New Music Through Old Ears: Twenty Living Desert Butlers

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It’s time for some new music, as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out recent releases from indie punk duo Twenty One Pilots, Aussie rockers The Living End, folkie chaps John Butler Trio and Indigenous thrashers Southeast Desert Metal.

New Album from a New Artist

Twenty One Pilots: Trench

I have a bit of a weird fascination for two-piece rock bands that manage to sound like they're a four-piece. It all started with the White Stripes, but then I discovered the Black Keys, Royal Blood, No Age and DZ Deathrays. All of a sudden, it seemed that all of the bands with three or more members were just being wasteful.

Comprised of keyboardist/singer Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun, Twenty One Pilots started life as a three-piece, forming in Columbus, Ohio in 2009. While struggling to find their signature sound, the band experimented with costumes and acrobatics on stage, often baffling the crowds at the hardcore punk and metal venues they played. After garnering a small buzz with a cover of Christina Perri’s Jar of Hearts, the band broke big in 2015 with the release of Blurryface.

Propelled by the hits Stressed Out and Ride, Blurryface sold well around the world, given a further boost by the track Heathens, from the soundtrack to the movie Suicide Squad. In fact, the album sold so well that Blurryface was the first album in history to have every track receive a Gold certification or higher from the Recording Industry Association of America. For a weird little two-piece, Twenty One Pilots were getting huge.

So, will Trench build their trajectory or scupper their grand plans? Honestly, it’s a bit hard to tell. This isn’t a bad album by any measure, but it’s a little uneven and the limitations of their lineup are more obvious on some tracks than others. It’s certainly another interesting instalment in the annals of the rock power-duo, but Joseph and Dun aren’t quite in White Stripes territory yet.

Standout tracks: Jumpsuit, Neon Gravestones, The Hype

Sample lyric: “Our culture can treat loss like it’s a win.” (Neon Gravestones)

Verdict: 7/10 — a couple of great tracks but an uneven album.

New Album from an Old Artist

The Living End: Wunderbar

It’s been 24 years since The Living End got together in Melbourne, inspired by rockabilly and punk acts like The Stray Cats and The Clash. The band secured a touring slot for Green Day in 1995, after Living End lead singer Chris Cheney and bassist Scott Owen sent Billie Joe Armstrong a demo tape and t-shirt, quickly building a strong local following. After receiving positive reviews from EPs Hellbound (1995) and It’s For Your Own Good (1996), the band hit national consciousness with their monster Prisoner of Society/Second Solution double A side, released in 1997.

Over the next 20 years, The Living End released a series of consistently good albums, including Roll On (2000), State of Emergency (2005), White Noise (2008) and The Ending is Just the Beginning Repeating (2010), each album marking a gradual move away from the rockabilly sound. By the time they got to Shift (2015), it was like they were deliberately trying to sound as un-rockabilly as possible. The result was a fairly unremarkable album, with the exception of cracking song Monkey.

Fortunately, Wunderbar marks a return to balance for The Living End, embracing elements of rockabilly along with the usual punk, classic rock and blues influences. The album is consistently good, with tracks like Drop The Needle and Otherside standing comfortably alongside any of their greatest hits. The album also continues the band’s penchant for singing about outsiders, with Not Like the Other Boys proving a rousing opposition to the growing levels of discrimination in the Australian school system.

At this point, it seems assured that The Living End will go down in the history books as one of Australia’s greatest rock bands, alongside iconic acts like Cold Chisel, AC/DC, INXS and The Angels. Wunderbar is worth a listen for anyone who has ever enjoyed a Living End song.

Standout tracks: Drop the Needle, Not Like the Other Boys, Otherside, Proton Pill

Sample lyric: “Welcome to the factory where nightmares are made.” (Death of the American Dream)

Verdict: 9/10 — one of the best Australian rock albums released this year.

New Album from an Old Artist

John Butler Trio: HOME

It’s something of a truism that passion can be hard to maintain through a lifetime. Where it’s easy to summon righteous fury in your teens and twenties, it can be harder to be bothered as age and reason start to catch up.

This is as true of performing artists as it is of politicians. Consider the career trajectory of Peter Garrett from firebrand environmentalist to political apologist. Johnny Rotten has become a parody of himself, Henry Rollins has become an actor, even Jello Biafra has fallen into the self-indulgence of an endless speaking tour.

When the John Butler Trio first hit the Australian music scene back in the early 2000s, they were an unashamedly political band. Songs like Home is Where the Heart Is took aim squarely at the hypocrisy of middle Australia, and the dreadlocked Butler was a regular fixture at protests against big business and environmental vandalism. And then… nothing changed.

Sure, John Butler and his ever-morphing trio kept releasing albums, but the political and environmental situation in Australia just kept getting worse. Butler responded to this by falling back into rock cliché, singing songs about sex (Funky Tonight), drugs (Used to Get High) and driving (One Way Road). Sure, he’s still about a million times more politically aware than someone like Shannon Noll, but it’s hard to think that John Butler hasn’t mellowed significantly with age.

As an album, HOME is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from John Butler Trio — catchy folk songs written to be played around a campfire on a beach. There’s nothing particularly surprising or challenging on offer, but if you’re looking for an album to put on in the background at a barbecue without offending anyone, HOME might be just what you’re looking for.

Standout tracks: Just Call, Tell Me Why

Sample lyric: “Says he’s made mistakes, but lives with no regrets.” (Coffee, Methadone & Cigarettes)

Verdict: 6/10 — competent but uninspiring.

Killer Single of the Week

Southeast Desert Metal: Rainmaker

Often hailed as “the most isolated metal band in the world”, Southeast Desert Metal live in Santa Teresa, a small Indigenous community around 80km outside Alice Springs. Led by the dual vocal assault of Cedric Ross and Chris Wallace, supported by Gavin Hayes (guitar), Derek Hayes (bass) and Robert Wallace (drums), Southeast Desert Metal draws influences from the classics; Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Metallica and Iron Maiden. 

Taken from upcoming second album Break the Silence, Rainmaker is a blistering wall of riffs with a theme that should resonate with all Australians. With a clip filmed in the red centre, the track demonstrates that Australians can indeed sing heavy metal without putting on a British or American accent. Definitely worth checking out for fans of heavy music.

Sample lyric: “Praying for rain to come, the land is dying.”

Verdict: 8/10 — incredibly catchy heavy rock.

Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).

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