There are times when a betrayal feels so dramatic it requires the music of an inconsolable troubadour wailing at a volume that could shake the maggots from the dead. Sensitive indie-rock whimpering ain't gonna cut it on the soundtrack to bliss becoming bile; you need a mourner who soaks his vocals in moonshine and screams like a banshee.
Even at their most subdued, Melbourne's the Drones craft feverish dirges for the double-crossed. The meat of their new album, Gala Mill, is littered with gunpowder burns, escaped convicts, and civil wars hearty stuff for a heady rock band. But there's room for both blood and roses here; for every Crazy Horse country-quiver of a ballad ("Dog Eared"), there's a rousing Pogues-crashing-the-Birthday-Party barnstormer ("I Don't Ever Want to Change"), a little whistle-and-a-wink levity ("Are You Leaving for the Country"), or a velvety bedroom waltz ("Work for Me," a sultry come-on sung by bassist/backing vocalist Fiona Kitschin). The music is callused with brutal human hardships, and yet a line will leak through with an unusually tender reprise a refrain expressing that, say, a deceased lover has "gone from perfect to divine."
The Drones maintain a gothic spirit throughout that evokes their esteemed countrymen Dirty Three and Nick Cave (from his music to his beautiful, violent Western film The Proposition). Using hard-lived country blues and martyrs of myth-making proportions as backdrops, Drones frontman Gareth Liddiard time-travels though Australia in an accented drawl that wavers from a weary baritone to a parched croak, a brute force at both ends of the spectrum. The roughness of Liddiard's delivery adds grist to Mill's more colorful narratives of a legendary Irishman who breaks out from a penal colony only to cannibalize other convicts, or a nine-minute rhyme of an ancient prisoner bearing witness to various mutinies.
"Australia has, like, the Reader's Digest of history because it's only about 250 years old but so much has happened in that time, so it makes it really interesting," explains Liddiard of the characters who populate his songwriting. "You sort of have a fascination with the gory side of humans, and then you feel sympathetic towards people who had a really fucking hard time back in the day. So I guess the more extreme stories stick in my mind, and you bang out a few chords and it comes."
"Bang out" is an apt description of the Drones' methods of instrumentation. As on the group's 2005 album Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By, the music is as turbulent as the wording. Feedback, bass, and drums collapse into a voluminous heap on one song and become minimal backing for the lyrics on the next. But even during the quietest moments the Drones refuse to roll over and repent. As with the sagas of strife about which they write, these aren't musicians to stay calm for too long.