The first indication that you’re on a sinking ship comes just four bars into the first song. After a bluesy lick on the major chord, the guitar bends down a tone, holding the seventh while the major arpeggio continues. It’s a momentary bitterness that is quickly resolved, but it’s this bitterness that the Drones are all about. Bitterness, defeat, failure. Oh yeah, music to put you in a good mood.
After their fierce and raw half-originals, half-covers 2002 debut Here Come the Lies, it seems the Drones built up most momentum in Europe. This from a Spanish review of the debut: “...que es gerundio, rock ‘n’ roll sucio, cerdo y auténtico, piensa en jack daniell’s, un paquete de camel vacío, una cazadora de cuero llena de polvo, un cenicero lleno de colillas… puro rock!!”
Puro rock!! Indeed. I don’t understand a word of Spanish, but I think they liked it. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because despite that critically acclaimed (in Spanish) debut, Wait Long by the River will likely be most listeners’ introduction to the band. To recap, then: the Drones are a four-piece garage-blues rock act out of Melbourne, Australia, formed in 2000. They are Gareth Liddiard (vocals), Rui Pereira (guitar), Fiona Kitschin (bass) and Mike Noga (drums). They play music that is literate, depressed, rough as guts and occasionally, brilliant.
Not so much the whiskey-soaked country man’s blues as a surfie’s blues, these songs become beer-soaked and salt-water-logged at the same time. Water is central to the band’s wild imagination; songs deal with drownings, circling sharks, rivers of dead bodies. When the singles were played on the summer radio in Australia, the Drones seemed less threatening than a Cronulla riot, but it’s all pretense. Liddiard’s raspy, lugubrious shout alone could basically knock you off your feet, like Leonard Cohen turned inexplicably violent. The US packaging capitalizes on this to good effect, for while in the Aussie cover shows a multi-colored montage of stylized fish swimming through blue water, here we get the scene re-imagined in black and grey. It’s perfect for “The Best You Can Believe In”, where Liddiard sings, “A burning river of the worst men have / Is the best you can believe in / Let it balm you / then embalm you / You can float your body down it in peace.”
What is perhaps surprising is that at least two of the songs are catchy radio-airplay catchy. “Baby2” is a great song, all high energy and with a “baby baby” chorus that pumps you up like a shot of bad rum. “Shark Fin Blues” builds from a slow beginning to a warbled gasp of desperation; you’ll want to play it again, and again.
But these shorter, more compact cuts aren’t the focus of the album. Taken together, only two of the songs are less than five-minutes in length. What this allows the band to do is to take their time, expanding on ideas and atmospheres to their natural conclusion. This is certainly one of the best things about Wait Long by the River, but it is also one of the things that limits the album. Because nobody wants to be kicked in the guts every day, you have to be in a certain frame of mind to appreciate it. Take “Locust”, a savage, alcoholic, seven-minute epic. Halfway through, we get a violin cadenza with the gypsy ring of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, accompanied by a crescendo of such powerful, dissonant distortion that it’s hard to listen to unless you are really prepared.
There’s no real redemption for the protagonists of these songs: They despair, they drink, and they drown. The Drones have become experts at capturing this dark-grey, aqueous world in sprawling, dense garage-blues epics. Perhaps more a comment on me than on the band, but I can’t think of a better accompaniment to a world where race riots in Sydney are still an unfortunate reality.