Chancing their Arm
Psycho-Acoustic Processor – Shark Arm (self released)
Don't argue, just get it, and make sure you catch them live.
The Iowa brothers make enough bloody racket for eight men. Even though you'd swear they were a four-piece on first listen. Bass, drums, vocals, guitar.
Three of these are played by Nathan Iowa, while Damian pounds the hapless skins. Their songs are a rumbling chaos shot through with ordered lightning and purple viscera.
Nathan Iowa: Damo and I have been playing gigs in various other acts around Sydney's inner west since the mid 1990s. We seem to have a polarizing effect on random punters .. . they either get us or they don't. Those that get us REALLY get us.
Just like their followers, I like Shark Arm a lot. I first heard them on Big Daddy K's "Sydney Sounds" radio show on 2SER-FM, and immediately got in touch to grab their single.
However, assuming you're not familiar with these blokes, I suspect the first thought you'll have is: "Oh, a bit of an '80s sound going on".
Well, certainly some of what Shark Arm are up to is influenced by a few underground Australian bands, and a few UK and or US ones as well, but ... that term '80s. Look, I dunno about you but whenever I hear that term in conjunction with music and I'm thinking the mainstream horrors of Bonnie Tyler, Wham!, Eurhythmics, Tina Bloody Turner, Cyndi Lauper, The Insufferable Police, New Fucking Order, Ah-Ha, the Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode and The Hammer-Smiths.
And there were worse bands than that cluttering up the place in the USA, believe me. Shit like The Cars only avoid a sneer because they put Suicide on support slots in vast arenae (with predictable results).
So, Shark Arm, eh? Yep, they should support a Cars reunion - they'd be booed off as well, but Cars fans deserve a reality-slap in the face every now and then. Now, I know people are gonna make comparisons with Shark Arm's sound to (say) The Birthday Party and Crime and the City Solution. Sure, you can hear that. But that's absolutely not where they're coming from. For a start, there are very distinctive Australian aspects to the songs, rather than the personal explorations of messrs Cave 'n' Bonney. But let's ask them ...
RB: When I first encountered you, one question I did ask was - were you influenced by The Moodists? and the answer was no - did you ever listen to them, and are they some sort of influence now?
Nathan Iowa: I have a memory of you telling me the story of Chris Walsh and Tracy Pew's bass and their subsequent battle to make the most disgusting bass sound. I discovered The Birthday Party in the late 1990's, after Big Black/Shellac/Rapeman. I mean, Tracy Pew would be more of an influence to me but since you pointed out Chris Walsh, I can hear why you'd think that. But you know, there's a bunch of other influences from the 1990's like Quicksand, Fudgetunnel, Fugazi, Jesus Lizard ... Thinking about it, though, the first two PIL records are as much an influence as The Birthday Party - I discovered them around the same time.
When I last met up with the Iowas, The Moodists was one band they hadn't heard. Which rather stunned me, as Nathan's juicily rippling bass lines certainly brought Walsh (rather than Pew) straight to my mind. Which means that Nathan's developed his own, rather striking, style. Weirdly, his vocals kinda remind me of that chap in Midnight Oil, but don't listen to me, what would I know?
As if to give you a kick in the nuts and say, 'remember when 12" EPs were dead cool?", 'Psycho-Acoustic Processor' is a 12" EP which plays at 45 rpm, is cut pretty loud and rumbles like greasers in the night and Nathan's yowl will remind you of said greasers with a handful of Duracells up the date. To my mind, Shark Arm are more about a rumble in one of Sydder's many piss-soaked alleyways and underpasses. They're a fucking no-man's land, a litany of gentrified complaints and a snicker into Sydney's true spirit.
RB: And, the 'Psycho-Acoustic Processor'?
Nathan: It's a pedal. Apparently wanky 1980's guitar virtuosos used this pedal to cut above the rest of the band during extended masturbatory guitar solos ... I just leave the fucker on permanently!!
RB: How did you discover it?
Nathan Iowa: I'm not exactly sure how I got onto the concept of 'Psycho-acoustic processing', but it's an audio-engineering term and I liked the name so I looked it up. Turns out it was exactly what my guitar sound needed so I tracked down an old pedal from Japan. I should add that when I saw Shellac in late 1993 I was on an acid trip. They blew my tiny teenage mind ... I'd never heard a guitar sound like smashing glass before.
Yeah well then. You can get Shark Arm's "Psycho-Acoustic Processor'"digitally but...
Side A kicks off with "Gaslighter", a ripping, irritated venting at those people who always have to pick you up to put you down. The armchair critics, the spiteful keyboard surfers who live to spit their venom. It is, of course, an endless loop - the shit behaviour doesn't make them feel better, not really, and they're just speedbumps in everyone else's life.
There's a terrible simplicity to Shark Arm. Nathan's brutally rolling bass is prerecorded, so it's this horrible, ugly juggernaut which Damian somehow manages to work with; Nathan's guitar sound cuts into it like a pavement saw. They're savages, really. But not in the accepted way. They lure you in with seductive bass and stab you with the guitar. Then there's the lyrics...
"Woke In God's Country'"begins with this lovely chiming, chanting guitar, then the juggernaut rolls into position. Kinda does remind me of early Johnny Marr - well, via the Velvets and ... yeah, nah,, nah, "God's Country" is Australia, yeah, and set right now.
The thing about the "woke" 'generation' is that they have a nasty habit of knowing they're always right, but no knowledge of either history or real people; on top of which, perceiving things in terms of black and white (or, if you like 1 or 0), without a great deal of grey, is pretty unrealistic. I've met folks like this, they're all rather cynically using a new stepladder to get up the greasy pole. Minorities rule, and all that, never mind recognising and celebrating genuine difference. But also, the critique is not just of the woke brigade, but ... basically the way politics have always been done here in Australia. There's a balance to be figured out, but at the moment it's just black vs. white.
"In God’s country, they celebrate diversity/ So long as you’re aligned within the majority" ... I don't want to take it away from you but "self-entitlement is a birthright" is such a great line... It's a two-fisted fucker of a song, and after these two you need a couple of bourbons. To say the least.
RB: Am I right in thinking you're drawing your lyrics from what you see around you, so when it comes out it's still about Sydney, but much broader?
Nathan Iowa: My lyrics are definitely Sydneycentric, but I guess they could apply to any major city. I use the lyrics as an opportunity to vent - it's cheaper and more productive than therapy!
Side B opens with "Hot Shot", which references a kidnap victim "He tried to kill me with a hotshot/ Because I sabotaged their plans" ... Nathan's squealy, shrieky, molten metal guitar is studded with flanges and bright with barbed wire. A nicely nasty throatcutter of a song. Like the other four, each as unpleasantly compelling as the last.
Some of their lyrics are just so brief. But the songs are so damn big, they take up all the space in the room. The lyrics ... well, if you read "Clusterfuck" first I guess you'd expect some sort of punk hammerdammerdingdong, but it's a slow-shifting grind with hovering, swiving guitar.
Here's the last verse and chorus:
"Forever bragging how much you’re paid/ You always seem to be fucking up/ You left your garbage here from yesterday/ Left it for us to fix your clusterfuck"
And the chorus? "Just do your job, you lazy cunt/ Just do your job, you useless cunt"
"Rubicon Crossing": What a way to close out the EP. If there's a clear similarity to any specific band it's here: Big Black circa 1987. I won't cite the songs I'm thinking of, mostly because at this remove it's utterly irrelevant - I might add that Nathan's voice is better than Albini's, and soars like an albatross. When sympathy is "between shit and syphilis" you just know the world has shifted on its axis.
A slow erosion of civil liberties
Shades of Germany 1933
So here's some more questions and answers.
RB: Is that a touch of Big Black I hear in there?
Nathan Iowa: I saw Shellac on the 1993 Australian tour at the Annandale Hotel. I'd never heard of them but I got a free ticket. I was still at high school. I shared that with Damo as we were jamming at home and we kinda worked back through Albini's various projects.
RB: You mentioned your following ...
Nathan Iowa: I reckon a lot of our following is of people we've known for nearly 30 years ... plus some through various degrees of separation. Noisy garage/art bands are a pretty niche market so everyone knows of each other.
The only thing I'll add to all this is that live, Shark Arm can be quite intense, yet at the same time you'll be bopping to that wildebestial rhythm.
Nathan Iowa: We're constantly told how loud we are ... but isn't that the point of noisy guitar rock? Anyhow I have to stand in front of Damo's drum kit and I can't hear much else without the amps turned up a bit because he belts fuck out those drums.
Dig it, pop kids. Their next gig is Sunday arvo on 13 November, at Mosh Pit in Sydney, part of the Newtown festival.
And their Bandcamp page has more than just this EP, so get on it. - Robert Brokenmouth
Here are five songs of neuroses and exposed raw nerves that you won’t hear on Triple J or FBi. Some community radio will be occasionally brave enough to go here, but nothing vaguely associated with what most regard as mainstream media sounds like inner-western Sydney duo Shark Arm.
Remember when radio was dangerous? The Iowa brothers are too young to have that sort of first-hand recall (and, truth be told, I'm struggling as well.) Instead, they’ve borrowed from here, there and everywhere to arrive where they are. Which should be St Kilda circa 1982 or Sydney Trade Union Club on a night sponsored by the manufacturers of Mandrax.
“Psycho-Acoustic Processor” cops the fluid bass-lines of The Moodists, the de-constructionist tendencies of the second-phase Scientists, the intensity of The Birthday Party in their more measured moments and a dash of Magazine. Post punk angst and a reminder of a time when dressing black wasn’t so much an inner-city fashion choice as a way of life because it went with the prevailing daily mood.
Lurching opener “Gaslighter” has that Moodists/Chris Walsh bass running right through it. Guitar accents and a vaguely Strummer-like vocal lie at the centre of its (black) heart. It’s basically a song telling you to Get Fucked. “Woke In God’s Country” is a about growing up in Sydney’s determinedly god fearing Shire “amidst rampant organised religion, thuggish cronyism and parochial nepotism”, in the band’s own words. A wrecking ball bass-line again swings through this one
“Hotshot” gets a grade more serious with an urgent rhythmic feel and shards of feedback-edged guitar. “Clusterfuck” opens with some crystalline guitar that quickly yields to a wall of noise and a doomy vocal. The air raid siren presaging “Rubicon Crossing” gives way to that relentless carpet bombing bass and nagging guitars.
Truth in advertising? The second word in the EP’s name is a misnomer. You can process it all yourself as 12-inch slice of vinyl or download here. - The Barman