The Presets – Pacifica

The Presets have made the most diverse record of their career, but have they lost a defining trait in the process? Words by CRAIG MATHIESON.

Time’s march and good fortune’s circumstance mean that The Presets of Pacifica, the Sydney’s duo’s third album, can no longer possess the ecstatic mix of ambition and hedonism that characterised their 2005 debut Beams, or the grinding, end of days disco that informed their hardened follow-up, 2008’s Apocalypso. Four years on from ‘My People’, one quarter of a million domestic album sales, and a Where the Wild Things Are tribute at the ARIA Awards, Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes have the quality that their songs has both strived for and yet been unsettled by: freedom.

On Pacifica The Presets can do as they like, and while it makes for the most diverse record of their career to date, it also deprives them of a defining trait. Beams was made by two young musicians dreaming of foreign lands (and sounds), while Apocalypso swung the focus back to Australia as they tried to explain it to both the wider world and themselves. There are fine moments on this album, including a track, ‘Ghosts’, whose mix of folk shanty melody and percolated percussion could be transformative on their future prospects, but it has the slightly patchy feel of a band only halfway through a necessary period of transition.

Hamilton’s stentorian voice is present from the opening jangled nerves excursion into minimalist techno that is ‘Youth in Trouble’, but the more variety he brings to his vocal delivery the greater the contrast with the tracks where he’s still barking out every exclamation point. There’s a soulful falsetto peppering the glinting effervescence of ‘Promises’, and it allows the song to attain the rhapsodic clamour of mid-period New Order, and when it’s followed by the snaking rhythm and clipped vocals of ‘Push’ you might hunger for some vocal variety to match the percussive bursts.

“Very good, clever,” snarks the track’s lyric, and there’s a dyspeptic distance to some of these tracks, even when the band are satirising commercial media soundbites on ‘Youth in Trouble’, which the music can’t quite absolve. It’s noticeable that The Presets aren’t afraid of sentimentality on this collection, offering up a comparatively unadorned song of dedication with “It’s Cool”, a tune that could be a tribute to the opening bars from (and video clip for) INXS’s ‘Original Sin’.

“This is all part of building a body of work, and The Presets are on their way to doing that.”

The six minutes of ‘Adults Only’ return to the unpleasant truths of Australian society, rewriting John Birmingham’s history of Sydney’s consumptive reinvention, Leviathan, to provide a subject that can accommodate Hamilton’s snarl. He takes in the Rum Rebellion and “schizophrenic tourists shot by cops”, before culminating in old lonely old ladies expiring in old apartment buildings while the yuppies in nearby bars snort coke. This is a surprisingly conservative form of moralism, and while the manic synth loops and strafing laser effects can’t help but make the song triumphant, it’s not the inclusiveness of ‘My People’; the easy judgment – pity the elderly, yuppies suck – is the kind of simplistic divisiveness that ‘Youth in Trouble’ condemns 30 minutes prior.

Those are the kind of stress fractures that lurk in Pacifica, and while it wouldn’t be fair to say that they drag the album down, the highlights among these 10 tracks definitely have to work to counteract some of the lesser offerings (‘Epic Fail’, for example, is a track they once may’ve derided). This is all part of building a body of work, and The Presets are on their way to doing that, but they’re trying to translate what they want from music, trying to understand whether release has given way to reproach and reward. What they do next is crucial.