Blank Realm has been knocking around Brisbane, Australia for over half a decade, spurting out small-press underground rumblings on all sorts of formats. But with the release of Go Easy they are swaggering confidently into a bigger spotlight. The record actually came out last year and kicked up a fair amount of positive dust, but in the end that response just wasn’t satisfactory, for the UK label Fire Records has recently given it another well-deserving and higher-profile press, this time on pink vinyl. Listeners favorable to a meeting of Royal Trux’s more rocking moments and the raggedy thrust of the current garage scene should find it a keeper.
Australia’s been a major hub of unkempt rock action for decades. Obviously there was AC/DC and before that The Easybeats, but the continent also produced two of the finest bands in first generation ‘70s punk in Radio Birdman and The Saints, both forming in ’74 and helping to make the movement much more than just a US/UK phenomenon.
Not long after, word began spreading over The Birthday Party and The Scientists, those groups simply being the breakout representatives of an impressive wave of post-punk activity that was occurring in their home locale. It became clear rather quickly that anybody desiring global knowledge over the entirety of the rock impulse needed to keep an ear open to happenings taking place down Oz way.
As the ‘80s progressed, such a massive spurt of Aussie records were given coverage in the era’s burgeoning fanzine press that it became impossible for anyone save the most indefatigable consumers to keep track of it all. A few of those groups, The Lime Spiders, Died Pretty, and Exploding White Mice to name but three, ended up distributed or signed to US or UK labels, but for anyone not residing in the land Down Under the vast majority remained import-only affairs. Unsurprisingly, some of the period’s best Australian noise remained solidly underground.
While the ‘90s saw a massive increase in bands and scenes from all over this spinning green orb, those once overwhelming streams of Oz punk/garage/scuzz slowed to a trickle. Things were likely still taking place on the home shores, but the country’s exports were almost completely defined by mainstream or Alternative sensibilities. Yes, there was the Dirty Three, but while an exceptional instrumental combo, they don’t really fall into the style/tradition detailed above.
And that condition spread right into the new millennium, with the lack of Aussie-sourced sonic grunt being enough to inspire recollections of that whole ‘80s deluge as considerably more than just maddening prolificacy, but instead as a real lost era. However, around ’07 or so came word of a young band named Eddy Current Suppression Ring, and seeking them out made it clear that Australia’s urge for unruly rock wasn’t dormant.
Eddy Current Suppression Ring found a US home in Goner Records of Memphis, and it wasn’t long before two more Oz acts, Naked on the Vague and Circle Pit, were given stateside releases via Philadelphia’s Siltbreeze label. Things were indeed looking up. And just last year the same imprint issued Go Easy from Brisbane’s Blank Realm.
If you missed out on that record at the time, please trust me that you weren’t alone. But don’t fret, for the fine UK label Fire Records has saw fit to provide it with a fresh vinyl pressing and a substantial increase in visibility. Blank Realm has actually been around for quite a while, entering their sixth year of existence with a slew of cassettes, CD-Rs, and LPs to their credit, but non-Aussies not attuned to the Not Not Fun label very likely missed out on most or all of the band’s progressions up ‘til recently.
The group is composed of two brothers and a sister, Daniel (vocals/drums), Luke (bass), and Sarah (synths/vocals) Spencer, with Luke Walsh (guitar/engineering) completing the lineup. Based on a casual first impression, the foursome seems to be tapping into a definite ‘90s indie vibe, a circumstance that’s only deepened by the comparisons between the band and the early/mid-‘90’s recordings issued by Royal Trux, notably ‘92’s Untitled, ‘93’s Cats and Dogs and perhaps even ‘95’s Thank You.
This connection is certainly evident in Blank Realm’s sound, most immediately through the disheveled, at times heavy-lidded orientation of their delivery. But it’s also tangible in the vocals of Sarah Spencer, her voice nudging toward the inflection of Royal Trux’s Jennifer Herrema. Interestingly, this isn’t the first instance of a Trux-like similarity to come wafting out of Oz in the recent past, for Sydney’s Circle Pit have also brought the sound of Herrema and Neil Haggerty to mind.
There are substantive differences between the two, however. On Bruise Constellation, Circle Pit often idled at a whacked-out intersection of punk and glam, but Blank Realm are again far more attuned to the ‘90s. They even conjure the thrust of Sonic Youth on Go Easy’s opener “Acting Strange,” with Sarah’s singing just as remindful of Kim Gordon as it is Herrema.
It’s far from any kind of brazen form cop, though. The song quickly locates a menacing tone that’s similar to what San Fran’s Thee Oh See’s have been up to lately, and the synth-lines even managed to bring pleasant thoughts of Pere Ubu’s Allen Ravenstine to mind. And if they score big points right out of the gate for subtle erudition, then considerable extra credit is awarded for following it up with “Cleaning up My Mess,” a superb slab of messy pop that sprawls out to over seven minutes in length.
It’s a fantastic tune that never wears out its welcome. To the contrary, after well over a dozen listens, it actually feels too short. And when heard in succession with the scrappy “Working on Love,” the band really begins to inhabit a territory that’s congruent with the more ambitious side of contemporary garage-rock. Not just Thee Oh Sees, but Ty Segall and White Fence even.
“Growing Inside” (and a fair amount of Go Easy overall) can maybe be summed up as what Royal Trux might’ve sounded like if they’d ever actually attempted a pop-phase; in a nutshell, catchy and messed-up. But what Blank Realm share most with Royal Trux is a real savvy underneath the addled surface. For starters, the way “Cleaning up My Mess” flows so smoothly out of the antsy rocking of “Acting Strange” is far from merely luck or accident.
Furthermore, the two parts of “The Crackle,” easily the most “out” passages on the record, are far from unfocused flailing. Observing the track listing on the back cover before playing the record, I casually wondered why the sections weren’t divided on the LP’s opposing sides. But after digesting them, the reasoning became obvious.
“The Crackle, Part 2” only really works when heard as an uninterrupted continuation of its first portion, and soaking up their combined strangeness reinforced just how much thought, talent, and effort actually went into the making of Go Easy. Following this is “Pendulum Swing,” which combines the band’s grasp of catchy songwriting with their penchant for garage-based atmospheres while simultaneously providing a showcase for some frazzled guitar dynamics and wicked dollops of synth residue.
The expertly executed Stonesian slouch of the title track, the song brimming with an attitude of cool resignation, closes out an excellent record. And due to the low press-run scarcity of Blank Realm’s earlier material, Go Easy will likely impact many observers as an unusually impressive debut, but scouring the internet for evidence of their prior work, specifically the Heartless Ark LP, the Dirty Ark cassette, and the “Déjà What?” EP (which is available on Spotify), has revealed some real developmental strides in the group’s background.
Those prior motions can be assessed as very worthy u-ground murk with digressions into off-center pop, but Go Easy is a confident step onto a larger plateau, the advance achieved without sacrificing the verve that made such an interesting proposition in the first place. So it’s no surprise the record’s been attached to three different labels in just two years (its domestic release was handled by Aussie imprint Bedroom Suck).
Very frequently when listening to a record, a song will arise and immediately reveal its destiny as the consensus “hit” of the platter. That’s not the case here. Understandably, lots of folks are currently celebrating the odd pop of “Cleaning up My Mess,” but from where I’m listening, Go Easy has four more cuts out of a grand total of eight that are just as strong.
And that’s a downright impressive feat. Due to the surface familiarity of their sound, Blank Realm is likely to be underrated a bit, but with this LP they’ve charted a fresh entry in the annals of Australia’s rocking history, and that’s a circumstance deserving of generous praise.
GRADED ON A CURVE: