Compilations from upstart indie record companies are often meant to showcase the breadth and depth of talent on a label’s roster; you’re unlikely to be satisfied or impressed by every single offering, but at the very least you’ll happen upon a few hidden gems that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Sometimes the ride can be a painfully long one though, with a mere two or three standout tracks that are interspersed with several songs worth of filler.
Thriving Western Australia powerhouse Hidden Shoal Recordings has a pleasant surprise in store for anyone who decides to get cozy with their latest compilation, A Million Square Miles. This is the rare exhibition of musical aptitude that delights from start to finish, with nary a disappointment to be found. Being tagged by some as Australia’s answer to the British label 4AD, Hidden Shoal (HSR) does indeed specialize in a brand of music that places atmosphere, ambience, and texture high on the priority list. With an onslaught of reverb and delay effects that would put the Edge to shame, this album features eight acts that run the gamut from quirky playfulness (Toby Richardson) to hypnotic melodrama (My Majestic Star).
Mukaizake’s sinuous “The Yeah Conditioner” gets things underway with elastic guitar playing and a skittish rock groove. The song has a mild neurotic bent (thanks to the minor second chord progression in the verses) that eases up some once the wailing falsetto vocal harmonies take hold in the chorus. The band’s other contribution, “My Friend Flicker,” is one of the compilation’s most noteworthy tracks. A lushly voiced slowburner with pristine tenor vocals, the tune’s demonstration of tension and release is immediately captivating.
My Majestic Star, fronted by songwriter Chris Mason, performs music with much of the same druggy haze as ambient punkers Deerhunter. Listening to a song like “Crampling,” the comparisons are justified: droning guitars and vocals bathed in echo that nearly render the lyrics indecipherable. Yet with a memorable melody that cuts through the squalls of drill-like guitar bedlam, it’s also a well-proportioned mix of Sonic Youth’s edginess and My Bloody Valentine’s pop sensibilities. Glassacre – another band with a Chris Mason connection – takes this ethereal songwriting one step closer to dream pop with “September 16th,” in which a hurried drum and bass groove is pitted against leisurely paced vocals and aching guitar drones as Mason sings, “Morning lights the way.”
Fall Electric could lay claim to having the most intimate presence on the record; there’s some superb acoustic guitar and cello that lend a song like “Warm Toes” a sense of transparency, even as singer Andrew Ryan gripes about robots, ferris wheels, and alcohol. The cello takes center stage on the band’s “Faithless Friend,” where not even the driving tempo or cathartic storytelling (“You think the warmonger was a happy kid.”) can distract from some dazzling melodies.
Elsewhere on the disc, Apricot Rail takes the instrumental rock of Pelican and Explosions in the Sky and injects it with a mild dose of serenity (“The Parachute Failure”). Toby Richarson gives us a goofy throw back to the late 60’s skronk of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa (“Booragoon Lagoon”), and Craig Hallsworth pulls double duty with his bands Tangled Star and the Slow Beings. The former veers toward the dust n’ gravel alt-country of early Wilco (“seabirdtown”), while the latter draws connections to early 90’s grunge. Slow Beings’ “I Waste the Sea,” – another of the compilation’s finest songs – is as detached as anything that Evan Dando wrote with the Lemonheads and sludgy enough to fit comfortably into the Dinosaur Jr. catalogue too.
There’s no way to know for sure if Perth, Australia is indie rock’s next Seattle or Montreal, but Hidden Shoals’ impressive roster on A Million Square Miles is bound to shore up some buzz, and deservedly so: it’s an exhilarating listen from beginning to end.