ZOND, Beaches, Snawklor @ The Curtin, Melbourne (31/07/2010)

Melbourne’s Dylan Martorell and Nathan Gray have been playing together under the Snawklor name for more than a decade, though the new addition of drummer Duncan Blachford has breathed fresh live into the band. Their music mixes electronica, synths and guitars operating through various effect pedals with a playful experimentation that sees Snawklor comfortably performing in gallery spaces or as a living installation. While moments of such surprising, disparate sounds can be enticing, over a set it has the tendency to become dull. Blachford’s drumming lifts SNAWKLOR above such parameters. He weaves between a wet jazz style and locked-down strong grooves that launch Snawklor’s more conventional fried-pop moments. Awesome.

Beaches are the hippest ladies with guitars you’ll probably ever see. Back recently from a U.S. jaunt that included SXSW, their 2008 self-titled debut is one of the gems of the Melbourne scene and has deservedly been earning much international attention, but tonight they’re back with us, front and centre, where we like them.

While they might not be huge on spectacle, Beaches present a wall of three guitars, bass and drums across the stage simply jamming out. Their tunes build free-flowing pysch-rock around a simple riff or bass line then knock it out like the best of garage jams. Indebted to the golden flecks of Flying Nun, kick-ass tracks like Sandy or Field of Dreams present Beaches working the antipodean aesthetic with the best of them. While at times such a sound can feel a little by-numbers, Beaches have shown the promise to grow before such a trend will grow stale.

Putting words to ZOND feels a little weird. Both sublime and slippery, Melbourne’s ZOND are a noise band with pop sensibilities constantly fighting back against such categories. They sound kind of like their name suggests; dark, LOUD, no wave destruction with a campy sci-fi edge. The name refers to two series of Soviet spacecraft launched between 1964-1970 as part of the Space race, though [unless you’re a well-read space geek] it more aptly evokes a meaningless void. And witnessing ZOND feels like falling into that void.

Every time I’ve seen ZOND, I’ve had the urge to leave friends and go stand alone. Something about the rush of vacuum-packed guitars, bass, synth and drums sends your head spinning like a cold shower. Utterly overwhelming, the sound sets a mood as isolating as a Joy Division track. Though rather than Curtis’ suicide chic, ZOND seem more relevant to an experience of alienation in the information age, like walking through Times Square on a bad trip. The overall feeling is cold, cerebral, even a tad paranoid, with a muted violence.

Part of ZOND’s elusive nature can be attributed to lyrics lost in noise – not only through sheer volume but, as if imploded by the ferocity of the playing, lyrics disintegrate into indecipherable word-sounds and syllables, howls and moans. Such anti-lyrics – such as in Stupid Gods – add to the way ZOND work as a tight unit, collectively drowning themselves out. Unable to hear one another, the band communicate in nods and sharp looks.

At the same time, different guitar lines from Justin K. Fuller and Marney Macleod rise and fall amidst the thick layers of distortion, feedback and various effects put simultaneously to use, and together with the band’s inclination to experiment with songs live, conventional song structures soon give way to works in permanent flux.

Bassist Harriet Morgan stands for most of the show with her back to the audience, the back of her t-shirt reading “TRIUMPH OF DEATH”. She plays the closest thing to a firm centre, while Tym Krasevac’s drumming is a beautiful thing to behold, arms and sweat flying in all directions amidst the fluid all-out attack of his sticks. Newest member Matthew Brown looks like a stoned Justin Hawkins minus the glitter, inanimately lurched over his vintage synth. At times his keys send out high-frequency squeals that really hurt. The onslaught hits physically – your internal organs buzz and your eardrums are left pleading mercy, mercy, mercy.

While I think ZOND particularly excel in smaller, boxy spaces, the Curtin room worked well and no-one got lost in the mix. The stage lights were dim and unglitzy, beaten into submission like everything else after Harriet’s early remark, “Look, whoever does the lights, the whole epilepsy thing doesn’t get me going.”

At their best, ZOND are like a brilliantly anonymous My Bloody Valentine. As their submerged melodies peep from cover, or when a riff like the bass in Blind kicks in, ZOND become exciting, bewildering and catchy as all hell. One of the night’s high points came as ex-bassist Steve Thomas took bass duties for three songs, including an old ON track (ZOND, before they were ZOND). Affectionately introduced as the ‘Bushtucker Man’, Thomas plays on ZOND’s debut LP and, as this night was the official album launch, it seemed fitting that he was there to share the fruits of his labour.

The bass playing between Thomas and Morgan is markedly different, so it’ll be interesting to see how ZOND evolve with their new line-up, particularly in terms of songwriting. At the moment though, the launch of ZOND’s LP comes after the band were recently picked by Lou Reed to play in ‘Noise Night’ at the Opera House, so all is riding high in camp ZOND.