This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Monday, October 18, 2010

The shattered, shattering tale of D

Probably there's a lot of people who know that experience of hearing a piece of music that grabs you, totally out of the blue, and makes you stop whatever you're doing and listen to it. I remember it happened to me once, driving the car, when I first heard Björk and Antony Hegarty singing 'The Dull Flame of Desire'. And it happened again, just a few days ago, albeit in a very different way, when I was once again driving the car, and Melbourne's 3PBS FM Breakfast Spread program played Melbourne-based indie rock group The Drones' lead, Gareth Liddiard, performing 'The Radicalisation of D', the massive 16 minute closing track from his debut solo album Strange Tourist.

It's hard to think of music that could be more shattered, more shattering, than this. 'The Radicalisation of D' is a long, unadorned story, loosely based on the life of David Hicks, told in music of voice and acoustic guitar, where neither strays hardly more than a few notes here and there from their half sung, half chanted monotone, both always ever so slightly off key, hard, bruised, achingly naked.

The story of a boy who grows from a hard childhood, through a hard adolescence, into an adulthood borne out of a ménage à trois of aggression, bitterness and loneliness, is told in stark poetry where the subtleties of its rhythm and rhyme are masked by the arrant intensity of its story. It's a narrative, starting as a coldly dispassionate chronicle of D's life, but then swelling with almost unbearable passion and anguish as D's hard, meaningless existance is juxtaposed with the glamour and glory of other people's success: success, where even black people, who had once bashed him in the streets of working class Australia, find an American brand of happiness in the credit financed luxury of Brooklyn. You can feel the hate stir and spin out of control in D as the line 'You are living in a nightmare' seems to pound and sound and resound in his head until suddenly all is quiet, and the story is cut short with the words, 'But now we interrupt this broadcast/To bring you breaking news/There is a building in Manhattan/And it's burning'.

And that's where the story, and the song, ends. But it leaves you hanging in the air, aghast, for a long, long time after that. You feel you have been immersed into the darkest of souls, and for a while it's hard to find your way out. And yet it has got there despite breaking so many rules along the way: over a quarter of an hour of music, without a melody; a bare, even ugly, voice; a guitar that sounds at times almost like it is going out of tune; a lyric that is stripped of even the hint of a shadow of sentiment.

It's music that reminds me of the song 'Der Leiermann', the devastating end to Schubert's unrelentingly tragic song cycle Winterreise, where a story of a lonely, decrepid man, grinding his barrel organ in the snow, is told with the fewest of notes against the barest of accompaniments.

And that's what Gareth Liddiard achieves here, too.  Every now and then, the unsettled quiet of the music is interrupted by a few bone-crushingly harsh bursts from the guitar, only for it to subside again into that incessant monotone strum, relentlessly tap, tap, tapping you with its music and its message, deadpan and doleful, until you are smacked in the face by all that raw rage near the end.

There are few times when I have been as affected by a single piece of music as I have been by this. Matt - half of the Matt and Jenny duo who bring us the PBS Breakfast Spread every Monday to Friday - said that this is one piece that really does deserve that now rather hackneyed word, 'epic'. And it does. It's epic not just because of the way it can hold you so totally in its grip for 16 minutes, but also for the way it shakes you so profoundly in the process.

When 'The Radicalisation of D' is over, you are left with a disturbing, different understanding of where the real horror of 9/11 truly lies - not in the rough and rugged sand of the Middle East, but much closer to home, in the carefully cultivated soil of the West, soil so rich and fertile for the growth of hatred, intolerance and terror.

The rest of Strange Tourist is pretty stunning, too, but it's this album closer that really is Gareth Liddiard's tour de force, showing just how powerful music's shattered, shattering bare bones can be.

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