The Laurels started life as a shoegaze band in thrall to the British sounds of the late 1980s and early 90s: Ride, Swervedriver and, most obviously, My Bloody Valentine. Their first album, Plains, was all Fender Jaguar and Rickenbacker guitars, played at deafening volume (with liberal use of tremolo arm) and, while it wasn’t exactly original, the Sydney band had close to perfected the approach.
Four years on, Sonicology sees the Laurels taking a slight left turn. The band still love MBV’s Kevin Shields, but this time it’s his work with Primal Scream circa XTRMNTR that finds an Australian echo. These are densely psychedelic wall-of-sound collages with clear dance floor and hip-hop leanings – minus the paranoid political edge that made XTRMNTR a classic.
Instead, the Laurels sound more like 24-hour party people: there’s a pronounced Madchester / baggy rhythmic influence, particularly the Happy Mondays, and there’s a lot going on. On top of layered guitar tracks, several songs feature trumpet, flute and saxophone; Some Other Time even features a bulbul tarang, a south Asian instrument which translates from its Punjabi origin as “waves of nightingales”.
That’s a pretty good description of Sonicology. It’s highly melodic, but not easy to assimilate when everything is coming at you at once. Give it time to settle, though, and there are songs here – and good ones too: the clipped funk of Trip Sitter, at the album’s centre, is a highlight; so too the rubbery bass line that underpins Frequensator (song titles, perhaps, are not this band’s strongest point).
There is still the sense that the Laurels are following, rather than leading the pack. While the reference points remain British, Sonicology positions them clearly as part of the new wave of Australian psychedelia spearheaded by Tame Impala. The lyrics? “When you see sound / Sine waves marching / Oscilloscopes darting / It will be all you ever need,” they burble on Frequensator. They’re cosmic, man.
At times, they slip into banality. Mecca, which features the lines “I’ll tell you something that I’ve told nobody / I really want for you to know / That this life and this time / Is everything that matters most” makes you wish they’d taken another leaf from Shields’ playbook (not to mention the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, the godmother of this sort of psychobabble), and buried the words altogether.
But words aren’t really the point here. Sonicology is all about pills ’n’ thrills, and if you find yourself with a bellyache (or earache) afterwards, that doesn’t take away from the fun of listening to it. It’s a good trip, while it lasts.
First published in The Guardian, 14 October 2016