It’s staggering how versatile The Presets members are as serial moonlighters. Frontman Julian Hamilton co-wrote Silverchair’s ‘Straight Lines’, while his cohort Kim Moyes recently co-produced the DMA’s sophomore, For Now. But, in 2018, the Sydney electro-popsters are back with their first album in six years – a project they’ve branded “pub rock techno”. The big question is where The Presets belong in today’s Australian dance scene – or, specifically, a Flumiverse of dreamy, atmospheric melotronica. Indeed, the landscape has changed dramatically since the pair unveiled 2005’s debut Beams on Modular Records or even their imperial phase, circa Apocalypso. EDM has come and (arguably) gone.
With this fourth album, The Presets could either trade on nostalgia or stage a radical reinvention. In fact, they do both, following PNAU – whose Changa was a psychedelic trip through time, space and rave.
The Presets performed steadily in 2017 – and they’re touring again from mid-June. And HI VIZ is an album that begs to be experienced live. It’s about the party. According to Moyes in the presser, the combo selected “the most ‘up for it’ songs”. As such, HI VIZ launches with the weirdly incongruous ‘Knuckles’ – juddery Casio-pop punctuated by carnivalesque horns.
The hooky lead single ‘Do What You Want’ really does epitomise pub rock techno (recalling the classic ’90s Oz rocktronica outfit sonicanimation, who had fuzzy “Technotubbies” mascots). The infamous Kirin J Callinan is on guitar duties, Michael di Francesco (aka Touch Sensitive) plays bass, and there are yet more horns. However, much of HI VIZ has a dirty warehouse vibe, with four-on-the-floor beats (‘Brains’ is tribal). The tech-house ‘Martini’ is a throwback to MANDY and the heyday of Berlin’s Get Physical stable. Co-produced by cred Melbourne DJ Mike Callander, ‘Until The Dark’ is serious acid-techno. Melbourne shufflers, rejoice! (Notably, ’14U+14ME’ – already aired as a promo single – has nearly as many curated club remixes as Depeche Mode typically commission.)
In contrast to The Presets’ last foray, Pacifica, HI VIZ offers chants over songs – a local micro-trend, if DREAMS’ ‘No One Defeats Us’ is any indication. Hamilton favours semi-rapped, or spoken word, vocals over singing – occasionally evoking Right Said Fred.
The Presets have suggested that ‘Downtown Shutdown’ is the “flipside” to their strident protest hit ‘My People’, but it’s simultaneously more anarchic and more celebratory. The track itself is communal with a gospel choir from the remarkable African diaspora in Shepparton, rural Victoria. But, then, with its guitar licks, ‘Downtown Shutdown’ also sounds like INXS when they discovered funk.
Most surprising are the number of quasi-novelty tracks on HI VIZ, even aside from ‘Do What You Want’. In 2018, The Presets are larking. ‘Beethoven’ is a nod to the duo’s time as students at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Hamilton intones, “I like to listen to Beethoven” over house beats with corresponding female vocals and the kind of epic build a prog-trance super-DJ might dig. Perversely, it closes with a Mozart orchestral sample.
The Presets have rarely collaborated with others on their own albums – although, coincidentally, Daniel Johns did co-write some early songs. Yet HI VIZ revels in flossy cameos. Scissor Sisters’ lead singer Jake Shears joins ‘Tools Down’. Awesomely, Sydney’s Alison Wonderland becomes a shouty punk grrrl on the acid-hop ‘Out Of Your Mind’ (The Presets remixed her single ‘Church’). Curiously, too, it boasts input from Warren “Oak” Felder, who, as part of the R&B unit Pop & Oak, has produced Miguel and Kehlani. Still, the most out-there collab is that with DMA’s. Moyes persuaded the Brit-pop revivalists to include the “disco” ‘The End’ (it’s actually more Years & Years) on For Now. But, for HI VIZ, the band go full rave with the Tommy O’Dell-sung ‘Are You Here?’, which rivals The Chemical Brothers’ psychedelic rock adventures. It has GOT to be a single.
Ultimately, HI VIZ is contemporary party music that pays homage to the past, and anticipates a brighter future, while shedding the pretension.