The Bats have been doing their thing for 30 years now, which includes not only releasing albums sporadically but also working on other projects and taking some time off, too. Vocalist/guitarist Robert Scott’s also the bassist for the Clean (probably the key act for both Flying Nun Records and the idea of the Dunedin sound), and he’s been involved with the Magick Heads and other acts. The band’s other members have performed (besides various other work) together as Minisnap. After all this time and all these acts, it shouldn’t be surprising that The Bats have crystallized a particular sound, but it might be surprising that they’ve just released some of the best music of their career with Free All the Monsters.
It’s a sound that they’ve been tinkering with since their beginning. The Bats are a quintessential jangle-pop act, with identifiably jangly guitars working together to serve clear melodies with shades of more tastesful experiences of nostalgia, longing, or wandering. The sound is usually compared to either the Byrds or the Velvet Underground; while both acts are relevant for that period of New Zealand flourishing, the Bats stand more as representative of other developments than as inheritors of those traditions. The group has closer to ties to 1980s sensibilities than to the 1960s and seem to have skipped the punk influences and experimentalism that connected other groups (The Bats are certainly less rowdy than, say, the Clean, and less noisy than their successors). Outside of Dunedin and Christchurch, there may be more connection to the Paisley Underground, but the Bats typically eschew the psychedelic effects.
Connecting more to David Kilgour than to Lou Reed, the Bats seem to have both helped create and to have been created by their scene. Remarkably, they’ve stayed consistent to that sound across their eight albums (that’s probably one reason why the compilation Thousands of Tiny Luminous Spheres is such a marvel). The sound has perhaps become cleaner as production has gained a higher fidelity, adding a maturity to the sound that matches the band’s lyrics, but the aesthetic core remains.
All of which might just be a several-hundred word way of asking, “What makes this new one in particular so good?”
It’s a bit of the intangibles and the je ne sais quois (becaues I don’t), but those aren’t really acceptable answers. The title track provides some clues: Scott sings that the monsters (and by, implication, their associates) have “had enough trials and tribulations”, yet he remains placid. There’s a calm confidence here that makes his request to “free all the monsters” sound like a plea for something inevitable. Loaded with that delivery is the sort of assertion developed with experience. The song takes on a big sweep, and if the chorus isn’t arena-ready, it’s because it resists any draw toward melodrama.
Throughout the album, the band shows poise without sacrificing energy or emotion. Even “Spacejunk”, the album’s most uptempo song (despite its dreamy production), holds itself steady in both its chug and emotional content. That steadiness shouldn’t be confused with blind optimism (either sonically or lyrically), and it’s significant that the disc closes with “Getting Over You”, and a singer that acknowledges the hurt of heartbreak while accepting its place in life. Free All the Monsters manages to be mature and intelligent in its struggles, facing them calmly amid a sonic brightness while capturing the resistance of experience.