Friday, 26 August 2016

Record Review - Cat's Eyes

Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald, August 26

Cat’s Eyes
Treasure house

No doubt a result of writing the soundtrack to Peter Strickland’s 2014 film, The Duke Of Burgundy, the second collaboration between The Horrors’ Faris Badwan and songwriter Rachel Zeffira is a cinematic affair. Following on from Cat’s Eye’s eponymous 2011 debut, Treasure House is lush and dark, it ebbs and flows, as expansive as it is intimate and cosy.

Equal parts dreamy soundscape and punk aesthetic, imbued with a poppishness that softens the edges, it’s a record which begs repeated listens. It eases you in with the swirling title track and Drag, before catching you off guard with the more urgently delivered Be Careful Where You Park Your Car and Standoff. The latter are where the punk first comes in, and it’s the mark of a carefully considered album that they don’t seem out of place.

Zeffira’s voice is exquisite, at times as fragile as eggshell, while Badwan’s is stronger although no less dreamy. The use of strings throughout is a fine touch,
working particularly well on The Missing Hour, as is the mainly electronic backing, although it does grate in some instances. Overall though, an enjoyable sonic journey.

Samuel J. Fell

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Feature - Gympie Music Muster 35

Published in The Big Issue, August 12

Gympie - The Music Muster That Grew And Grew

This year has seen the celebratory planets align for roots music festivals, a coincidental grouping of auspicious anniversaries that’s seen a slew of milestones hit across some of Australia’s major events. WOMADelaide, the Woodford Folk Festival and Port Fairy hit their twentieth, thirtieth and fortieth anniversaries respectively, while the big daddy of them all, the National Folk Festival in Canberra, celebrated its half century back in April.

Away from the nice round numbers, arguably the most well known of all the country’s events, the Byron Bay Bluesfest, played out for the twenty-seventh time. And conversely, one of Australia’s lesser-known roots events, the Gympie Music Muster, this year pulls on its dusty boots for the thirty-fifth time – a long way down the track from its inaugural event, which was essentially a party in a paddock, just outside of the town for which it’s named.

The Webb Brothers
The Muster has a special place in punter’s hearts, a mecca for country music away from the glitzier, in-town event that is the Tamworth festival. These days set in the Amamoor Creek State Forest Park, the event first ran out at Thornside, the property of The Webb Brothers, a well-known country trio who’d just won their second Golden Guitar award, and with the help of the local Apex Club, decided to put on a celebration.

“We thought we’d have a party,” laughs Berard Webb on the maiden event, which also stood as a celebration of 25 years in country music for the trio, as well as a celebration of 100 years since their grandfather had founded Thornside, in 1882. “So we approached our local club, told them we were going to have a country music muster, told them the whole story and how we were going to invite our fans who had been buying our records for years and years, and throw the gates open.

“So we put it in the newspapers, on the radio, invited people to come out, bring your swags, and I suppose you could say that it was the first time there was camping out at a country music function. So that was the start.” And quite the start it was, attracting around 6000 fans to the property for a weekend of raucous country good-times.

The Muster ran for three years at the Webb Brother’s property before moving to its current location, and from there has grown to the multi-staged event it is today. Over the years it’s hosted a plethora of country talent, and has become regarded as a favourite, among both fans and players.

“Absolutely, and it’s testament to what a great party it is every year,” enthuses Beccy Cole, this year a headliner, some twenty-three years after her first Muster. “They put a lot into it. My first one was ’93, I just love it, the atmosphere is incredible.”

A party it is indeed, but a big part of the Muster is in its want to support charities, something it’s done since day one. “Well it was started as a fundraising event for charity [with Apex],” notes Webb. “And it still is, it’s wonderful, and what makes me feel really proud is that it has now raised about fifteen or sixteen million dollars for charities. It’s been wonderful.”

This year’s charity partner is Mates 4 Mates, a group supporting “the wounded, injured and ill current and ex-serving Australian Defence Force personnel”, a group close to Cole’s heart given she’s performed for the troops on a number of occasions, and is this year’s Muster Ambassador. “Very much so, it’s a perfect year for the charity partner to be Mates 4 Mates, because of my involvement with the military over the past ten years,” she concurs.

“They’re a group who work with [defence personnel] closely, they get them what they need, and it’s such a perfectly named charity too, because of the stigma which is attached to things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and thing like that – if you’ve got a mate who’s helping out a mate, then it can ease a lot of that pain. I’m very pleased that they’re gaining the proceeds, because we know they’re going to do some very important things with those funds.”

In the meantime however, this year’s 35th event is gearing up to be a big one. Running the gamut from slick pop-country to Americana to blues (which has become a staple of the past few years), it’s yet another Muster party waiting to happen, an event which has carved out its own little niche, how special it is the reason it’s still going strong, three and a half decades on from its inception.

“It’s no longer the Country Music Muster, it’s the Gympie Music Muster, probably because they’ve added other types of music, but it’s still going wonderfully well,” smiles Webb. “And it gives me great pleasure to do something to help them with the latest one, the thirty-fifth one. I never thought when we started it off in 1982, that it would be still going thirty-five years later,” he laughs, “never entered my mind.”

Samuel J. Fell

For more information on The Big Issue and what they support, head to their website here

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Feature - Game Of Drones

Published in The Saturday Paper, August 6

Feelin' Kinda Free
The fledgling sport of drone racing has pilots viewing the course through cameras mounted on their stripped-down, supercharged craft. SAMUEL J. FELL meets the US champion, in his home town of Brisbane.
Like a bat out of hell, the little X-shaped machine, small propellers mounted at the end of each four arms, shoots off into the distance. In a matter of seconds it’s no longer visible to the naked eye, although you can hear it, buzzing through the trees at speeds of up to 140 km/h.

It suddenly reappears from on high and like a demented magpie at the height of nesting season, it swoops, pulling up at the last minute and executing a series of barrel-rolls, ripping past the two of us standing on the wooden deck of a house on a hill in Ormeau, just south of Brisbane. It banks sharply, a left turn, and darts back into the bushland, again invisible.

Chad Nowak
Chad Nowak, standing beside me, is the one controlling it. Via a set of goggles, he sees what his machine sees courtesy of a small camera mounted on its nose, beaming its feed directly back to him. A large silver remote controller hangs from a lanyard around his neck, the machine operated by almost imperceptible movements of his thumbs on the two small joysticks. He brings it back towards us, slowly now, and lands it expertly on the wood next to my left foot, removes his goggles and grins at me. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of first-person-view (FPV) drone flying.

Nowak is the current US National Drone Racing champion, having won the inaugural event last July in California. The Australian is the poster boy for FPV drone flying, a rapidly burgeoning aspect of the growing drone industry, including competition racing. Having flown line-of-sight remote-controlled vehicles and fixed-wing gliders since he was 14, the now 37-year-old is in high demand at events around the world. A year and a half ago, he was mixing automotive lubricants in a factory. Today, he has sponsors, fans and a reputation as one of the world’s top drone pilots.

“It’s just something so different,” he says when I ask why drone racing has become so popular in such a short time. “When I go flying out in the park and I’m just flying around, people [see it and] go, ‘Oh, it’s a drone’. Their reaction would be no different if it was a foam airplane or something like that.

“The moment I put the goggles on them though, they go, ‘Wow!’ It’s the same reaction every single time. And that’s the best way to explain it – why it’s taking off is because of that wow factor. It’s like playing a video game, it’s like the pod racers in Star Wars; it’s that extra dimension that we haven’t been able to access until now.”

Eliminating the lag time between drone-mounted cameras and the vision in the pilot’s goggles has been the game-changing improvement. Simon Jardine, head of drone consultancy company Aerobot, has been flying drones longer than anyone in Australia. His company provides advice and builds and modifies custom machines for the likes of the military and Surf Life Saving Australia. “Right now, technology is racing forward at such a pace, it’s hard to keep up,” Jardine says. “We can fly further, [we can fly] behind obstacles, with zero lag, so it’s instant: what you see is what you see.”

“You have to have zero latency,” agrees Paul Dumais, referring to potential delays in video transmission. Dumais is an aerospace engineer currently building a new prototype for Aerobot. “They’ve gotta be able to send a signal via a video transmitter wirelessly on a 5.8 gigahertz frequency, to his goggles, with zero latency. Or as little as possible. Because if you’re doing 140 kilometres an hour, a couple of milliseconds [out] – you’re hitting something.”

Jardine, Dumais and I are talking in a park in Byron Bay. I’m handed the goggles and Jardine flies his drone while I see what it sees. The speed and manoeuvrability of the stripped-back machine is incredible; it’s easy to see how you’d come unstuck if the feedback to the goggles was even a tiny bit out.

Nowak's Drone
Drone racing and freestyle has, in the past 12 months, become big business. The inaugural event Nowak won was a relatively small affair, but since then the profile of this fledgling sport has grown almost as fast as the accompanying technology. In March this year, in Dubai, the World Drone Prix offered a US$1 million prize pool. This year’s US nationals in August have partnered with American sports cable channel ESPN. The World Drone Racing Championships will run in Hawaii in October. With money and interest growing rapidly, inevitably so are the politics, as a number of organisations jostle for control of the sport.

“Unfortunately, [these bodies] are all just sitting there arguing, and all the pilots want to do is race,” Nowak says. “We’re going, would you guys stop fighting and just let us have some fun?”

As a result, Nowak and a handful of other top pilots have begun to distance themselves from the organised racing aspect, preferring instead freestyle flying for its own satisfaction. “It’s kinda the same as skateboarders, they go out there and they make those videos,” he says, grinning. “You’ve got the rebels that just wanna make the videos and lead the lifestyle, then you’ve got the guys who wanna go to the competitions. I’m the guy that just wants to be the rebel and lead the lifestyle.”

Nowak has just returned from the US where he’s been filming episodes of Rotor Riot, a YouTube-based series not unlike Top Gear but with drones instead of cars. He and a handful of other pilots head to different locations such as abandoned warehouses, woodlands and even shooting ranges,  and put their machines through their paces. Everything is filmed and uploaded to an audience of 35,000 subscribers.

YouTube has proven an incredibly important medium for these drone pilots – Nowak’s channel has 17,228 subscribers; American pilot “Mr Steele” (Steele Davis) has 26,361; and “Charpu” (Carlos Puertolas), the “godfather of FPV”, has 55,28. It was the popularity of his channel that had Nowak invited to the first drone nationals and attracted his sponsors.

Drones today are more and more common, being utilised for a variety of purposes from aerial filming to shark spotting. For a number of years, hobbyists have been flying line-of-sight drones – that is, kept in sight of the operator, without a camera and goggles – including some piloted via an iPad.

These racing drones are different. Their construction is stripped back to only what is necessary to maximise speed and efficiency. The technology is dazzling. Dumais talks to me about 32-bit boards, electronic speed controllers, and software like Baseflight, OneShot and Cleanflight. Jardine is flying a Warpquad 6-inch on 25 volts – it weighs around half a kilo, flies at a 55-degree forward angle, and can hit speeds of up to 140 kilometres an hour, with but a five-minute battery life. Of course, their performance is only going to get better.

"In the very near future, perhaps before the end of the decade, the FPV experience will be hyper-realistic,” says Dumais. “Like you’re actually flying in the drone, but on acid. It’ll be the combination of high-end computer gaming to provide insane virtual reality tracks, superimposed over real physical terrain." The sky is the limit – but only physically.

 Saturday Paper Website here

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Record Review - Stoney Joe

Published in the Shortlist section of The Sydney Morning Herald, August 5

Stoney Joe
Fuel For The Fire
Head Records

Stoney Joe’s third long-player is an interesting beast. Essentially a collection of dark night country (banjo, double bass, mandolin, various acoustic guitars), the band have continued with their penchant for sparse electronica, adding to this time honoured genre a modern bent.

This is my first encounter with the West Australian quartet and so initially, the addition of “a vintage 1980s synthesizer”, and to a lesser extent the melodica, seemed alien and out of place. After repeated listens however, the quiet drones and extremely minimal beats they create add a rather beguiling extra layer to the group’s four-part harmonies, the plunking of the banjo, the sharp shimmer of the mando. It’s most evident on tracks like No More Roving, Broken String Theory and instrumental opener Green Gums. The fact it’s not overdone is the reason it doesn’t become intrusive.

Still, to my mind, Stoney Joe are at their best when stepping back in time. The harmonies overlaying acoustic guitar on Holy Waters are fantastic, the banjo-driven Use Your Mind and Hammerfall are pure hoedown, all holler and hoo-ee. Rising Water is a combination of both, one of the strongest tracks on an album which definitely begs deeper exploration.

Samuel J. Fell