Whatever I expected from the premiere album by the Iwantja Band, it didn’t involve a string quartet.
Palya is a seriously great album. I’d be tempted to say that it is Aboriginal rock ‘n’ roll’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, only I’m afraid that you wouldn’t take anything else I have to say about it seriously. But the first time I listened to it, as track after track unfolded its surprises, I kept on thinking that this was the most daring, interesting, and well, surprising record I’ve heard in a long time, innovative in ways that characterized the great outpouring of bounds-breaking music in late 1960s rock. And if Jeremy Whiskey isn’t a guitar hero in the mold of the great Sixties axmen, then I’ll eat my words and my guitar strings, too.
Iwantja doesn’t sound anything like the Beatles, of course, and they don’t sound much like the Warumpi Band, either, but in its own way Palya is as much a landmark as Big Name, No Blankets was with its breakthrough use of Indigenous language married to a wide range of musical styles. Songs in language are nothing remarkable these days. But the stylistic variation in Palya’s twelve tracks, from ballads to psychedelic instrumentals to hip-hop stylings to desert reggae are the mark of a band that is supremely confident of its abilities and burning to prove what they can do—which is pretty much anything.
The album opens with “Iwantja Groove” which is just that, a great desert dance groove driven by Steven Brumby’s bouncy bass and punctuated by Whiskey’s insanely great guitar riffs that sound like lightning screaming across the desert night skies before spiraling into a vortex of sustained notes that screw the tension higher and higher until the music drops into a sudden silence that’s filled once again by the bass line. (A moment of truth: the band’s line-up is pretty fluid, and most of the guys play more than one instrument, so I am guessing sometimes when I attribute performances to one or another of them.)
It’s almost a relief when the song ends and the gentle piano chords that introduce the sweet-sounding “Kungka Nyuntu” take over. That guitar comes back about half way through the song, muted, if still sounding much like it did on the first track; but here the lightning is just flickering, almost out of sight behind the hills on the horizon.
And then comes that string quartet. “Wangka Wiya” opens with low, sweet chords on the violins, augmented by a whispered counterpoint on cello. At twenty seconds into the song, the cello beats out six staccato eighth notes before a sustained quarter-note chord explodes into a percussive crash and the fuzz-full distortions of Whiskey’s guitar sail through a series of riffs that sound like he threw Mark Knopfler and Jimi Hendrix into a blender and punched the “macerate” button. It’s the fastest, tightest four minutes of pyrotechnic rock ‘n’ roll around these days and it will leave you gasping for breath. “Wangka Wiya” (or “no words”) was also the moment when I first realized what a powerhouse drummer Jacob Baker is. As he crashes through the song, you can picture the beads of sweat flying off him in strict time.
Things slow down again on the next track, “Tjitji Kulunypa,” carried by lush piano chords and Stewart Gaykamangu’s vocals, which sound much like his cousin Gurrumul, only transposed down an octave or so. The title means “little children” in Pitjantjatjara, and there’s another echo of the experiments of the Sixties in the opening and closing bars where you can hear recorded children’s voices being used as instruments to enhance the band’s repertoire of sounds. “Wamanguru” keeps the pace restful for a second song in a row, and the strings return to add a weaving, rocking lilt to the verses before they take control of the bridge with an orchestral richness.
The album’s first half ends with the astonishing “Maralinga (Black Smoke).” Metronomic drums and bass lay the foundation over which Whiskey’s guitar climbs a simple scale. Layered on top of this are dubs of 50’s-era recordings of a radio announcer describing “man’s most revolutionary discovery: the atom bomb.” Maralinga. “An absolutely first class site for the testing of man’s modern weapons.” An Aboriginal man’s voice plays counterpoint: “Couldn’t see the sun…black smoke….and after that people got sick…what we call…great smoke.”
If this were vinyl, it would be time to flip the record over to side two, and pick up the beat (and your feet) for the desert reggae of “Kungka Paluru.” Mirroring the bounce of the opening “Iwantja Groove,” this one is good fun, another welcome change of pace, and another opportunity for Brumby’s bass to shine through the thickets of Whiskey’s guitar fills. The bass takes you right into “Move Ya Body” playing against tom-toms and cowbells until the singer exhorts you to “move ya body like ya never moved ya body before” to Iwantja’s own brand of desert disco. (No, I’m not kidding). And then, suddenly, Iwantja’s rapping fast and hard over the disco downbeats. It would sound schizophrenic as the band trips from one mode to another, but the whole thing hangs so tight that no matter how many surprises they throw at you in four and a half minutes, you don’t care: you just keep movin’ ya body.
“Pukulpa” means “contented” and is another instrumental, almost movie music, the sounds that you hear when the camera is tracking a troopie across the desert into the glare of the sun. Don’t be surprised if it shows up on the soundtrack for the next season of The Circuit. “Tjamunya Tjana” is slick desert reggae, the sort of light-hearted tune that ought to get a lot of airplay. “We’re Gonna Party,” like the earlier “Move Ya Body” would be straightforward disco delight if it didn’t keep breaking into guitar moves that stretch from Whiskey’s trademark screaming fuzztones into syncopations worthy of Robert Fripp. This guy must eat guitarists for breakfast.
The album closes with a melancholy slow tune, “Wanatjaku.” This time the strings sound like the might be synthesized, the percussion depends on bass toms and hi-hat playing against one another, and Gaykamangu has a spectral echo to his voice that sounds as ethereal if not as attenuated as Gurrumul. It’s a peaceful finale, a gentle fade into the deep blue skies of the early night, the wind that blows slowly from the hills, not even hinting at what might lie over the horizon, or on the other side of the album, if you flipped it to start from the top again. Sorry, I know this is digital music, but the construction of the song sequence makes me believe that Iwantja learned more about making records from those Sixties albums than just great guitar licks.
Palya was released in April 2011 by Wantok Music, and became available on iTunes a week ago. The album was recorded at Tennant Creek’s famed Winanjjikarri Music Center and polished up down in Melbourne, where the band was reported to be having a great time—a fact I can easily believe now that I’ve heard it. There are some clips on YouTube from performances a year or more ago, but they don’t begin to do justice to the music on Palya: you’re just going to have to buy the album.
I meant to provide some more background on Iwantja, but I’ve discovered that it’s all been much better said at a variety of pages hosted by MusicNT. The most comprehensive of these features a great interview with the band’s manager, Mark Smerdon, and is most aptly headlined “The. Next. Big. Thing… Iwantja Band.” This article includes a link to a two-part interview with Jeremy Whiskey that is particularly refreshing and informative about being a desert (and a national) sensation. (Of becoming great musicians, Whiskey says “You work your ass off.” On how he felt after playing a record ten sets at the Dreaming Festival last year: “Tired.”) Check it out.
Palya is more than just good, it’s great, world-class rock ‘n’ roll.