Words: James Frostick
Brisbane’s Blank Realm emerges after a few years of quiet with an album of largely instrumental tracks. While not continuing the dazzling psych-pop wonder of previous records, Last Seen is an engaging and impressive study in atmosphere, musicianship and sonic world building.
At the beginning of their career, Brisbane’s Blank Realm dabbled in abstract sonic forms. Much ado has been made of the group’s gradual transition from the intimidating and unpredictable psych of their early work to the acclaimed elated pop shimmer of 2015 effort Illegals in Heaven. Despite the band’s sense of impenetrability at the beginning, the fact that the band could write and record a coherent pop song was never in doubt. Blank Realm has always seemed the kind of band to further their own experimental goals – less putting the pieces of a puzzle together and more taking an image and fragmenting it as they saw fit, leaving it up to us to put the pieces in place.
The group’s evolution across their three most ‘accessible’ albums – Go Easy, Grassed Inn and Illegals in Heaven – seem to document the band’s conscious decision to take pop music and give it texture and nuance that aligned more to their off-beat interests. It was poppy and people jived with it, but most feedback acknowledged that it was saturated in experimental flavour – the band always zigged when you thought they would zag, which is why people loved it. For the group’s latest recorded output – Last Seen, which is out now through Melbourne label Hobbies Galore – Blank Realm has zigged again, putting forth a collection of mostly instrumental tracks that largely abandons rigid pop sensibilities in favour of something different, but equally engrossing.
It would be impossible for me to predict when the band made the decision to shake up the formula (if they ever had one to begin with), but listening to Last Seen took me back to a Blank Realm performance I witnessed in March 2017. I saw the band create and perform a live musical accompaniment to a screening of seminal silent film The Phantom Carriage at the QAGOMA Cinémathèque. Blank Realm spent the entirety of the film’s duration crafting a suitably eerie audio accompaniment – haunting and gripping, almost entirely instrumental. The performance consisted of movements, rather than songs. This is very much how I am hearing Last Seen – an unsettling soundtrack that would pair perfectly with surreal imagery.
The record sees the band relishing the opportunity to take an idea and play it out at a leisurely pace. It’s a study on creating atmosphere – harnessing disparate sonic textures and seeing what happens when you throw them into the same pot. The bubbling brew of Last Seen boasts several curious interludes, with Blank Realm expertly guiding listeners through different worlds of sound – some ponderous and reflective, others foreboding and ominous. Vocals are barely heard, and when they are they are largely indecipherable. There’s no thematic context, and the song titles could be obscure pieces of evoked mental imagery or nothing but aloof and funny labels for each segment.
The record is best consumed in one sitting, starting with the woozy opener ‘Smokemart Stargate’ and the sci-fi stylings of ‘The Greener the Slime the Steeper the Climb’. ‘Lethal Prayer’ dabbles in the cold electro sound that’s seizing the ears of the underground dance scene, while the herky-jerky cacophony of ‘Last Scene’ is its own kind of unsettling. The gargantuan ‘Revanche’ is ten minutes of ambience, feedback, static and alien sonic textures that coalesce and then make way for a thumping and discordant second half. It threatens to break loose, keeping you unsettled and buckled in for its duration. The only track that indicates the band’s past as pop radicals is ‘Speedboat on a River of Blood’, which could almost slot in on any of the band’s previous records as it is the most direct song of the bunch. It’s all searing guitars and strident momentum, piercing and proud. Finally, the album ends with the ambient notes of ‘The Forgettable Fire’, which peters out with a passage of speech played in reverse, I think. It’s a fittingly abstract touch to end proceedings.
Overall, Last Seen is a great entrant into the Blank Realm chronology. It veers away unpredictably from the pristine sound of the recent recorded works and gives the band a great opportunity to experiment and return to their dissonant roots. I wouldn’t call this album a step forward, but don’t get it twisted – it’s certainly not a step backward. Last Seen is a sensible lateral move, which I predict will give Blank Realm steady footing from which to launch further upward, confident in their ability to weave magic with every sound in their arsenal.
Last Seen is now available in a limited 300-record run through Hobbies Galore. Cover art by Julian Hocking.