The 1972 Sunbury Pop Festival was in many ways Australia’s Woodstock. Though more boozy, more wildly colonial and less peaced-out, Sunbury had similar results to the iconic American ur-Festival: both showed the wider, ‘straight’ world around them the cultural power of rock music (not to mention the potential big bucks that could be made from the revolution) and launched the careers of myriad bands.

Melbourne’s Madder Lake were the opening act of the inaugural 1972 festival and their highly original yet quirkily accessible take on the sometimes po-faced progressive rock of the time made them an instant hit. Unlike Billy Thorpe‘s barnstorming Aztecs (whose boozy Sunbury mantra was “suck more piss“) or many of their contemporaries – pub-blues bands like the Coloured Balls who honed a rusty edge to their music in merciless beer barns – Madder Lake had a spacier, more colourful approach.

madder lake 1

Their debut album Stillpoint worked through a range of styles from doo-wop to funk to rock’n’roll yet it all came from the same slightly skewed world where goggled-eyed singer Mick Fettes was KIng. It was telling in the music that most members came from an art school background (Madder Lake is a crimson pigment dye) – check out band roadie Drak‘s beautiful cover art of Stillpoint, too – and that the songs were worked up out of stoned jams in their bolt-hole. Creative, wide-eyed, joyful – much of it a psychedelic delight.

Stillpoint was followed by the less focussed Butterfly Farm in 1974 and then Madder Lake’s history hit various snarls, traps and forks in the road. The band never split up, as such, but slipped under that cruel radar that bands tend to slip under.

But, as they say, Ars Longa, Vita Brevis. Thirty-six years after Butterfly Farm the band set out to record their third album, spurred by bassist Kerry McKenna‘s title track, ‘World’. During the tortuous (and torturous) recording process there were catastophes, lineup changes and various trials and tribulations – not the least being Mick Fettes suffering two (two!) heart attacks. Recording continued in fragmented groups whenever the band members could manage it. madder lake3

So it is a wonder than the new album World, sounds as cohesive, jungle-colourful and ‘Madder Lake’ as ever. Refreshingly short – eight tracks at 30 minutes – the album spans the same panoramic fun-show of styles. The creativity, arty colour and quick wit are intact (I am so glad to say…)

Vocals are spread around the band – Mick Fettes lends his unmistakeable goblin growl to the sunny ‘Dreaming’ and (the ironically titled, considering Fettes’ health issues) ‘Hospital of Love’. Other members, keysman John McKinnon notably, contribute vocals throughout World.

Opening title track ‘World’ is heavy-psych, worldly wise (“In this world we all get good advice/And don’t take it…”), driven by Brenden Mason‘s tooth-and-claw guitar. ‘Badlands’ is rock’n’roll, booted along by guest vocalist Neale Johns (Blackfeather) and a scything harp solo from Mike Rudd (Spectrum/Murtceps) – yes, it’s rock’n’roll but it wouldn’t be Madder Lake without a jarring/jangling PinkFloydesque breakdown at 2:07.

Every track has its silver linings and golden eggs – the 50’s favoured doo-wop of ‘Please Please’ is darkened with jazz chords; ‘Heavy Weather”s storm clouds drift from St Kilda to rain on Moorish castles and back again; closing space-boogie ‘Calling’ shifts gears briefly to dislocate its rhythm before skidding back onto the rails.

The creativity is intact, Madder Lake is back and – despite the Big Miracle that it was made at all – World is a small miracle in itself.

Published October 2013 on theorangepress.net

 

 

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