15 December 2008


The Horse, The Rat And The Swan
Dot Dash, 2008

My favourite records of the year have all been albums. They have all had themes and a sense of continuity, with songs that - while not so similar as to be boring or repetitive – never stray too far from a central sound or style that ties them together. But The Horse, The Rat And The Swan, the second full-length from Perth band Snowman, is the only one that drives home that albumness like a sledgehammer. It is a concept record in every way, even if the concept itself is open to interpretation. Pretending pop music was an art gallery, this record would be located in the modern wing – a conceptual piece that you're not entirely sure you really enjoy, but that you won't be forgetting any time soon.

Earlier this decade it became popular to raid the sounds of post-punk bands from the late 1970s and early '80s, leading to the success of bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Rapture and the overuse of the word "angular" in music magazines everywhere. While this little trend was highly derivative, it was also highly selective. There were plenty of cowbells and catchy bass lines, but very little that engaged with the darker aspects of the original genre – nothing that aspired to recreate, for example, the terror of Public Image Limited's bleak 'Careering', in which John Lydon asked "is this living?" and wailed evocative non-sequiturs like "there is bacteria, armoured machinery mangled" between anonymous screams and brittle clanging.

This is the musical precedent to which The Horse, The Rat And The Swan owes the most. But back then, now a quarter of a century ago, the dystopian themes of post-punk were still slightly futuristic. Today, many of that era's fantasies are fact. The world is wired, our Government is trying to fight underground cyber criminals and the human race is facing the question of whether it will be responsible for its own demise. "We are the plague/ we are the virus," screams the narrator of this record, among squeals and piston-thumps and distortion – and it sounds like more than just words. A few years ago, journalist Craig Mathieson asked why no one in the Australian music scene was truly engaging with the period that we were living through. This album is the unwitting, and perhaps unwanted, reply.

This column is part of a three-week series on the best local releases of the year.

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