A year after their triumphant debut A Laughing Death In Meatspace, Melbourne’s off-kilter art-punk supergroup Tropical Fuck Storm return on a sombre note with Braindrops. With the title another collision of symbols like their band name and just as precipitatory, Braindrops has a lot to live up to: the frenetic, slap-dash A Laughing Death screaming equally outside and into itself, and between them two covers, a wobbly, slurring ‘Stayin’ Alive’ that marched on relentlessly in its swagger, and the horny-on-main Missy Elliot cover ‘Can’t Stop’ (with its cheeky tweak of “I like it ‘cos you raised in the hood” to Melbourne-local “’cos you raised in Collingwood” standing out against playful gender-flips and glitchy breakdowns).
But Braindrops has a different attitude to its predecessors. This is instantly clear in the opening track ‘Paradise‘, a melancholy ballad to a joining of unequals, partners who love in different degrees and search for a direction. Gareth Liddiard’s vocals here are a howl and his wandering guitar riffs articulate that search for foundation and reciprocation over the unsteady legs of the rhythm and keys – and this is the thesis of the album, less a wail than a whispered, derisive croak as though A Laughing Death screamed the band hoarse.
This turn will not come as a surprise for followers of TFS’ allied project The Drones, whose specialty lies in these sorrowful elegies to pain and loss at least as much as Liddiard’s warped guitar tones. But Braindrops is not just more of the same; Tropical Fuck Storm is weird, and Erica Dunn and Lauren Hammel are going to make it weird, with erratic polyrhythms, glitching synths and samples from the Russian Venus space probe Венера-14 showing up on ‘Desert Sands of Venus‘, a twisty little track with as much in common with Mr Bungle’s ‘Desert Search For Techno Allah’ as the crystalline Kalimba pieces and sonic landscapes of their fellow Victorians Dirty Three. Liddiard’s other Drones expat, Fiona Kitschin, is a force to be reckoned with on bass falling perfectly with Hammel’s percussive aggression – when the album threatens to get mired in its own bleak outlook, their rhythm section holds the whole thing together, plodding, unstoppable, and impossible to pull away from.
Liddiard himself is also unremitting. If he has sought comfort in the familiar ballad, he has extended himself in more subtle ways; in interviews he cites Tirzah and Mica Levi’s 2018 Devotion as an influence and this comes through in unusual vocal lines for his songs, winding and wavering through the songs. Where ‘Soft Power’ from the first album was an assault of symbols and names and product, metaphor on metaphor, in Braindrops these have been teased out from one another, and tracks like ‘The Happiest Guy Around’ articulate themes from A Laughing Death more succinctly than anything on the first album.
Last of all, in narrative lyrics, Liddiard’s songwriting bread and butter, the stories spun through ‘Aspirin’, ‘Maria 62’ and ‘Maria 63′ are increasingly abstract and dreamlike beside their equivalents on A Laughing Death like ‘The Future of History’ – and more tender and emotive as a result, juxtaposed with their dark context as though a backlight has been thrown upon them. Within the Marias, a Mossad agent is pictured meeting Nazi occultism figure and medium Maria Orsic exiled in Buenos Aires, a veiled gesture to the equally veiled gestures of the alt-right – as in our timeline we are confronted with white supremacists claiming allegiance to the fantasy lost civilisation of Thule in on-the-street interviews. What can appear so outlandish as to be harmless is far from it; ideas have power, even in fantasy, and they sneak into our societies and culture beneath that mask of fantasy. As Liddard’s critical lyrics grow more subtle, so the undercurrents too grow stronger.
More grounded songs like the title track bear this too, with Liddiard’s protagonist awaking, “If you’re wondering who woke up, you woke up / We just have not figured out which you yet,” echoing the chaotic and chaos sentiments of beat authors, Burroughs’ ‘Atrophied Preface’, or the many lives and eyes of the Illuminatus! trilogy before taking on the dregs of the city of Melbourne and its division between the dirt poor, the dissociating working class, the immigrant districts and the hopelessness which defines the album. Yes, Braindrops is slow, but it’s a dirge. It’s hard to imagine what else could come after the technicolour digital hysteria of A Laughing Death – on the other side of panic, there is helplessness, and TFS in trying their hand at articulating this too have come to success.
‘Braindrops’ is the crown of the album; it’s worth the album just for that track, with the choruses, little twists on the norm and brutally succinct poetic lyrics come together to paint a harrowing portrait of urban alienation. But the wider picture is, as in that song, “crystal clear as any bathroom mirror” – it reflects the West back at itself, especially down under, without ever needing to march under a banner. Braindrops does its work on a subliminal level of implication and subtlety, all while holding your hands and making eye contact, isn’t this how you feel? And it is. If TFS are slow and exhausted, it is only because we all are. After all the screaming, it’s hard to see any other way it could be.
Braindrops was released across all platforms on 23 August 2019, and is available for purchase via the band’s Bandcamp and to stream on the usual services. Vinyl pre-orders are available through Flightless Records.