MAGNETOPHONICS: overview of Australian Underground Music originally released as Tapes/Cassettes

22nd July 2017

Title: Australian Underground Music 1978-1984 

Label: Vinyl On Demand

Don’t be fooled into believing that classic music or classic cuts can only ‘be’ if they have topped the charts or received gold or platinum standard sales awards. Sometimes classic music has only been heard by one man and his dog. It’s not about the audience, it’s about the music.

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Sometimes, though, it’s not even that. Sometimes the classic nature of the music isn’t formed around a single LP or artist but, instead, around a movement. Often, music from short-lived yet intensely creative music periods, shine brightly for a time before fading. The music itself is often of a fragmented nature and, because the artists involved are largely initially unknown apart from fans based within their immediate vicinity, it’s easy to lose such music down cultural cracks. This collection (contact does the valuable job of gathering together one such group, from Australia, taking underground punk and post-punk music from that country and displaying it with gloriously produced box set. The music here was sourced from originally released tapes/cassettes or vinyl between the late seventies and early to mid eighties.

Opening this box set is a bit like discovering an unopened wooden chest lying dusty in the attic and finding a series of seemingly unconnected items that, nevertheless, reflect a time and a place and way of thinking.

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Influenced by the punk rock movement occurring, at the time, in the UK, bands from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne formed their own groups with names such as The Triffids, Thought Criminals, The Scientists and the Celibate Rifles becoming known as The Inner City Sound while DIY fanzines, art spaces and record labels popped up all over the place. Labels such as 2 Tapes, Fringe Benefit, Never Never Land and Lymph Products were frantically active during this period. A selection of this work appears on the seven LPs packed into this box along with a large-format, forty-eight page book.

What you’ve got here, concentrated within this box set, is an island movement which, in many ways resembles the UK in terms of its intense creativity and self-belief. Australia, despite it’s sheer physical size, remains a relatively small island nation in terms of population for, despite the spaces within the country, offers only around 24 million people as a population. It’s this small populous that helped to ferment and concentrate these new and innovative ideas. Concentrations of smaller groups of people collected into narrow urban bands and enabled ideas to move and to evolve quickly.

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This box set doesn’t feature hundreds of Sex Pistol rip-offs, though. There is genuine innovation, exploration and diversity here with artists that could have taught the UK scene a thing or two.

Here’s a few examples. There is the deliciously contrasting sounds of early synth and organic guitar along with bored and sparse vocals from Negative Reaction. Land of Surrender (1981) is a somewhat morose and languid track that is beautifully balanced in terms of tone and melody.

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Xero’s Strangers, Immigrants & Bandits is almost free-form in is dependency on a strict rhythm and musical form, wandering from Siouxsie Sioux-like vocalisations to European folk to jerky punk rock. It’s never boring because you’re never too sure what will appear next.

Rhino Rhino RH+ is dramatically different from the above as they move more towards synth-based content and rhythms in Mr Hat (1980). Their arrangements are more experimental and combine with contemporary sampling from other media.

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The exploration continues with Severed Heads and Traumat along with Nightsong and Car Advertisement from around 1980 and 1981 which offers an almost ethereal expose of post punk and then an increasingly minimalistic approach to synth production and a delivery that strips the electronics steadily down to its barest noise.

The experimentation didn’t stop there. From 1984 is The Horse He’s Sick and Don’t Know Where You Came From which utilises looped tape samples in an almost William Burroughs-type production using sampled music and speech to form new and diverse rhythms that clash and merge in unexpected ways.

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Each one of these bands remain largely unknown to the majority, their songs are only familiar to a niche fanbase while the original sources are so rare as to be almost impossible to find: many albums were limited to a hundred or more cassettes, for example. Yet, brought together as a unified movement, this underground swathe of musical treats can now be enjoyed for what it is: pure, edgy, raw, primitive, trail-blazing energy. Plug yourself in.