Band: The Jezabels
Venue: Manning Bar, Sydney
Date: 14th September, 2016
Reviewer: Karl Grovenor
On the 14th of September, 2016, a secret gig by former triple j poster children The Jezabels was announced. Returning to Sydney’s Manning Bar just shy of ten years after their first show on the very same stage, the band would perform an intimate eight-song set, breaking a brief hiatus with the same blend of finesse and energy that made them a phenomenon.
It’s hard not to view the career arc of the local Sydney indie-pop darlings in the same light as that of a child actor. For all intents and purposes, the band was still in its infancy when songs like ‘Disco Biscuit Love’ and ‘Hurt Me’ began to dominate the airwaves on radio stations like JJJ and FBI. Indeed, with their first trilogy of EPs, the band found themselves sitting on an almost obscenely brilliant discography, capped off by their masterwork, 2010’s Dark Storm, without even having yet released a full-length album. For a few years, the former University of Sydney students were the soundtrack to every front-porch craft-beer tasting session in Surry Hills – and quite a few boozy nights at the Annandale as well.
Like every child actor, however, their transition to adolescence was fraught with troubles. Though not as dramatic as Macaulay Culkin exclusively performing Velvet Underground songs with lyrics about pizza, the increasing focus on subtle songwriting and radio hooks displayed on the follow-up to their hailed 2011 debut album Prisoner, The Brink, left as many people swaying their hips to ‘Time To Dance’ as it did bewildered by understated ballads such as ‘No Country’. So too, escalating health issues forced tour cancellations and personal stresses.
Watching The Jezabels in 2016, however, one would be hard-pressed to even recognise them as the same band who penned tracks with the awkward charm of ‘Be A Star’ all those years ago – but not in the way that Lindsay Lohan is hard to recognise as the once-star of The Parent Trap. Their setlist, dominated by tracks from their 2016 release Synthia – a criminally underrated contender for Album Of The Year if there ever was one – opened with a bang with one of their most ambitious tracks yet, ‘Stand And Deliver’. Vocalist Hayley Mary carries herself through the twists and turns of the sprawling seven minute epic with a blend of the attitude of Chrissy Amphlett and the superstar appeal of Kylie Minogue, imploring the crowd to “come and give a bitch a kiss” before belting out a soaring climax that could’ve convinced even the most cynical they’d been transported into the midst of a roaring arena show.
Blending influences from 80’s pop, industrial, and EDM, keyboardist Heather Shannon finds herself at the forefront of the band’s new sound, translating the dark energy of deep cut ‘Come Alive’ equally as well in a live environment as lead single ‘Pleasure Drive’’s euphoric chorus, with newfound prominence of sawtooth synth leads and brassy pads. Fans of the band’s earlier style of Cranberries-inspired indie pop might miss the focus on Sam Lockwood’s sunny, delay-soaked guitar chords almost as much as they do his awkward head-bobbing of yore, but it’s the sense of almost robotic groove displayed on ragers like ‘My Love Is My Disease’ and ‘If Ya Want Me’ that pushes the breadth and scope of the band’s music in ways that have never been attempted before.
The heart and soul of The Jezabels’ music, though, has always been the work of drummer Nik Kaloper, one of the most stunningly talented and creative pop drummers at work today. Blending unorthodox accents with a keen sense of dynamic and colour, Kaloper is a consistent joy to watch, playing around the beat instead of to it, and managing to make even the most complex shifts and patterns into deceptively simple-sounding earworms. Indeed, the flurried floor tom abuse that forms the rolling backbone of their aforementioned signature track ‘Hurt Me’ seems to almost sing the melody in unison with vocalist Hayley Mary – and when the band finally closed their set with it, the rest of the crowd did too.
For a band who apologised for being “sloppy” in onstage banter between songs, there are a surprising lack of kinks to work out in bringing Synthia to the stage. The Jezabels in 2016 look as natural onstage as they ever have in their careers, and, having shaken off the troubles and musical trappings of their troubled adolescence, have hit a stride nobody would have ever dreamed of three years ago – probably least of all the band themselves.
The Jezabels will once again return to the Sydney live circuit on October 8 at the Enmore Theatre.