I have never been to Australia and I am never going to Australia because I do not like Australia. What has Australia ever given us? The Little River Band? Those disgusting cane toads? Men at Work? Kangaroos who have pouches but are too dumb to use them to shoplift expensive vintages at the upscale wine shop? Crowded House? Men Without Hats, who are actually from Canada but I blame Australia for them anyway? John Paul Young?
Okay, so I’m kidding. I adore Australia. It has given us the great AC/DC, the fantastic Lubricated Goat, and The Go-Betweens, not to mention lots of other bands I’m too lazy to mention. And Nick Cave, of course, although I’ve never cared for Nick Cave, who (true story) arrived in DC dope sick one time to play a show and a friend of mine said he knew where to score but really didn’t, he just wanted to drive around in his car with the famous Nick Cave. They drove and they drove and meanwhile the famous Nick Cave was getting sicker and sicker, but my friend was happy as a clam because the famous Nick Cave was in the back seat of his car, albeit stone silent and slowly slithering out of his famous Nick Cave skin.
But if I’m not wild about Nick Cave, I’ll tell you who I do like: Total Control. The Aussie punks in Total Control have abandoned garage rock (I assume temporarily) for synthpunk, and the results sound like a bunch of English and American punk and post-punk bands (Wire, Screamers, Suicide, and Joy Division, to name a few) with Brian Eno and some Krautrock thrown in, then all scrambled together. I should find Total Control alarming because I’m a total synthophobe (one hearing of Soft Cell and I didn’t listen to British music for 20 years) and share the late Lester Bangs’ distrust of the cold and inhuman “menschmaschine” that synthesizers embody, but for some reason I actually, inexplicably, really enjoy Total Control’s music.
I suspect I’m making an exception in Total Control’s case because they’re punk people using synthesizers to make punk-influenced music and not pop people, who invariably employ synths to nefarious, horrifying ends. And don’t get all huffy on me for dissing Top 40 synthpop (it was the always right Oscar Wilde who said “Everything popular is wrong”) like the kind I’m forced to listen to in the gym that causes me to drop weights on my head. Which makes me wonder whether this sudden acceptance of synthesizers, which marks a new phase in my musical evolution, isn’t the result of brain damage and not open-mindedness. I just pray that listening to Total Control doesn’t lead to the harder stuff so that one day I find myself happily humming along to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, which if I hate their name so does OMD vocalist Andy McCluskey, who once said, “I wake up some nights and think Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark? What a stupid name! Why did we pick that one?”
Melbourne’s Total Control are being called a supergroup because they include members of Eddie Current Suppression Ring and UV Race, not to mention Straightjacket Nation, etc., but if that makes them a supergroup then so are Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, a law firm I googled this very minute. But supergroup or no, Total Control’s songs are very cool, or downright freezing I should say, in contrast to the music produced by the bands the members hail from, thanks to that frigid as a refrigerator synthesizer sound and Dan Stewart’s generally chilly vocals. This isn’t music, it’s air conditioning, and playing it around the clock should significantly reduce your electricity bills during the summer months. Just put Total Control in your window but be sure to secure them firmly, lest the whole band drop onto the head of an innocent pedestrian on the sidewalk below.
Since 2008 Total Control has put out one full-length (2011’s Henge Beat), a 2011 split LP with San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees, a 2011 EP, and a whole slew of 7-inches. The band consists of Mikey Young (Eddy Current Suppression Ring) on guitars/keys, Stewart (Straightjacket Nation, UV Race) on vocals, Alistair Montfort (UV Race, Lower Plenty) on additional guitars, Zephyr Pavey on bass, and James Vinciguerra (The Collapse, AIDS) on drums. My favorite member by far is Zephyr Pavey, because anybody named after “any of various lightweight fabrics and articles of clothing” (Merriam-Webster definition #2) is alright with me. The only thing cooler would be if his name was Foghat Pavey.
You have to admire the chutzpah of a bunch of musicians getting together to do something completely different from what they usually do, even if I myself prefer what they usually do to what they’re doing to do something completely different. (Did you get that? To quote the inimitable Oscar again, “I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”) What I’m trying to say is that experimentation is admirable, unless you’re a mad scientist trying to create a human with live carp for hands. Or the pale and creepy neo-Nazi German Schlager singer Heino, who recently put out a punk album, managing to piss off all the bands whose songs he covered in the process. Or Stalaggh–the Dutch “group” whose terrifying and unbearable albums consist of real insane asylum patients shrieking and screaming in an abandoned monastery chapel. (Believe me, you don’t want to check them out; they make the scariest death metal record you’ve ever heard sound like “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”) But sometimes experimentation produces splendid results, as in the case of Total Control.
Total Control’s songs on Henge Beat range from the punk laughathon “No Bibs,” to the autobahn-fast Eno rock of “Retiree,” to the mid-tempo and very synthy “The Hammer” (which I don’t like very much), to the Joy Divisionesque (that is if Ian Curtis had been a happier, better-adjusted person) “Love Performance,” to the echoing vocals and propulsive beat of “Carpet Rash.” And let’s not forget the speed rush of “One More Tonight.” They’re all catchy as hell, so maybe synthesizers don’t signify the beginning of the end of humanity after all. Henge Beat also includes a couple of short ambient-sorta instrumentals like “Shame Thugs” and “Sunday Baker” that are relatively innocuous but probably make for great flossing music.
And aside from Henge Beat, Total Control has recorded a slew of other neat songs on other records, like the throbbing “Paranoid Video” and the very punk “For Lease,” as well as “Nervous Harvest” and “Rogue Abortion,” both of which are from the Total Control/ Thee Oh Sees split LP and feature guitars (yea!) instead of synthesizers. Then there’s the beautiful “Scene From a Marriage,” which goes from slow to fast like somebody who just drank 8 shots of espresso and features Stewart repeating the lines, “And it keeps on ringing/ringing/ringing.” Please, somebody, pick up the phone.
I don’t know what else to say about Total Control except it’s good they don’t have Flock of Seagulls haircuts or I wouldn’t go see them no matter how good they are. You have to draw the line somewhere. That and I couldn’t wait for their Black Cat show on Saturday, May 25 to hear “See More Glass,” which drones on nonstop with Stewart singing like he’s another machine, and the punkish “Stonehenge,” which incorporates some cool whistling noises like a TV on the fritz, and “Meds II,” which includes the great lines “Taking pills to remember to take pills to forget,” which would be the perfect words to engrave on my gravestone if I hadn’t already decided on Rick Derringer’s “Gettin’ high all the time, hope y’all are too.” Or Rick Derringer’s “Did somebody say keep on rockin’?” I go back and forth between the two daily; it’s a big decision, and I don’t want to spend eternity kicking myself for making the wrong choice.
Anyway, I missed the opening acts for Total Control due to an exigency totally out of my control–namely, Kraftwerk, which I was using to air condition my apartment, fell out the window, and Falk Grieffenhagen, who could stand to lose a few pounds, landed on a car roof, completely pulverizing the car and totally pissing off its owner, who turned out to be a serious steroid case and not a sham bodybuilder like me. Anyway, I took a humdinger of a thumping then made my achy way to the Black Cat, after of course checking to see if Kraftwerk were okay. They were–the Germans are a tough people and defenestration is nothing to them, with the exception of Heino, who if he were to fall out a window would shatter into a million pale, fascistic pieces, leaving nothing behind but his weird dark glasses.
Total Control was great, but I left a little confused. Three guitarists (one of the mysteries of the show; who was the third guitarist?) and one synthesizer, which often played a supporting role, do not, I suspect, a synthpunk band make. They make a punk band with a synthesizer playing a supporting role. The guitars largely predominated throughout the set, and in short, the live band boasted a very different sound from the sound on record. I’m not complaining, mind you: I liked both the guitar- and the synth-led songs, and the band didn’t play anything that was less than excellent during the course of the evening.
The set featured (I think) four new songs: “Expensive Dog,” “Black Spring,” “Chill Al,” and “Ice Head.” The first featured a cool metallesque interlude and the powerhouse drumming of James Vinciguerra; “Black Spring” boasted a great groove and some siren-like synthesizer; “Chill Al” had a big bottom and some truly cacophonous guitar caterwaul at the end; and “Ice Head” was very syncopated and very fast and also featured some over-the-top guitar mayhem.
Total Control also played “Sweaty,” back-to-back superfast numbers in “Rogue Abortion” and “One More Tonight,” and “Scene From a Marriage” which opened with slow guitars and then sped up, and which highlighted the powerful vocals of Dan Stewart. “Retiree,” one of my favorite songs, was lightning fast and featured a monstrously cool guitar solo, while “No Bibs” incorporated some very heavy synth noise and the great chorus “Ha ha ha ha ha!” “Carpet Rush,” another of my faves, went by in a great propulsive rush, with the synth playing the lead role and Vinciguerra providing yet more titanic drum pummel. Total Control closed their all-too-brief set with “See More Glass,” a Kraftwerk rush down the jet train tracks of the future with some brief stops along the way to pick up some wiry, quivering synth noise.
Total Control was so great I could hug a kangaroo, although she’d probably kick me in the balls. Regardless of what you call them, synthpunks or supergroup or what not, at bottom Total Control is just a great rock’n’roll band that writes great rock’n’roll songs. I plan to immediately check out Eddie Current Suppression Ring and UV Race and all the rest, and something tells me it could be the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship. Meanwhile, my friend continues to drive the famous Nick Cave through the junkie precincts of Washington, DC, happy as a clam, and the famous Nick Cave is happy too, because he’s been in that car so long he’s been clean for years.