Review: The Dream of Rock is Alive in Australia

Is rock a dying art form? Despite the fact that legacy rock indie acts like The National, Vampire Weekend and Tame Impala continue to earn headlining spots at the world’s biggest festivals, it appears rock may be on its way out. Critically and culturally alike, it not hard to see the genre’s importance waning. According to Nielsen in their yearend report, 2017 marked the first year in history where rock was supplanted as America’s most popular genre, with hip-hop taking the top spot. That same year, only two rock records made Metacritic’s top 20 albums of the year. While it’s true that local scenes continue to bolster specific strains of rock music, such as London’s fierce post-punk scene, or Brooklyn’s collective-oriented DIY scene, there no longer seems to be any centralized force behind the genre at large. However, things are different in Australia—and this past Tuesday night at Thalia Hall bands RVG and Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever proved just that. The night began with an impassioned performance from Melbourne’s RVG. Lead by the entrancing Romy Vager, RVG pull from the wry, theatrical post-punk greats of the ‘70s but with a breezier sound. As the sparse Tuesday night crowd began to fill in, RVG’s set picked up steam. Covering much of their excellent 2017 debut, “A Quality of Mercy,” as well as debuting some new tunes, RVG intricate melodies enticed a thin Tuesday night crowd, creating a tangible buzz by the end of the set. After a brief intermission, RBCF took to the stage with little fanfare and launched right into their punchy set. Despite having only one full length and two EPs to their name, the five-piece Melbourne outfit played like true veterans. Their dynamic stage performance revolves around the seamless vocal hand-offs among the group’s three guitarists — Tom Russo, Fran Keaney, and Joe White. This method provides their sound with many precise layers a la The War on Drugs while also emanating a jam band aesthetic. The marathon set covered material from each of the band’s releases with a emphasis on the band's 2018 full length, the gritty “Hope Downs.” RBCF closed with their marvel “French Press” before a no-fuss encore of shredding through 2016’s “Clean Slate.” Of note, the band’s latest single “In the Capital” and it’s b-side, “Read My Mind,” were both major highlights—demonstrating a shift towards sunny choruses. After the show I couldn’t help but ask myself, what is going on in the land down under? Aussies have claimed some of the best indie rock records of the year so far, including Stella Donnelly’s wrenching, riotously fun “Beware the Dogs,” and Methyl Ethel’s feverishly funky “Triage.” Add in other fresh new Australian rock groups like the ferocious Camp Cope and the acid-trip-turned-band King Gizzard and Lizard Wizard, and you get an image of a rock scene that is not only thriving but innovating. One possible reason for this burgeoning scene is the government’s interest in funding this type of music. In 2017, Pitchfork published an article detailing the ways in which governments across the world help fund local acts. In the case of Australia, the article details the extensive support veteran Courtney Barnett received in 2013 in creating, touring and even marketing her superb “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.” “Government grants gave me creative independence when I was starting out, because it meant I was worrying less about impressing for label and publishing advances, and I was less reliant on taking some big-company sponsorship to fund a tour,” Barnett told Pitchfork. This seems to be true even today. When I had a chance to speak to RVG’s Romy Vager after the show, she confirmed the importance of these grants, explaining how without them, touring to the U.S would have been unsustainable. The Australian government even goes so far as to sponsor the alternative-focused radio station and content generator, Triple J. Emphasizing local acts while also tastefully curating an international mix for its listeners, the station has been pivotal in catapulting local Australian acts, many of them indie rockers, into global success. So the question becomes, could government intervention help bring rock back to its glory days? The answer is, well… murky, to say the least. When you look at how much major acts like Tame Impala and Courtney Barnett must bring home to their native land, it could make sense for the U.S from a purely return-on-investment standpoint. Even then though, it may make more financial sense to sponsor an upcoming Soundcloud rapper, rather than a band, as the return would likely be more robust globally. Yet, considering our current administration, I don’t see this type of discussion getting to the floor any time soon.  Who knows though, a couple years from now with maybe a Beto or Buttigieg in office, things could be different. Whatever the case is, at the show Tuesday night politics were the last thing on my mind, in fact very little was on my mind at all. Exciting and interesting rock music tends to do that to me—a major reason why I need it in my life. And while it may get harder to have the experience with homegrown acts, as long as Australian bands receive grants to tour, I’ll be there to see them. After all, the dream of rock is alive in Australia. Did you enjoy this review with insights about arts support in Australia? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!
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Adam Ramos