Some band names are so particularly regrettable that they hold the power to actively push listeners away from their work. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. Let’s Eat Grandma. Psychedelic Porn Crumpets.
I hated the name Tropical Fuck Storm, and I gagged at the album art for Braindrops, but then a certain grotesque curiosity overcame me. I’m glad it did.
Like their name suggests, the Australian quartet’s music is deeply concerned with the environment. More than the lyrical themes that interrogate existential and ecological dread, though, it’s the polyrhythmic instrumentation on the album that reflects the realities of climate change. Listening to Braindrops feels like watching a sped-up timeline of rising sea levels and melting glaciers set to long-lost field recordings of maximalist noise-rock from the Outback. You’re listening to a world falling apart.
Atmospheric might be one way to describe the music here, but that ignores the tactile, earthy quality of TFS’ layered wails. Braindrops is impeccably produced, fluidly panning percussive guitar riffs, thumb pianos and vocal harmonies between the stereo channels to create an ecosystem all of its own. In other words, this is emphatically a headphones listen, especially for picking up the quieter moments of cacophony. It’s in the noisier moments that you’ll really appreciate having a good sound system for the album.
Take the album’s grungy midpoint, “The Happiest Guy Around,” a song that has so many distinct grooves happening at one time it’s impossible to know which one you’re meant to lock into. Mechanical drums feel pulled from an industrial record’s early demos, while skittering guitars compete for your attention in four-bar bursts of discordant free-jazz soloing. There’s a running bass line in there somewhere, too, until there’s not; the song devolves into a noisy bridge that sounds like a Ty Segall-led symphony of garage rockers tuning their instruments for a night of dancehall at the Twin Peaks Roadhouse.
Chaotic bangers like that are around every corner on the album. “Aspirin” is a sludgy slow-dance that weaponizes synthesized drums for additional punch, while “The Planet Of Straw Men” verges on being a drum-and-bass cut. The latter mixes perfectly calibrated percussion with dissonant strings, sounding like like Aphex Twin collaborated with Sonic Youth while at the beach. Frontman Gareth Liddiard emphasizes this is by design: In the album’s liner notes, he notes that the whole album is recorded through techno gear “because rock and roll gear is boring, and all sounds like Led Zeppelin.”
Liddiard sounds like a scornful guy. His lyrics often toe a line between pessimistic political metaphor and outright personal anger, as is the case on album opener “Paradise.” Oscillating between growls and squeals, he weaves the tale of a failed love interest that feels especially timely in a season of overcrowded political debates: “So if you’re thinkin’ you’ll do better / Just know there’s nothing round here / That a miracle won’t mend / Why hang round forever?”
But it’s the women that play alongside Liddiard—Fiona Kitschin on bass, Erica Dunn supplies the guitar and Lauren Hammel is behind the drums—who bring the necessary revolutionary spirit to send the album soaring. “They want the glory of the coup de gras,” the three scream together on “The Planet of Straw Men,” while the exquisite “Who’s My Eugene” takes a subtler stab at toxic masculinity. Telling the story of Eugene Landy, the doctor that drugged and robbed Brian Wilson, Dunn takes the lead vocals from Liddiard and contemplates the everyday realities of psychological violence. “Boot on my neck gives a tight squeeze / What is hiding on the summer breeze?” she asks, almost wistfully.
Braindrops’ title track captures Tropical Fuck Storm at their nastiest. Over staccato guitar riffs, toxic percussion and melting polyrhythms introduced by a kalimba, Dunn yelps in the distance: “Under the stars and the sun / You feel it all coming undone / You can pretend its a game / Under a brand new pair of shades.” The track rips apart everything standing in its way. You’ll be happy to pick up the pieces left in its wake.