DREAMS, From Daniel Johns And Luke Steele, Polarises And Excites
It's a weird and bold and fun experimental project.
A stage bathed in blue light, covered in gear greeted fans entering the Sydney Opera House's Concert Hall -- multiple synths, drums, lights, even a harp hidden at the back and several disco balls crammed in whatever spots were left amongst the electronics.
The lights fade to black and the two stars come out to massive cheers, adorned in twin long trench coats, with guitars slung across their chests.
Daniel Johns and Luke Steele own two of the most distinctive voices and styles in the last few generations of Australian music. The leaders of Silverchair (Johns), The Sleepy Jackson and Empire Of The Sun (Steele) have been teasing a collaboration for as long as 15 years, and as part of the Vivid festival, they played their only Australian shows -- just their third and fourth ever -- to a curious crowd brave enough to take a punt on a band they knew almost nothing about.
In a live setting, it was easy to see the fingerprints of both men's past acts on the shimmering, grime-flecked mirror that is DREAMS (apparently the capitalisation is important).
DREAMS is an odd beast, variously flitting between more hypnotic deep house beats recently popularised by the likes of Jagwar Ma, and heavier electrorock in the vein of Midnight Juggernauts or The Presets, tinged with Nine Inch Nails-esque industrial rock. It's far darker and dirtier than Empire Of The Sun but still retains some of that project's dance-focused sensibilities; it has the punch and volume of early grunge-y Silverchair, mixed with the arena rock stylings of later Silverchair in their more art-y phase.
There are piercing, glistening 80s style synth stabs, booming and crashing and chest-pounding drums that take on a near-tribal feel at times.
A screaming wall of sound from heavily distorted guitars and keys, and filtered alien-like vocals intertwining before a huge visuals screen that variously displays lyrics, glitch-y videos of Johns' head, and trippy CGI illustrations.
At its best, DREAMS punches out an absolute beast of a sound, primal and raw and urgent, heavy and hypnotic. At times they almost hit a Muse level of theatricality and grandeur, as Johns and Steele hold court on elevated platforms and wail into microphones.
But it's at that stage where they lose some of the audience. The pair readily admit on stage this is a vanity hobby project -- at one point Johns praises the audience for being "willing participants in this bullshit" -- and it shows. They abandon their guitars and stalk the stage, yelling guttural noises into microphones fitted with heavy distortion, making for nightmarish, nigh-unlistenable squall. They roll around on the floor as Johns grabs a megaphone hailer, places it on the microphone and yells into that, like some electropop Bart Simpson.
What began as a promising and interesting exercise sadly devolves into self-indulgence, with more than a few people simply standing and leaving. The industrial rock-style song saw several people simply stand up and leave. The more successful tunes come when both stayed more conventional, playing guitar and singing, veering into upbeat disco and house of the type that will surely fill dance floors when dropped by DJs in coming times. There are a few genuine bangers in the setlist, 'Numbers On The Board' and already-released single 'No One Defeats Us' the highlights of a eye-opening and mind-bending set.
The title of the latter was quite, apt considering the rocky and storied career trajectories of both men. It helped that it was probably their best song, upbeat and funky and catchy, propelled on a bounding beat and groovy bassline.
DREAMS definitely won't be everyone's cup of tea, but taking a look at how Johns and Steele have carried themselves all through their careers, it's probably just the way they like it. It's a weird and bold and fun experimental project, and it is yet to be seen where DREAMS goes next -- but you can probably guarantee it won't be conventional.