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When was the last time you really looked forward to a new album, to the point where the packaging, liner notes and first fifteen listens all felt like the missing pieces of a much larger puzzle? Not just a puzzle – an event, like a Summer time sequel or season finale that’s actually worth the wait, and doesn’t just expand upon the story, so much as set its sails to new shores.
If it has been a while, then prepare yourself for The Presets’ latest delivery of carefully cultivated, synth-laced, prismatic pop songs:Pacifica.
Pacifica is the Sydney duo’s long-awaited return to the spotlight after vocalist/keyboardist Julian Hamilton and drummer/keyboardist Kim Moyes chased a seven-year touring/recording cycle with children—first-time fatherhood for both of them—and some much-needed time off.
The classically-trained producers/performers weren’t about to sit still for too long, however. Shortly after, the band was back to making beats and sketching new songs from a bevy of boundless equipment. All without the added pressure of deadlines and tour dates, leaving them with enough time to flesh ideas out with freeform jams or something as simple as a spare piano piece. As Julian plainly puts it, “I remember doing that stuff when I was 20, but I haven’t really had a chance to since.”
One of the main reasons for the pair’s packed schedule was the Presets’ award-winning breakthrough Apocalypso, a rare example of a catchy yet complex record that resonated with club kids and commercial radio. That connection is clearest in “My People”, which applies The Presets’ signature sound—snake-like synths, deviant kick drums, a beastly bassline—to a heat-seeking hook that works both as an arena-ready anthem, and as a sign of solidarity for immigrants summarily held in Australian detention centers. Its killer chorus (“I’m here with all of my people!”) seemed to captivate the entire country of Australia at one point, going double platinum and spending more than 75 weeks on ARIA’s Top 100 chart. “This Boy’s in Love,” “Talk Like That,” “Yippiyo-Ay” and “If I Know You” also left quite a mark.
The singles were paired with YouTube-clogging videos, the retina-singeing counterpart to melodies and music that Julian says were meant to be “romantic lyrically and stylistically—lush, grand and colourful, with an icy, crisp beat beneath it all.” And then there was Apocalypso’s osmotic artwork—a walk on the moon or a waking nightmare?
The artwork forPacificasees the guys cast away on a lake, surrounded by infinite space, yet shackled together with a pair of golden handcuffs. In some ways could it represent both the sense of freedom and containment, the extremes and the many divergent interests that come from more than a decade of working together?
“Youth In Trouble” opens the album and spills over a never-ending, undulating rise of “face-melting techno”. “The media tries to scare the shit out of parents – drugs, sex, the Internet. Adults are taught to be scared OF youth, and scared FOR youth,” says Julian. “This song was really inspired by the panic, madness and fear that, rightly or wrongly, is so often associated with today’s young people.”
While the likes of “Promises” is definitely pop with a diabetic shock directive, it also reflects themes of that carry over most of Pacifica, a simultaneous sense of joy and melancholy both musically and lyrically.
Take “Ghosts”, where the peaks and valleys are grafted onto minor-keyed merengue grooves, topped with rollicking first fleet melodies.
“When Julian played me his initial sketch of this song it utterly blew my mind, “ explains Kim. “Taking a classic folk style, sea shanty and adding it to an up tempo techno groove was just genius to my ears. The lyrical content to me is so potent and compelling, which adds to the evolution of the sea shanty, drinking song style. There is something very Australian about it too. It inspired me to sketch up the idea for “A.O.””
“A.O.” (shorthand for “Adults Only” – which is an old broadcast ratings guide for television in Australia) is downright sinister, setting the bright lights of an unnamed urbane city against a dark, foreboding history; musically matched by powder keg progression of electroshock therapy and terrifying acid techno.
“I’d been reading a warts and all history ofSydneycalled Leviathan by John Birmingham,” explains Julian. “Kim is also a big fan of the book, and it really inspired the song. We always wanted to write a song about our hometown, because we love this place—especially after seeing so much of the rest of the world. ButSydneydoes have such a dark history, and there are sections of the city, old parts, where you do feel like you’re walking over people’s bones.”
“The development of civilisation and the quest for power is ultimately not without its cost.” adds Kim. “Our history lessons here are very one-sided and have a long way to go before everyone feels as though they are included.”
Elsewhere, haunted, spareful piano house parts travel through linear bass driven tracks, to both menacing and emotive effect (“Fast Seconds” and “It’s Cool” respectively). Atari-seasoned smart bombs track a litany to accelerated, fifteen-seconds-of-fame culture and the media who celebrate it (“Surrender”). There’s a floor-crashing celebration of love that was inspired by a cutting line (“two soft bodies…all the way to hell”) from Jeanette Winterson’s bleak but beautiful memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Not to mention a glistening, northern lights power ballad that shows traces of pessimism among abject beauty (“Fail Epic”).
“As artists and fans, we understand the importance of light and shade, both in energy and emotion,” says Kim. “While it’s great to write huge party anthems or face-melting techno, it’s also important for us to express a gentle, emotional side. It comes down to the kind of people we are; we can be very confident, sometimes to the point of arrogance, but at the same time, incredibly sensitive and unsure.”
Some of that confidence comes from the simple fact that the Presets’ roots were firmly planted at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where Kim and Julian met in the mid ‘90s. Not only that; they sharpened their skills in another band first, the trance-inducing instrumental project Prop, which Julian describes as “one-part post rock, one-part techno and one-part NY classical minimalism.” Sure enough, this classical training never left their side, whether it meant borrowing harmonic chords from Mozart and Shostakovich or treating synth parts like a particularly healthy orchestra pit.
“I still think of big synth pads as string sections, stabbing synths as horns, and thinner arpeggios as woodwinds,” explains Julian. “My percussion teacher taught me the importance of finding your individual creative voice early on,” adds Kim, “Since finishing music school, Julian and I have ventured down our own path of discovery instead by teaching ourselves how to write pop songs, produce electronic music, and record and engineer. It’s a far cry from sitting in the back of an orchestra, counting hundreds of bars and waiting for that one moment to hit the triangle.”
As are the many headlining gigs and mounting commitments ahead, although the Presets insist they have a clear head going into it all.
“The only pressure we’ve felt was put on ourselves,” says Julian, “and that was to continue to make music that excites us, rather than falling into the trap of doing the same things again because they worked last time.”
He continues, “We never tried to write a chart topping album with Apocalypso; our only goal with that record was to make music that we always wanted to hear ourselves. Thankfully other people wanted to hear it too! And that’s exactly what we’ve done this time around.”
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