The Drones are at their unpredictable and uncompromising best on ‘Feelin Kinda Free’

After the guitar-scorched sprawl and dense lyric sheet of their instant-classic 2013 album, I See Seaweed, it was difficult to imagine The Drones getting any more extreme without losing their last shred of accessibility. It’s funny, then, that Feelin Kinda Free crams in even more scathing words and noise while also housing some of the catchiest and most gorgeous songs of the band’s career.

With original drummer Christian Strybosch back in the fold, the band seize the opportunity for a radical overhaul, downplaying their straight-ahead rock fervour for a more nebulous electronic sound. There are still guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards, but they’re scrambled by technology and recast as free-flowing passages of cryptic texture. Yet the new approach proves surprisingly accessible, despite The Drones’ continued passion for abrasion.

“The strangest, most uncompromising album by a major Australian band that you’ll hear this year”

These eight songs are more about mutating and twisting than rocking and climaxing. Ever a font of venom, Gareth Liddiard now practically raps on lead single ‘Taman Shud’, a song so crowded with targets that it begs for annotating on Genius. But even when he’s railing against Master Chef and Andrew Bolt, Liddiard comes off funnier and less serious than usual. Sure, he’s aghast at Australian politics and pop culture (just for starters), but he relishes the chance to riff on it all over snake-charming hooks and leering dance signifiers in three-and-a-half playful minutes.

For all the windswept textures and nightmare wordplay of that song and seven-minute opener ‘Private Execution’ (first line: “The best songs are like bad dreams”), much of the album dwells in a far prettier place. The dirge-paced ‘Then They Came For Me’ offsets Fiona Kitschin’s frazzled fuzz bass with the unsettling seesawing of her backing vocals, while ‘Tailwind’ ends with trickles of piano and what sounds like a serpentine woodwind melody. Recalling the last album’s ‘How to See Through Fog’, ‘To Think That I Once Loved You’ stuns with its slow-burn gorgeousness, despite the lament built into that title refrain. Liddiard dials his defiant wail down to a resigned croak, joined again in harmonies by Kitschin as well as Laura Jean and the vocal section from Melbourne band Harmony.

Kitschin sings lead on ‘Sometimes’, a quietly unhinged ballad that’s both precious and delirious. Like the rest of the album, it’s unmoored from predictable rock arrangements and seems to clog up the air all around us. Another standout is ‘Boredom’, which ramps up the album’s hip-hop and electronic flirtations for something that evokes Run the Jewels as much as Fuck Buttons. It relocates Liddiard’s ire to a quasi-party setting, even as he rhymes ‘ACT’ and ‘PNG’. The album ends with ‘Shutdown SETI’, another mercurial track combining Liddiard and Kitschin’s night-and-day vocal delivery against garbled, turbulent layering.

Despite reuniting with Strybosch as well as with engineer Aaron Cupples (who recorded 2006’s Gala Mill), and performing their 2005 breakthrough Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By in its entirety on tour last year, The Drones treat Feelin Kinda Free as a prime chance to remake themselves. After all, they’re popular enough now that their fans will follow them pretty much everywhere. And so we get the strangest, most uncompromising album by a major Australian band that you’ll hear this year. You don’t so much unpack it over time as you expose yourself to it and embrace the radiation burn.

Itching madly for something beyond the kneejerk catharsis of rock songs, The Drones have scratched so hard that they’ve broken through to a raw new skin.

9/10 Stars

Feelin Kinda Free is out now via Tropical Fuck Storm / MGM Distribution.