on Spiritual Misfit LP

Photo Credit: Nicole Woods

As Lady Lash, South Australian artist Crystal Clyne (née Mastosavvas) translates elements of hip hop, R&B, soul, and electro into a language all her own. On her fifth album, Spiritual Misfit (out November 22 via Heavy Machinery Records), she pushes back on the expectations on her as a woman, a mother, and an artist; the sonic mood of the album is a distinct shift from her primarily beats-driven, hip hop roots. “This album, I feel, was in the frequencies of my alien brain, coming from hip hop to this completely other sound. I feel it’s a journey through light and dark worlds, exploring who you are outside of society’s boxes, not being afraid to change and evolve,” she tells Audiofemme.

When she started writing the album, she recalls thinking, “There’s something happening here;” that was nearly two years ago. “I felt like I was moving into this different musical frequency in my brain, and I had to step away from hip hop for a bit. The first song that came out… was ‘Love My Darkness,’ which began as a straight guitar track, very simple.”

Last year, Clyne received funding and creative support from the Victorian Government and City of Melbourne’s joint initiative, Flash Forward, allowing her to transition the songs she’d been working on into an album. Her co-producers, composer and artist Miles Brown and Wiradjuri studio engineer/experimental interdisciplinary artist Naretha Williams, were supportive of Clyne’s intuition that “Love My Darkness” needed more “edge” and more feeling. Brown added the synths and bass to flesh it out, and the result is a full-bodied, immersive tour de force.

The song was the first of nine tracks that pay a creative homage to her psychological and spiritual hurting and healing over the past few years. “Through my life I’ve been in domestic violence relationships and the trauma that sits deep within your liver, your heart, your soul, it was a massive journey for me,” she reveals, now having overcome problematic drinking habits and broken free of damaging relationships. “I’d also given birth to my third child and I felt a massive shift, a massive rebirth and I wanted to be more poetic in the lyrical content, but also understanding myself, because it is therapy when I write. It’s like a diary of my life.”

Lady Lash is no stranger to establishing her own identity through making sense of various languages of speech, song and family. She spent her teenage years on Koonibba mission in South Australia with her family, of both Greek and Indigenous Kokatha descent. These two ancient cultures have at least one obvious cultural commonality: a love for the ocean and an appreciation of it as both a source of life and beauty. Her earliest memories are of playing with her brothers and sisters on her dad’s boat.

Her albums have harked back to the ocean and family, not the least in their titles. Her debut EP Pearl came out in May 2010, followed by Crystal Mercy: The Fisherman’s Daughter in 2013. It honoured her father, whose family migrated from the Greek villages of Siana and Kritinia on the island of Rhodes. Her grandfather, Bapoul George Clyne, was born in Ceduna in South Australia, later becoming a fisherman. Samuel, his son, met and married Theresa Ware, and Crystal is the first of their six children.

It was a far cry from the seaside coast of Adelaide to Melbourne, where she moved in 2009. The hip hop scene in this city is strong and she was a fresh talent, energised and intelligent. When she dropped Pearl in 2010, it drew critical acclaim. She was nominated for a Deadly Award, won Redfern Records‘ “Female of the Year” award, and was invited to perform at the One Movement Festival in Perth. When she released her debut LP, the awards kept coming: a VIPA (Victorian Indigenous Performer Awards) for Most Promising Act of 2013 and a nomination for “Best Indigenous Act” at The Age Music Victoria Awards of 2016.

The references to the natural world made way for the cosmic with second album Milky Way in 2015. From the oceanic to the interplanetary, she then took a 180 degree spin and came plummeting back into her own psyche for Therapy Tapes in 2018, exploring themes of transporting her consciousness beyond her physical body to take in the world from a far-distant view, whether from beyond the Earth or looking back into today from a day centuries in the future.

On it, she had fully embraced a jazzy boom-bap vibe. It’s a flowing, melodic adventure that sounds like a pared back Lauryn Hill on tracks like “Self Love,” in which she depicts the crystals on her windowsill, the dreamcatcher nearby as she meditates. “Organic Domes” reveals her struggle with loneliness, being in a place with “no friends,” and trying to imagine an escape through the sensation of flying.

Her focus is more earthy and introspective on Spiritual Misfit, where Clyne has morphed her sound palette again to introduce synth-pop, sultry beats, and echoey, almost New Age ambient soundscapes. She is not the fierce MC on The Fisherman’s Daughter. She is a dramatic pop singer – sounding like the lovechild of Adele and Florence Welch on tracks like “Love My Darkness.”

On “Mother’s Cries,” Clyne channels her newfound sensation of being both a mother and a grandmother (her daughter gave birth last year). On the track, fellow artist and friend Katarina Stevens plays the bağlama, a stringed instrument traditionally used in classical Ottoman and Turkish folk music. It was at the peak of Clyne’s darkest period during COVID that circumstances conspired to bring the two women together.

“She’s another Greek sister and we connected through Facebook last year. I’d just separated from my husband of many years during COVID and I was in such a dark place,” she recalls. Stevens messaged her in response to Clyne’s post about suffering and feeling alone. “After that, things evolved to understanding that she’s a Greek artist playing these amazing instruments.” Once the sketch of “Mother’s Cries” had formed, Clyne sent over the skeleton and Stevens laid her bağlama over it.

“As I was writing it, I wanted to write about a woman understanding her ancient voice: a witch, a goddess, an empress. I wanted the sound to be big and to use all my vocals to project it out and let people feel the strength of a goddess that sings to the universe, that sings to Mother Earth,” Lady Lash explains. “Adding the bağlama, I felt the Greek side of me and the Aboriginal side of me coming together and using that in a powerful way.”

Follow Lady Lash on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Dream Pop Trio Dianas Let Elegant Harmonies Shine on Third LP Little Glimmer

Photo Credit: Nicole Reed

Melbourne-based Dianas began as a drunken conversation between friends Caitlin Moloney, Nathalie Pavlovic and Anetta Nevin in a Perth sharehouse, and from that wine-soaked beginning, complete with heartbreak and stolen gear, they’ve collected their individual and shared stories onto Little Glimmer, released November 26 via Heavy Machinery Records and Blossom Rot Records. The album is a tighter, more elegant evolution in their sound, though its hallmarks – their sophisticated, tearjerker harmonies – remain central to their phonic personality.

“As self-taught musicians, we sort of learned together and helped each other to learn, so our skill level has gotten better over the years,” says bassist Pavlovic. “I feel like with this album I don’t feel pressure to show off too much. There’s more of a refinement, I think.”

Nearly ten years ago, the trio took their DIY attitude, newly-learned instrumental skills, and a bunch of sketchy pop-rock songs to the world on EP #01. That 2013 release, in its endearing lack of polished sterility, drew the attention of local radio and Perth fans. EP #02 in 2014 cemented their popularity and sold-out headline shows ensued.

The super straight-forward album titles were not a middle finger to the industry, claims Pavlovic. “We are notoriously bad at naming things, so it was just laziness,” she says with a laugh. One particular track on EP #02 was proving a challenge to title. “Caitlin was like, if you don’t name it in five seconds, we’re calling it ‘Dicks!’ We ended up naming it ‘Dix,’ so it’s fine.”

Their debut self-titled album of 2015 is all shoegaze melodies, post-punk noodling, echoey guitar and feline, dreamily sweet layered harmonies. “Of A Time” and “1000 Years” epitomise their lo-fi charm, while “I’m With You” trails over a rambling piano journey into blush pink clouds.

Baby Baby, their second album, came out in May last year, mere months into Melbourne’s on-off lockdown scenario. It is jagged and fuzzy around the edges, but it sways and dances with melodic ease. Somewhere between wakefulness and dreams, their sound borders that lucid, transient state. Insistent, upward spiralling guitar punctures through swirling melody on “Weather Girl,” while distorted, menacing snarls of guitar build into a fearful hail of harmonised voices crying “Real Love!” just three tracks later.

There’s been a shift in energy on Little Glimmer. The drums barrel, their voices sound more resolute, and the overall sense is that their range has stretched. While the core of their band will always be the pillar of friendship, it feels like they’ve strayed beyond the confines of past albums and EPs, even just vocally. It is the sort of confidence that comes from working with people who have your back.

“We’ve been friends for twelve years and it’s definitely gone into that sister-friendship,” Pavlovic says. “We don’t bicker or anything, but we don’t have to talk a lot. We get a bit annoyed with each other but it’s never a real annoyance. It passes pretty instantly, then we move onto the next thing. I have no doubt in my mind that [we] will always be friends. We have a weird bond, but it’s a bond nonetheless. We can go a long time without speaking, but we’ll always be playing music together as well.”

“Maybe it’s just that we met at the right time of our lives, that special time when you’re 19…” Pavlovic adds. “It feels like so long ago… like a whole other life. It was definitely a twist of fate moving in together.”

Pavlovic turned 30 during the pandemic. It wasn’t the flashy, big party she’d envisioned but she reflects that she’s happy about where she’s at. Perhaps the invitation to make an album with generous funding was better than a party; the band was contacted by the organisers of State Government and City of Melbourne funding initiative Flash Forward at the beginning of 2021, which ultimately brought Little Glimmer into focus.

“It was an amazing opportunity but the catch was that we had to do it really quickly,” Pavlovic reveals. “We had about six songs ready to go – we were planning on just doing an EP and calling it Little Sixer… [but we figured] we’ve got the support behind us, we may as well just go in and try to do an album, just really push ourselves because we usually take ages to do stuff. It was five years between our last two.”

They took a pragmatic attitude, drawing up a schedule and heading off to James Cecil’s Super Melody World studio in the Macedon Ranges, in regional Victoria (Cecil is on a roll, having just hosted Georgia State Line, too). Fortunately, between Melbourne lockdowns, they’d been able to get together and demo the songs so that they knew the direction of the album before arriving in studio.

“We planned to do it all in one sitting, but then we blew up the amp on the third day. So we had to break it up into two little lots with a little break in between,” Pavlovic says, noting that overall, recording took just under a week – longer than they’d planned, but not by much.

Pavlovic does sound production on the side, and had recorded and mixed Baby Baby, so studying Cecil at work on Little Glimmer was of personal interest for her. She immediately recognised their very different approach. “He found some really cool sounds, especially in the mixing,” she says. “I wish I could have watched him mix, because it did sound good when we were recording but when it was mixed it was really, really great.”

One song proved to be a challenge to wield into a human-sized song.

“’One and Only’ was really hard…we knew it needed a funky bassline, for want of a better word, but it just kept sounding really epic,” Pavlovic remembers. “The lyrics are quite emotional and quite hard hitting, so we needed to keep it light with the music so it didn’t sound like a real big, epic score of a movie: really devastating, you know? The bass made it a lot better… finding that right combination of three different types of keyboards – a vibraphone, some organ – that combination made it sound less epic than just the piano, which was the original plan.”

The original six tracks have blossomed into eleven and there’s no “Dix,” no indication an amp exploded and no cinematic excursions into the ethereal. It’s a definitive, distinguished Dianas album.

“We put so much time and effort into creating the album. It all happened so quickly, I can’t believe it’s out,” Pavlovic admits. “That’s a little bit overwhelming!”

Follow Dianas on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Screensaver Pay Homage to Classic Post-Punk with Debut LP Expressions of Interest

Discovering screensaver’s debut album Expressions of Interest (released October 8 through Heavy Machinery Records) might make you wonder if you’ve stumbled upon a B-sides and rarities album from the late 1980s. Somewhere between Siouxsie And The Banshees and Visage, the lush synths and dramatic dance punk guitars suggest more than a passing passion for the indie-New Romantic era that spawned Cocteau Twins, Echo & The Bunnymen and My Bloody Valentine, too.

The Melbourne four-piece began as a bedroom project between Krystal Maynard and her husband Christopher Stephenson back in late 2015, when Perth-born Maynard was living in Melbourne and Stephenson was still in his hometown of Austin, Texas. The two had met in Berlin in 2014 when both were on the same bill in their respective bands.

“For about two years we were living in separate countries, but we had screensaver – though it wasn’t named at that point – as a project between us, [with material] that we’d send back and forth and collaborate that way,” explains Maynard. “We did that for a long time, very low-key, starting in late 2015, with no intention of it becoming anything other than a way for us to be creative while living in different countries.”

When Stephenson moved to Melbourne in 2017, he was familiar with the city from having toured there in the past. Though he initially took some time to adjust, both Maynard and Stephenson are “lifers” when it comes to music, and it wasn’t long before he’d joined two Melbourne bands. He currently drums for Exek and Spiritual Mafia, while continuing to collaborate remotely with Spray Paint (with members in upstate New York and Austin, respectively).

After putting a couple of demos on Bandcamp, screensaver began to get asked by friends if they would play shows, though “we actively wanted to avoid playing live, because we’d played in a lot of live, active bands,” says Maynard. “We were nervous about it because things become so busy and we both had multiple projects. I had two other bands on the go back in 2017, so we wanted to keep it as a bedroom project where we focused on writing.”

Realising that as a duo they’d either need a sequencer if they were to play live, or a band, Maynard and Stephenson set out to find additional members. First came Giles Fleike (Low Tide), who had been in a band with Stephenson called Orange (“I doubt anyone’s heard of them, they only played a few gigs,” admits Maynard).

“He’s a friend of ours, so we asked if he’d be interested in coming in to play bass… he’s also an amazing keyboardist and knows a lot about synthesisers and noise, so he brought a lot of different sounds to the band,” she says.

In keeping with their ethos of working with friends and criss-crossing personal and professional divides without fear, it was only natural to invite James Beck (of Personal Touch and Rat Columns) to round out their band.

“[James is] very, very old friend of mine, since I was five and he was three. We were neighbours,” she says. “He does a lot of electronic producing, so I thought he’d gone solely into producing electronic music, but when I sent him the demos… he liked the demos a lot, so he decided he would play live drums again. I joke that I pulled him out of retirement and back onto the kit.”

Those demos felt to Maynard as if she’d come full circle to the music she’d developed a passion for as a club-going teenager in Perth. At a club called Dominion (as dark and gothic as the name suggests, she confirms), she first heard goth and industrial bands like Skinny Puppy, The Cure, Joy Division and Bauhaus. She later got into Gang of Four and Wire, Magazine, and Modern Lovers, and the world of art punk. All these influences are reflected in their new album.

An admitted goth teenager, obsessed with The Cure, Siouxsie And The Banshees, and Joy Division, Maynard’s influences are worn on her sleeve. “They’re a core part of my formative taste, so it felt very natural to be playing in a band that is influenced by post punk from that first wave British era, New Wave and electronica, all of that,” she says.

The Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven Or Las Vegas,” with its luscious swirl of synths and echoing guitars, could have planted the creative seed of “Soft Landing,” while “No Movement” feels like a B-side to The Cure’s “Killing An Arab.” Elsewhere, “Buy Sell Trade” drives a serrated-edge synth saw through the sonic darkness in a Gary Numan-meets-Bladerunner shock of pure adrenalin.

Maynard started playing in a band when she was 15. Since she was under age, she often snuck into venues to play with her older bandmates. But even earlier, it was her father’s prolific record collection that opened her eyes to the possibility of a life in music. She’d comb the records looking for women artists, and it was seeing Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, then Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, who kickstarted her passion for finding “anyone who wasn’t a white male playing in a band.”

When she met her first bandmates, they were into L7, Babes In Toyland, and Bikini Kill. Having invited Maynard into their band, where she “smashed out 3-chord riffs,” they gave her time and support to learn how to play guitar. It was their generosity and the riot grrl ethos of “girls to the front” that remains central to how she lives her life.

“I’m 100% a feminist. I don’t understand anyone who isn’t these days. We have to be and we have to continue to be,” she says. “If you don’t see representations of yourself, or somebody like you, doing things, then you won’t go out there and do it yourself.”

Screensaver intended to make an album in 2020, and they’d begun the recording process just prior to lockdown. Once the pandemic effectively closed the city, Beck set to work programming the drum parts, while Stephenson and Maynard wrote their parts over his beats.

“We have songs that we write, like ‘No Movement,’ which we created in a jam room. But when you sit at home and nobody is waiting for you to come up with a bass riff, you can come up with music that’s really considered,” Maynard says. “So, half our album is written pre-lockdown in a jam room while the other half is written ‘in the box,’ where someone has written a foundational synth part or drums, then we’ve built it up that way. It’s meant that we have an album that’s well-rounded, not just ten straight-up, post-punk songs. They have a different energy to them.”

She put the demo for “Skin” together in 2019, the first time she’d demoed a song with the foundational drums and synths, which she sent to the band. “I’d been teaching myself to program drums, and I’d programmed a song with all the drums done. For me, being able to demo a song like that and having done it all in GarageBand was exciting for me,” Maynard remembers. “Chris was overseas when I put the demo together, so he was listening to it in another country. He’s an engineer and he’s great at producing music, but for me it’s all new and exciting. He loved it and was thinking of parts for it straight away. I feel like I was the genesis of that song.”

Another of her favourites, “Buy Sell Trade” began with an “incredible, catchy synth line” written by Stephenson that underpins the whole song. It’s a “motoric, kraut-rock jam that’s danceable but kind of psych-y… sometimes you write a riff and you go, ‘That’s a hook!’” she enthuses. Maynard is convinced she doesn’t have the music theory knowledge nor the co-ordination to intuitively play drums, so it’s been empowering to master it digitally. “I can build an interesting, eclectic drum beat that breaks the rules of timing,” she says. “It’s so fun. It opens your world. If you can build a drum beat, you can write a song.”

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Mindy Meng Wang Draws Ancient Chinese Harp Into Contemporary Movement on Phoenix Rising

Mindy Meng Wang is not interested in living in a time warp. She is confidently, elegantly weaving traditional instrumentation into a contemporary soundscape to reveal new possibilities for ancient tools. Chinese born, the Melbourne-based Wang is an internationally renowned composer and expert in the Chinese horizontal harp, or guzheng. On her latest album Phoenix Rising, released September 24, she has collaborated with some of Australia’s most renowned modern songwriters and composers, including jazz master Paul Grabowsky, Violent Femmes’ bassist and Dark MOFO founder Brian Ritchie, and orchestral percussionist Claire Edwardes. Lesser known in the mainstream scene, but just as prolific and fascinating, are collaborators Ma Haiping, a Chinese producer and techno DJ, Vietnamese-Australian pianist and experimental electronica composer Fia Fiell (real name Carolyn Schofield), and multimedia composer and performer Daniel Jenatsch. 

Phoenix Rising emerged from the collaborative Flash Forward project, in which the Victorian State Government and the City of Melbourne provided funding to 40 musical acts to create original albums within three months. Melbourne-based vinyl producer Heavy Machinery Records and Music in Exile cooperated to release the album, and it is utterly captivating.

“This album really summed up all the styles I’ve been working on the last couple of years,” says Wang. “All the styles I explored in there are things I’m really passionate about. The music I really love to listen to usually is very intense, very emotional. All genres have this, from a really deep cello in classical music to the build-up in electronic, to pop even. It’s more about the emotional style – I really enjoy when you listen to music that wakes up that deep emotion in your heart.”

Hauntingly, heart-achingly lovely “Night Storm” opens the album; Grabowsky’s glassy, cascading piano tumbles upon tumultuous, dark waves, echoing and seeming to glisten under a half-hidden moon. The weighty, atmospheric guzheng is at first blunt and uncertain, then it becomes delicate, tip-toeing tentatively through the curtain of night to reach a midnight rendezvous with the now rumbling, swarthy piano. The two instruments encircle each other in a beguiling call and response, eventually so entwined that there is only their shared song.

“For this album, there’s not a lot of surprises because I’d worked with everyone before,” says Wang. “Individually, they did surprise me though. A lot of the pieces were created via structured improvisation, so I had an idea for the kind of quality it would be, but I didn’t know exactly what it would sound like. I have to say, all the pieces worked in a surprisingly good way.”

In introducing the guzheng into Western musical genres over the last decade, Wang is a pioneer. The instrument had been played in traditional form for 2500 years in China. In finding ways to merge it with jazz, pop, electronica and Western orchestras, she had to experiment with new techniques and tuning systems on the guzheng, resulting in entirely novel sounds. Her curious spirit was likely nurtured by the progressive city she was raised in.

“I was born in a city in Northwestern China, Lanzhou. It was a trading spot on the Silk Road, so everyone came there from India or Europe, even. The Chinese would travel from the capital to here. So, the culture is really mixed and the people are diverse. We have more than 40 ethnic groups living in the city, and that’s where I grew up,” she explains.

That same dichotomy of diversity and unity is reflected in the selection of songs here. Each song, like the first, is deeply atmospheric, conjuring dream visions and glimpses of a landscape that may be real or imagined. It was Wang’s vision to seduce the imagination of her listeners, to glide through their defensive barriers and prejudices and let her music speak for itself. She wanted listeners to discover the guzheng and be moved by it without needing to name it or know it, just as she discovered it as a child.

“My generation is the generation where parents decided that children needed to do something more than just go to school. So, we had to choose a class after school and I chose music,” Wang remembers. “I just happened to have the best teacher in the city as my neighbour, so from a very young age, maybe five years old, I was well looked after by this guzheng teacher. I always loved the sound of her music. When they asked me what music I want to learn, I pointed to her and said that’s what I want to learn.”

Between the ages of six and nine, Wang grew increasingly serious about her playing – there was a lot of training, exams and competitions. At sixteen, she had competed in all the provincial and national competitions. “I thought I’d go to a conservatory and follow this career path, becoming like my teacher,” Wang says. “But then I had the opportunity to go to England for a short-term English course.” That was on 2002; Weng was only seventeen. But she decided to stay and learn Western music. She completed her university studies in music performance, then moved to London.

“Before I went to England, all the music I played was traditional,” Wang says. “But when I got to England, I saw all my classmates playing classical, to pop, to jazz. I thought why, on my instrument, can I only play traditional Chinese? I thought, how can I have more fun with my music?”

In London, she joined the Silk String Quartet. It belongs to a bigger organisation, including London University. It’s one of the best modern string quartets in Europe, and performs festivals across the continent. She was able to work with acts as diverse as the London Symphony Orchestra and, in 2010, Gorillaz.

Collaborative adventures aside, her curiosity about other places drew her to Australia in 2011.

“I had no friends, no connections, no work, nothing. It wasn’t easy for my career, and for the next three years my father was quite sick in China, so between 2012 to 2015, I was travelling a lot between London, Melbourne and my hometown to look after my father in hospital until he passed away,” Wang says. “After he passed, I really thought about things. I had more responsibility and realised I had to settle down in one place and to be able to look after my family. I decided that Melbourne was a better choice than London, which is so busy and has a less intense overall lifestyle.”

Though it was a rocky first few months trying to establish her musical career here, she became involved with Multicultural Arts Victoria,  which supported her as a solo artist and in cooperation with artists across various disciplines. “It made me feel more confident and comfortable to live here as a musician,” she says.

Part of the challenge was convincing fellow musicians and artists that this ancient instrument could offer such richness in contemporary practice. “Even the professionals need to get convinced,” she says. “People are not drawn naturally into something they have no knowledge about. People are comfortable with things they know, even musicians and creatives. Sometimes when I talk this instrument , its tuning technique, its philosophy… it just looks like a very strange object to them. So, how could they have an inspiration from that?”

There is no shortage of inspiration on Phoenix Rising, and the emotive, immersive nature of the album is a credit to the adventurousness of all the artists involved.

“When I started making this album, it wasn’t so clear. The concept was that I wanted to collaborate with artists that I hadn’t documented collaborations with before. Some musicians, I had long-term plans with, but some artists I’d only played with once or twice but really treasured, so I wanted to document those moments,” Wang says. “The musical style became really intense because it was recorded between lockdowns. It was a way of letting out our emotions. Later on, I looked back and [saw that] we were playing music as if we were having a conversation, and those conversations are not polite. I wanted to create something that can touch people deeply, and make them feel that it’s okay to be emotional or feel heavy during those times. I wanted to create a safe space to let them, through the music, get into their own world and release their emotion.”

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Queer Acceptance and Electronic Body Music Meet on Forthcoming Brixx EP Conversion Therapy

Photo Credit: Nicole Reed Photography

Sabine Brix – best known as Brixx – isn’t afraid to plunge into the dark and embrace the sense of being lost and alone in the moments it takes to adapt to a new reality. The Melbourne music producer, composer and DJ repeatedly disorients and recalibrates herself – and listeners – on her forthcoming EP Conversion Therapy, out September 20 via Heavy Machinery. Despite the title, it’s not specifically about the brutal, enforced measures taken to try to deny people their sexuality, but it definitely addresses the liberation in accepting queerness in a world that is mostly designed for, and by, the heteronormative.

“I’ve had absolutely no experience with conversion therapy,” Brix clarifies. “It’s about transformation… I suppose it’s about embracing queerness and moving away from the perception of who we think we should be to evolve into who we actually are. So, it’s a transformation and a conversion of self.”

Born and raised in Melbourne to German parents, Brix’s queer identity emerged in her formative high school years. While other girls had plastered their school diaries with images of muscle-bound men from Manpower (“Australia’s Thunder From Downunder”), Brix’s choice of adornment provoked questions from fellow students.

“I had Drew Barrymore and thought it was strange that they all had men on their covers and I’ve got a half-naked woman on mine,” she recalls. “What’s wrong with that? But I remember a friend asking me, ‘Are you gay?’ and I said, ‘Well, no’ but I was quite defensive. Why was there this defensiveness, why wasn’t there more an openness? Like, maybe I am?”

It wasn’t until after high school that she understood and embraced her sexual attraction to women, freed of the claustrophobic ideas of what a gay woman might look like, or act like, since the only openly out girl at school was androgynous-looking and there were no other evident role models. Eventually, music became a tool for expression.

“I’m quite influenced by Electronic Body Music, techno, New Beat, breaks; anything with heavy percussion and a heavy bass line, that’s always at the forefront of what I do,” she says, adding that she’s constantly asking herself, “How do you express yourself emotionally without using the voice? I think that’s why I was interested in cutting up samples and having some references to homosexuality and pain, different little bits and pieces so that it’s audible that this is a queer release, so they dig a little deeper. Often with electronic music, if there’s no vocals or samples, you don’t know what that person is trying to achieve.”

In May last year, Brixx unleashed five tracks of darkwave-meets-New Order ferociousness via Parfé Records, in the form of her debut EP Corporate Punishment. If the Cocteau Twins were asked to DJ a warehouse rave in a dungeon, it might sound something like the icy stab of synths on “Mansplainer.” The robotic voice that injects its unwelcome opinions sums up the experience of being the victim of mansplaining perfectly.

Conversion Therapy is much more lush, atmospheric and dynamic than its predecessor; its first single “Double Axe” is immediately more inviting and enveloping than the snarling chill of Corporate Punishment. Though Brix’s signature dark undercurrent courses through, snaking invisibly around the basslines, there’s also a sense of romance and brief glimpses of ecstasy. Fans of Depeche Mode, Belgian electro act Front 242 and Ministry might hear remnants of those influences in the reverberating, haunting synths, that repeat like a mantra – hypnotic and somehow soothing.

The EP came together in three months, which was the time frame demanded of her by Flash Forward, an initiative of the City of Melbourne and the State Government of Victoria, in which 40 musical acts were partnered with a visual designer each to release a vinyl album through Melbourne label Heavy Machinery Records. Physical copies of heavyweight 12” black and white marble effect vinyl EP featuring original cover art by Bootleg Comics will be available in limited edition of 300. 

“The Flash Forward project came up really quickly. I had to create an EP within three months, when my previous EP took two years. I thought, ‘I have no idea how I’m going to manage this!’ becauce I only had one track,” Brix says. “It really forced me to push myself and… I think people would be surprised at what they can do when they’re faced with a challenge.”

Brix relied on her abilities as a storyteller – she studied film scoring in Sydney for a year, and her professional background is in journalism and writing, though she left full-time writing work five years ago – to communicate ideas and create a narrative within sound. Over four tracks, Conversion Therapy tells a story with an overriding theme of acceptance and celebration of queerness.

Beginning with “Shock of the New” – a cinematic ode to exploring sexuality for the first time – the story doesn’t follow a clear trajectory, exemplifying the “rollercoaster ride” of coming out and embracing the self. A fan of David Lynch’s ambiguous masterpiece Mulholland Drive, Brix made some elements crystal clear, but there’s so much left up to interpretation, too. The final track on the EP, “Metamorphosis,” features her friend, DJ and producer Black Dahlia. The track is eerie, driving and dark. Brix was aiming to instill a sense of uneasiness in the immersive and hypnotic drone that reverberates through the track.

“I really wanted it to be a journey in terms of coming out and then going towards self-acceptance. There’s a sense of hope closing it out, so that it’s not all kind of dreary,” Brix says. She met Black Dahlia last year, connecting over their mutual love of Electronic Body Music. They began to send each other WhatsApp voice mail messages, which they still do: snippets of vocals, found sounds, snatches of basslines.

“We like to create music where we’re making ourselves vulnerable,” says Brix. “I sent her a particular bassline, and told her some of the themes of the album, and she just came up with these vocals. She kept repeating this one line, ‘You tried to bury me, but I’m the seed’ and I just thought that was really beautiful and really played into the ways that I felt about coming out… burying toxic relationships… or homophobia. But then there’s also this uprising that can occur once you discover who you are.”

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