Menagerie – Excelsior Hotel, Bald Faced Stag, Annandale Hotel, Hermann’s Bar, 15-18/10/09

The Bird’s Robe Collective’s latest project was the spectacular offering of a four day festival across Sydney’s local venues, with a lineup including several interstate acts and local bands headlining each night.

Night One at the Excelsior Hotel in Surry Hills was a varied affair. Experimental duo The Bznzz consisted of drummer Alon Ilsar and bassist Josh ‘Lampshade’ Ahearn, trading technically confounding arrays of notes and rhythms, seemingly following some telepathic agreement they shared. Interspersed with the rhythmic display were moments of hilarity, as the two men paused momentarily to insult each other and confirm the time signature of the next passage.

Next up were Brisbane’s The Reenactment, whose frontman Jacob Hicks highlighted the diverse nature of the lineup “after The Bznzz, we’re about as experimental as an ABBA tribute band.” With that, the band plunged into an energetic display of keyboard driven punk rock, with vocals that screamed melodic phrases over pleasing chord changes. It wasn’t until halfway through the set that the band’s place on the bill became clear – not afraid to explore their sound, the band embarked on extended jam sections and punched their way through some epic closing material.

Third on the night was the pleasing post rock of Valar. By contrast to the fire and angular attitude of the first two acts, Valar was altogether more accessible and a growing audience showed their appreciation.

Finally, headliners Cities of the Red Night took stage for the launch of their EP. The band took on the modern progressive hard rock stereotype with a female vocalist who capably lent some of the more interesting melodies heard this evening. Guitarist Richard Berndt also showcased a solid technique that underpinned the band’s crunching grooves. With a tight rhythm section and well written the material, the only thing the band lacked was some originality and variety in their delivery. Too many times the same rhythmic ideas were repeated and in a 50-minute set, it became tiresome to all but the loyal fans. Luckily, most of those in attendance were such fans and as such, the band received rousing applause.

Night Two saw Bird’s Robe artists descend on the Bald Faced Stag, for the first BRC show to take place at the venue. Kicking off proceedings on the impressively lit stage were Adelaide four-piece Double Handed. With veteran soundie Stu Marks on the decks, it was clear from the moment the band hit out that this was going to be a great night for music lovers. Double Handed traded in their obvious technical proficiency in favour of strong songwriting and melody. Whilst shades of The Mars Volta, Muse and Karnivool appeared in their sound, the band’s material stood up well on its own. Vocally, Double Handed are perhaps one of the strongest bands around, as their singer and guitarist combined for some gorgeous harmonies in all the right places. The band hit all the right notes and played all the right grooves – perhaps the only thing missing was a fiery live performance to accompany such quality material.

Next on stage were Meniscus and in a temporary failure of will, I left the room swiftly intending to find something to eat. Disappointingly, the kitchen was closed and I trekked up Parramatta road to have a look. By the time I returned, I had inadvertently missed most of the set. The band finished to rave reviews from audience members and musos alike. Having seen them before I know how good they can be and I will be there next time!

The ethereal mood set up by Meniscus was soon whipped up in an altogether different shape by the manic Squid. Armed with a double-drummer, double-sax attack, the band was nevertheless led by their keyboard/synth player, who kept the band from descending into a noisy mashup of sax and drums. The band whirled their way through a variety of instrumental grooves in odd time signatures. The contrast between the two drummers – one subtle and jazz-trained, the other rocking out with aplomb – was one of the most visually interesting elements of the band. So too was the interplay between saxophonists. The sheer magnitude of the band’s sound made it difficult to see beyond the novelty value of their set up. I am sure this is a fantastic band, but I will have to see them again to really appreciate it.

Following up in the headline spot were Bird’s Robe mainstays Space Project. A tidy and well organised unit, they never fail to deliver with thoughtfully crafted instrumental rock and lush soundscapes. However, having seen the band numerous times, it has become clear that their impact is at times inconsistent. Many times tonight the band promised to launch into an epic wall of sound, but never quite took off. However well mixed or well performed, sometimes the energy from the band did not quite match the potential of their piece. Holly Harrison’s contribution on brass and wind instruments at times borders on genius, but her fantastic lines suffer when a bum note surfaces at the most epic point of the set. Guitarist Adrian Barr has gradually developed an almost fiery stage presence over the past year, which is pleasing to see, but at times mayhap contributes to a slight mistiming between the rhythm section. Drummer Matt Robertson and bassist Jed Maisey would do well to lock in their parts before seeking to embellish them too casually. The band has always had quality material (tracks Horizon and Atlantis always prove a live winner), but must continue to push themselves to deliver on their potential and not remain complacent after their recent live successes.

Finally, given the closing spot, quirksters Slimey Things brought the audience to their knees – either out of awe or fits of laughter. The sci-fi-prog-pop-rock band stuck true to character and delivered a set that was out of this world. Singer/guitarist Nick Soole entertained the crowd with deft one-liners about aliens and a myriad of facial expressions to add to his quacking knack for absurd vocals. Despite the band’s novelty, they are in fact a group of incredible musicians. Playing mind-boggling technical hits with ease (and big grins!) the band effortlessly flowed through odd metered pop songs and kept the midnight oil burning strong with a strong finish.

After an entertaining (but exhausting) Friday night, Saturday at the Annandale promised to be fantastic. In the end, it delivered mixed results. Panzer Queen opened with a performance that set the standard for the rest of the day’s acts. Mixing soaring soundscapes with intriguing rhythm, their sound was tight and powerful, benefiting from the Annandale’s pleasing sound (and mix master Brett Tollis on front of house) and sFj’s Alex Tulett doing a spectacular job on lights. Following up on the main stage, Wollongong’s Lumiere were a late replacement for fellow gong band Mirrorsessions. My disappointment at Mirrorsessions’ absence was quickly disappated at the band did their line check. With a guitar tone and effects almost identical to their gong brethren, the band sounded like something pretty cool. In fact, the similarities ended there. Impressively, Lumiere’s young appearance betrayed no inexperience. The band were tight and strong rhythmically. With vocals that alternated between softly Valar-esque pop and at time aggressive, Adam Hendry-style screams, the band showed their obvious potential. Again, the quality of the sound and lighting made Lumiere all the more impressive. However, whereas Panzer Queen used the stage to full advantage to highlight their material, one felt that this young Wollongong band sounded better than normal with the benefit of great production. It will be interesting to see them at another venue in six months time.

Triangle, another late addition to the bill, were the opening act on stage two. True to recent form, the band played a full set of just one song – ebbing and flowing between intense guitar waves of sound. Despite the second stage sound syndrome, the band were perhaps the best I have seen them. They wisely neglected to invite their sometime guest female vocalist on stage and this set was all about the mood. Although a ‘good’ performance, the band did not attract more than sparing interest from the audience.

Buzzard started as a straightforward instrumental rock band but then kicked into some serious grunt. Time shifting rock-outs followed. Though a tidy three piece, the drummer seemed a bit laid back on the beat (maybe it was the afternoon sun).

By now, it was halfway through the afternoon and only a handful of punters were present. Despite all the recent press about live music needing support in Sydney, at this, one of the most fantastically ambitious events of the year, few people saw fit to show up early to see some amazing artists. For me it was pretty simple. All that prog for just $20? Easy choice!

As a result, Double Handed took to the stage before a disappointingly small crowd. Picking up from where the previous night left off, the band showcased a bit more energy to their performance. It certainly helped as the sound quality left something to be desired.

With a now gathering audience as the afternoon gave way to evening, Melbourne’s Toehider (the new project from former Template frontman Mike Mills) burst on the main stage. Toehider was perhaps the undeniable highlight of the entire weekend to date. Featuring the highest vocals known to man, the hottest guitar riffs and a full minute of a unison guitar solo, the band had everything. With former Soilwork, Chimeira and all-round awesome drummer Richard Evensand on the skins, the band was well set up as a bit of a mini super group. Dazzling displays on fretwork and vocal histrionics followed, it was classic prog with a modern rock edge and fittingly, the band with serious chops did not take themselves too seriously. They thoroughly entertained and Melbourne are lucky to call these gig-pigeons their own.

Fellow Victorians A State of Flux following on stage 2, had a big act to follow. Rather than compete, the band quickly stamped their sound as markedly different. With a barefoot female vocalist and her male guitarist and drummer counterparts acting as worthy rhythm generators, ASOF hit the nail on the head when it comes to setting up a groove and a mood. Eastern-tinged cues from the backing track and thumping riffs maintained the interested punters.

Pirate seemingly almost didn’t happen, due to the late arrival of their bassist. However, it was well worth the wait. This band have gone from strength to strength lately and at this, one of their rare live performances of recent times, everything clicked. Despite guitarist Shan sporting an injured leg, the band rocked the place hard. Fortuitously, as we later found, when the guitar rig failed, drummer Tim embarked on a drum solo of epic proportions. Pirate were once all groove and little excitement but have now grown into a commanding live band, with frontman Joel Woolfe beginning to own the stage with his exciting saxophone-scream moments. Once again, the lighting and sound production outdid themselves, with epic work.

The first headliner, sleepmakeswaves, followed. Despite playing with a click track, the band seemed to me to have a tension between the band members, never quite sitting in the pocket. Their established tracks were overshadowed by their ten minute epic, featuring horns from Space Project’s Holly Harrison. This is one piece worth seeing again. The band received a rousing response, fitting with the growing attention they have been receiving on Triple J and in press. With well spoken stage thanks to the event organisers, the band were clearly doing it for all the right reasons and have chosen to attempt to push themselves musically rather than wallow in instrumental noise. Their recordings still outdo their live impact and the band continue to improve.

Quiet Child had a tough ask, following sleepmakeswaves and preceding the eagerly-anticipated Shanghai. Though a slow start, the vocals for this Adelaide act saved them from descending into another generic riff band. It’s never easy to coax a great mix from the Annandale’s stage two but finally the desk man seemed to have got it right. Though appeared lacklustre, the singer/guitarist performed some hauntingly excellent melodic work and were backed by a more than capable (if too relaxed) band. With Double Handed’s singer doubling up on drums, they nailed every hit and drew some impressive props from an unfamiliar crowd.

Finally, Shanghai took to the Annandale stage, in front of an adoring crowd. Part headline show, part celebration of singer/keys player Chantel Bann’s birthday, the show was all entertainment. Though never the tightest act, Shanghai have always impressed with their attention to detail. Decorating the stage with lanterns, players dressed in homage to the old Frank Zappa band and with musical compositions to match – the band spared no effort in making clear who the night was all about. Shifting from piece to piece Zappa-style, the band inspired a crowded room into all kinds of varying dances – from mosh, to ballroom to the robot…! Graciously thanking the audience and event, the band were a fantastic end to an epic day and left punters feeling well done by.

Day four brought us to Hermann’s Bar, scene of several previous bird’s shows to date. Opening up proceedings were youngsters Stereo Dharma. After half the set it was clear to this reviewer that the band would have been better suited playing on a bill next to The Reenactment. Their punky experimental rock betrayed their age and inexperience (as did their technical difficulties) however the songwriting showed potential. This is a band that need not turn to extended jamming to make up for lack of a song – yet the jams, when they did occur, were tasteful, ripping and exciting showcases of the band’s willingness to be more than ‘just another’ pop band, whilst not trading in their accessibility.

Double Handed, though perhaps a bit worn out from three days straight, showed no signs of letting up. Though the front of house mix continued to pay little respect to guitarist Jess Porter’s beautiful licks, the band played a strong set of which the roaring tracks ‘Final Question’ and ‘Social Changes’ were standouts.

Instrumental act Dumbsaint showed their willingness to provide visual entertainment with a small screen showing images, perfectly in synch with their music. Drawing hints of Tool or an early Cog in their sound, the band was well versed on their instruments. Probably some more fire in the performance would help the band rise above the other acts in their genre. As it was, they were a pleasant and interesting act and took the evening to another level.

Another first-time Bird’s Rober, Anubis, surprised this reviewer. For the first time all weekend, a classic prog rock band from Sydney did appear. Keyboard? Check. More than one keyboard/synth? Check. Extended guitar solos? Check. Singer with a tambourine and other percussion? Check. A couple of odd-time signatures? Check. Lyrics about fantasy? Check. Sydney-based and therefore not as cool as Toehider? Hmm. Check. This reviewer was so busy checking boxes on the prog-o-meter that she forgot to discern whether the band were actually good at all these things (except the last one). Maybe the vocalist could use some tuning, otherwise worth seeing this band again. Punters obviously felt the same as they drew the largest crowd of the night and were suitably impressive in maintaining their attention through a myriad of excellently crafted musical ideas.

Finally, indie proggers i like cats took stage. This grand finale of the epic Menagerie festival, featuring 23 bands, over a hundred musicians and attended by hundreds of fans over four days was seen by… about ten people. It was a crying shame, because this young independent band have improved brilliantly over the past year. Their songwriting was interesting and original and vocals, though used sparingly, were worth every moment. The band kept free of the distortion pedal yet still built an intensity worthy of the Dumbsaints, Meniscii, Space Project, sleepmakeswaves and others in their local genre. Unfortunately, the punters exited early tonight, denying cats the opportunity to impress their improved performance upon more than a few. Those few, I’m sure, will be bringing their friends next time.

So that was Menagerie. My picks of the best performances? In no particular order: Toehider, Slimey Things, Dumbsaint, Meniscus (so I’m told), i like cats, Shanghai, Double Handed and Pirate.

Till next time.

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