Astro_Children_Chicks_Hotel

“Nora Barnacle” is a blast from the wild side of the enigmatic Dunedin two-piece Astro Children. It is bound to polarise people even more than their earlier single ‘The One we Start With’ did (which broke some unwritten rules of alternative rock about how much phaser you can use).

The last couple of Astro Children singles have been from the more restrained pages of the songbook: the woozy out-of-focus strum of ‘Jamie Knows’ and the dislocated space-glaze pop of ‘Gaze’. But when Astro Children play live the swirling unhinged fury of songs like ‘Nora Barnacle’ are a big part of their compelling and sometimes challenging performances.

Straight away the sonic template they’ve been given by Dunedin Pop Underground maverick Adrian Ng gives this song an ominous crackling energy of loose wires running across a damp floor in a concrete bunker. The lightly phased and reverb washed drums from Isaac Hickey – the sometimes invisible but never inaudible foundation upon which Astro Children build their alternative otherworld – pulse and push the song forward.

I am the boy
who does enjoy
invisibility
invisibility

Millie Lovelock’s icy detached vocal coda at the start here reminds me of another favourite NZ artist – Claire Duncan as Dear Time’s Waste. But it soon gets blasted into a different realm when the guitar noise and vocal rage builds menacingly to the climax scream of ‘does it offend you!?’ at 2m 30s.

Structurally this is not pop (no verse/ chorus structure, just a building tension and release), nor is it punk or post-punk, nor even post-rock (whatever that is). There’s a reminder here of the power of Dunedin sonic space travellers High Dependency Unit/ HDU, but recorded on a Dunedin DIY budget, using brains more than brawn to fashion a convincing sonic template.

The compelling heart here is bizarre: Millie channelling her imaginary James Joyce (the song appears to reference Joyce’s letters to his muse and wife-to-be Nora) into the heart and soul of this apocalyptic raging starburst of a song. But Millie is a cryptic songwriter and I doubt that is all this song is about.

Astro Children can’t/ won’t be easily categorised. Is their thing space guitar punk pop with phasers set to stun? Is it delicate spaced-out folk-pop? Is it deconstructed post-rock noise? Is it wild crazy fury? Yes, it is all these things.

Unlike most bands, who set out to occupy a particular genre or scene, Astro Children have always just appeared to me to be Isaac & Millie doing what they want to do, whether or not anyone wants to hear it. But within that are puzzles to be unlocked, mysteries to be solved, moments of beauty to be admired and fierce rage to be enthralled/ repelled by. Audiences are either with them or against them; there’s not much middle ground.

Fittingly, Auckland label Muzai Records – a label that has never shied away from taking on and championing uneasy listening iconoclasts and misfits – is releasing the album – Proteus – this song is from.

As Shayne Carter observed in 2011 about musicians in Dunedin – “…people have had nothing to lose, or more pertinently, nothing to gain…. You’re braver when it doesn’t really matter, less self-conscious when you think nobody’s listening. Rock music is best when it’s not being careful,”

Does it offend you?

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