The Nation Blue return with both barrels firing on ‘Black’ and ‘Blue’
In the seven years since The Nation Blue last released an album, the Melbourne band’s three members have spilt into other fierce bands like Harmony, High Tension and Pale Heads. But none of those exploit the same political ire that The Nation Blue do, which makes these simultaneous two LPs a unexpected boon.
Recorded live over a pair of summers in a cavernous historic building in Victoria’s regional town of Kyneton, Black and Blue are companion albums by dint of their release. Yet they don’t comprise some concept-driven, ambitious-drunk double LP. It’s just that fatherhood pushed the band to sit on the one album for a while, by which point there was enough material for another.
So how do they compare? Blue is the more straightforward and upbeat of the two, right from the almost Who-esque guitar that sounds its start. It’s looser and less freighted with anxiety than Black, though still with plenty of touches that arise from the particular union of guitarist Tom Lyngcoln, bassist Matt Weston and drummer Dan McKay. Take, for instance, the squirrelly art-punk guitar caught up in ‘Blue Blood’s whirlwind of hardcore. Or the mantra-like repetition of ‘Short on Air’s title phrase. Or the adult-life drudgery evoked in Lyngcoln’s lyrics on the office-set ‘Black Fax’ (which cites specific page sizes) and ‘Paranoia’ (whose worrying evidence includes “small deductions on my credit card”).
Blue mostly feels like a rallying cry, from the thundering ‘Rotten’ – with its riotous vocal interplay and hilarious condition “When I grow up” – to the reverb-drenched triumph of ‘Always Keep a Light On’. A couple of songs could pass for entries from Lyngcoln’s band Harmony: the ballad ‘Blue Bloods’ lends him that band’s across-the-room vocal distance, while the closing ‘Black Light’ traces a familiar trajectory from bristling, dirge-y guitar opening to the inevitable crash into raw-throated catharsis. But others are more punchy and to the point, like the Clash-esque ‘I’m an Ape’ and the dead-eyed ‘Green Around the Gills’.
By contrast, Black is lumbering and unwieldy – and all the better for it. Swinging between subtlety and brutality, Lyngcoln doubles down on his desperate bark and guitar-borne waves of mutilation, while Weston and McKay’s darkly insistent rhythm section proves just as harrowing on ‘Come In Stinger’. Even more fascinating are the volatile, dub-like effects that arise throughout, completing the ominous production achieved by Weston’s High Tension bandmate Mike Deslandes (who’s produced Cosmic Psychos and many more). Songs seem to bleed into one shuddering whole as the lyrics turn Lyngcoln’s signature self-loathing in Harmony toward far more deserving targets.
First and foremost? Parliament House, the subject of Black’s cover illustration and opening song – the scathing, vocals-only tirade ‘I Have No Representatives’ – which brings us right up to date from The Nation Blue’s previous album in 2009. From there the album is unrelenting in a way that only The Drones could rival. There’s the curtly anthemic ‘Australian of the Year’, the shout-along brokenness of ‘Erectile Dysfunction’ (“What’s wrong with you is wrong with me”) and the deadpan inventory of our country’s crimes that is ‘CCTV’.
“Yet ‘Mansion Family’ is the most accessible song of the two albums put together, sounding like Sebadoh playing Midnight Oil”
These songs are as strange as they are energising, whether it’s the moaned lyrics and prog-metal turns of ‘Negative Space’ (think Baroness) or the disarming experimental opening of ‘Nil By Mouth’. Yet ‘Mansion Family’ is the most accessible song of the two albums put together, sounding like Sebadoh playing Midnight Oil. And with the fantasies of transgression listed on closer ‘Be That Man’, Lyngcoln makes a would-be comedown the most unsettling moment of all.
Taken together or apart, Black and Blue present a series of throttling exorcisms that have been a long time coming. Balancing the outspoken punk articulation of Fugazi and Future Of The Left with the atmospheric post-punk angst of Iceage and Preoccupations, The Nation Blue celebrate 20 years together as a band by reminding us that, now as much as ever, there’s still plenty to be angry about.