Much like the band’s arrival in the ears of American audiences when their first album appeared in 2011, the new release from Australia’s Total Control seemed to come out of nowhere. The post-punk quintet has apparently been quietly working on this new batch of songs over the past couple of years, as its members negotiate their day jobs and other musical endeavors. According to the press material that came with the music, that includes “various lounge rooms, bedrooms and rehearsal studios” around their native country.
That scattershot approach serves Total Control perfectly. Because this is not a band that wants to necessarily stick to one cohesive sound on record. That’s why their debut Henge Beat loped from furious arterial spray inducing art rock to almost blissful ambient experiments. Their 2014 album Typical System threatened a little more cohesion with cleaner sound quality but the band remained unsettled by sticking drum machine-driven pop up against the skronking garage rock.
Like those LPs, the shorter, stinging Laughing At The System has a curious kind of flow to the proceedings. It’s a quick drive from a slightly unfamiliar landscape toward something close to a comfort zone. The EP is bookended by different takes on the title track: the first, an agonized wail thrusting with electronic drums and a small cracked set of chimes; the second goes even harder with cutting guitars, live drums and vocalist Dan Stewart coiling around it all like a noose.
Between the two are smoother passages and stretches of almost breathtaking beauty. The latter comes out in the gorgeous synth experiments “Cathy and Marg” and “Her Majesty, Budgie,” tunes that feel like outtakes from member Mikey Young’s recent solo album Your Move, Vol. 1. The Vangelis-like “Budgie” is only added to by Stewart’s blank verse poetics and a little guitar intrusion. And if there’s anything close to a “hit” to be found here, it’s the more traditionalist “Luxury Vacuum,” which toys the verse/chorus/verse structure of a pop song even as it wiggles and blurts like a vintage post-punk experiment.
Any new Total Control music is worth having in the world, even if, as Laughing does, it feels like the group is holding back somewhat. That’s not to suggest that they feel they had to get something out into the world. More that it seems they might have run out of time or steam to flesh this out to a proper full-length that could have been even more explosive and unhinged. Longtime listeners of the band know that it’s in them. We just need to give them the space to let it out.