Australian hard rock aficionados could be forgiven for wondering just where The Owls have been
for the past 18 months. The Newcastle band’s debut single Go Let It Go spun them onto the circuit, scoring them a coveted triple j Unearthed spot on the 2010 Fat As Butter stage, and the EP it was lifted from was a hearty chest-thump of alternative rock that actively rejected the airwave-amenable leanings of your Eskimo Joes and your Grinspoons. But two years is a long time between products these days, especially for an unsigned act, and despite the energy that their first offering promised, the momentum waned. The band had seemingly failed to capitalise on that initial enthusiasm.
All, however, is not what is seems. As is often the case, newfound success came with its own
trappings. After hiring a “big studio” producer for their next recordings, the band found the
results of the sessions to be too glossy, too friendly, too not-at-all-what-they-wanted. Their vision compromised, they did what any indie band worth their salt would do – scrapped the recordings, started from scratch and did the whole damn thing themselves.
And so we have the Swamp Love EP: 20-odd minutes of rough-and-ready desert rock recorded in a 2m x 3m tin shed, produced and mixed entirely by the band themselves. It’s one thing for a bedroom producer to make laptop beats in their home office, but recording a four-piece rock outfit, that’s an entirely different, infinitely more complex kettle of fish. However, The Owls seem to have pulled it off, delivering a record that’s at once full-bodied and lo-fi, and one that can sit proudly next to any comparable record released recently. And guess what? They’re killer songs to boot.
Lead track Better Off Deaf, an appropriate meditation on listening to one’s gut instinct, is probably the strongest offering of the six, ploughing its dirty ray-gun riff deep into your brain, as stoner harmonies and pounding drums lead you toward a huge, bone-crunching finale. Next is Take Me Alive, a squalling garage stomper, all crosshatched riffs and detuned acoustic guitar. Swamp Love is the turning point, reeling back the energy as it shuffles up with hip-swingin’ bass and rolling toms, dropping a tremolo guitar line straight out of Soundgarden’s Seattle. It never really takes off
like the first couple, but still infuses the entire record with a great sense of atmosphere.
The record segues nicely into Memo, which continues along at a languid pace. Sounding a little too similar to Swamp Love, it’s perhaps the weakest track here. It attempts to raise the roof with what sounds like a thrashy middle-eight before ending prematurely and on roughly the same level as it started.
Thankfully, Space Invaders kicks things back into gear, all laconic licks, bended notes and clanging chords over a rhythmic one-note riff (again reminiscent of QOTSA and friends) that builds to a satisfying climax. Closer Comprende is an acoustic Tex-Mex trail song that employs three-part harmonies and skilfully conjures images of the dusty desert without resorting to whip-cracks or yee-hahs.
All these tracks, whether by design or through the nature of their recording, have a natural-sounding reverb, and gritty, lightly distorted vocals that lend an authenticity to the sound, like the songs were recorded onstage in a sweaty dive somewhere in the American south. There will be the inevitable comparisons to almost every Josh Homme project you can think of, but if you like your guitars hard, rough and fuzzed-up, then don’t let the similarities put you off – there is a swagger and unique personality here that no amount of money could capture.
If this is what homespun sounds like these days, you have to question why any band would spend the big bucks for the big names in the future.