Devastations: Yes U

[9 March 2008]

By Dan Raper

Devastations, a group of three Australian ex-pats living in Berlin, may be in for a bit more attention with the release of their third album, Yes U. At this point there’s probably more Europe in the group than Australia, but we Australians will claim them in the same way we claim Nick Cave—that their dark atmosphere is a bush atmosphere. Is a “cruel natural world” atmosphere, the one theme that has defined Australia’s successful music (Cave, Peter Sculthorpe), fiction (Peter Carey) and art (Sidney Nolan) for years. Cave and Warren Ellis of the Dirty Three have been perpetuating this with The Proposition and their work for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, together with Russell Crowe re-emphasizing the links in our cultural consciousness between the Australian desert and the American West. Devastations fit well into an idea of a cruel land, the seat of a barren existential desolation. For this, “As Sparks Fly Upwards”, e.g., is a perfect accompaniment.

Though the album, the group’s first for Beggar’s Banquet, will be looked on as a step up from their noirish but small-scale earlier efforts, there’s still plenty of the group’s gothic intensity for established fans. Bassist Conrad Standish and guitarist Tom Carylon share vocal duties. Standish is more like Nick Cave, lower, and ultimately the more compelling singer. However both convey a dark romance with well-enunciated, swooning melodic lines. “Rosa” is Standish’s biggest moment; he spits out the delivery murder-ballad style over a martial beat, as the swelling guitar noise builds to an oppressive emotional climax. Later, “An Avalanche of Stars” borrows the lightness of an early disco track and a 69s sci-fi piano theme in last-ditch effort to stave off complete depression: “Let’s go out tonight / We’ll swing from Chandeliers / What could be finer tonight to crystallize our tears?”

The expanded sound has two components. One is the lush, gothic orchestration filled with shimmering strings and a dark, shrouded beat. The prototype is the introductory “Black Ice”, which also nicely demonstrates the group’s newly-prominent emphasis on the groove. Once you’ve seen them onstage—or rather, once you’ve seen vocalist/bassist Conrad Standish onstage—you know that this is a cipher for sex. However, as explicit as some of these wishes become, there’s a strong vein of melancholy that prevents these being sex songs—they’re better, and deeper than that. They manage to sound horny, frustrated, desperate and ecstatic all at once.

The other newly-emphasized piece of Devastations’ sound on Yes U is their growing comfort with noise. There’s something experimental in the casual relationship between melody and sudden, distorted squall and Devastations have joined Drum’s Not Dead-era Liars in the exploration of it. Due to the slow pace with which much of this unfolds it seems more weighty and considered than the outburst of pure emotion it could be.

A note about the songs on Yes U: they’re leisurely. The pace of each song is squarely in the mid-tempo range. Combine this with the fact that each song stretches to an average of five or five and a half minutes, and you’ve got a record that is as concerned with atmosphere as anything else. But what makes the album work is that this atmosphere is never allowed to stagnate. From the folky, almost Dylan-esque feel to “The Saddest Sound” to the unexpectedly fierce and angular track, “Mistakes”, the group has pulled together a selection of well-explored songs that still leave you wanting more. If that’s not the mark of a pretty good band, I don’t know what is.

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