Ghosts are immortal
These Immortal Souls
The Tote, Collingwood, VIC
Saturday, 12 November 2022
These Immortal Souls didn’t really have much of a physical presence in Australia, at least during the band’s creative peak. Rowland S Howard had first conceived the group in the immediate aftermath of The Birthday Party, though it took a false start with Barry Adamson, Chris Walsh and Jeff Wegener, and a brief tenure in the European incarnation of Crime and the City Solution, before
These Immortal Souls took permanent form with Howard, Genevieve McGuckin on keyboards, Howard’s brother Harry on bass and Kevin Godfrey (aka Epic Soundtracks) on drums.
For much of its time, These Immortal Souls lived a penurious, underground (literally and metaphorically) existence in the United Kingdom and Continental Europe. An Australia tour over the summer of 1988-89 would be the only time the band would grace these shores until the band’s repatriation in 1994.
By late 1998, These Immortal Souls had departed into the dustbin of history.
Any literal pretensions of immortality were cruelled by the passing of Epic Soundtracks (who’d left the band five years earlier) in 1997 and temporary members Peter Jones and Spencer P Jones over subsequent decades. And, of course, Rowland Howard’s departure at the end of 2009, which robbed the music industry of one of its most enigmatic and brilliant artists.
But the band’s music had never died, only drowned out by the noise of The Birthday Party legend and, subsequently, Nick Cave’s cult of personality. (Like Rob Younger confronting the deification of Radio Birdman by calling his new band The New Christs, it’s reasonable to assume Howard’s choice of moniker for his post Birthday Party outfit was, in part at least, a mischievous dig at his former band’s mythological status.)
The Tote’s 40th birthday celebration, and the impending re-issue of These Immortal Souls’ two studio albums, provided the catalyst for a reunion of sorts, featuring surviving members McGuckin and Harry Howard, augmented by Brett Poliness (Silver Ray) on drums and JP Shilo on guitar, with guest appearances from Kim Salmon and Adalita. Fittingly, support comes from Winter Sun, which features Angela Howard on bass.
It’s the basic four-piece that opens proceedings, a few cursory of words of introduction from Harry Howard and the band is into “Marry Me (Lie! Lie!)” from “I’m Never Going to Die Again”.
Howard shares his brother’s distinctive vocal intonation and you can sense the ghosts of the lost and fallen nodding appreciatively. Genevieve McGuckin’s piano parts add an enigmatic, often haunting edge; there’s no flourish, no bombastic indulgence, every note sparking in the space between her late former partner’s elegant melodies.
Despite their expatriate geographical and subcultural proximity, Kim Salmon’s artistic orbit didn’t intersect regularly with These Immortal Souls, nor Rowland S Howard generally, during their respective European residences. Not that you would have noticed tonight. Salmon, intense as ever and with a a verve and vitality that only seem to be increasing with age, lays a swampish groove across the dark romantic beauty of “Hide” and snarling his way through ‘Bad’.
JP Shilo seems to have been part of the St Kilda punk noir for time immemorial and his empathy with the Rowland S Howard oeuvre is palpable to the point of distraction. Shilo assumes lead vocal duties on “King of Kalifornia” – why hasn’t this song appeared on a Coen brothers soundtrack? – and elicits all the wry pop cultural critical edge of the original.
Back in the latter part of the 1990s, Magic Dirt, at that stage on an upward Triple J-spiked popular trajectory, had shared a bill with These Immortal Souls, a cross-generational event that no doubt enlightened some of Magic Dirt’s crowd and confused others. Adalita can make any song even better than you thought it was, and some. Exhibit A: “Black Milk”, which, after a false start, drenches the packed crowd with heartfelt emotion; Exhibit B, the dark cosmic potency of “Hyperspace”.
The crowd is littered with St Kilda types of yore, definitely older, possibly reformed, probably wiser and perennially stylish, sharing the space with younger punters and the odd dandy. Back in the day, These Immortal Souls’ audience was selective more than voluminous; tonight, it’s a packed house, a fitting tribute to a band whose calibre remains sadly underappreciated.
Later in the set Mick Harvey slinks onto stage, intriguingly secreting himself behind the speaker stack. There is ne’er a wasted moment and the whole room rides the waves of post-punk wonderment. The band’s titular track precedes a cover of Alex Chilton’s “Hey! Little Child”, then another foray into adolescent observation with “My One-Eyed Daughter”.
“Still Burning”, I’m reliably informed by Sam Agostino (who covered the song with Kamikaze Trio on the rare-as-hen’s-teeth French tribute to Howard in 2006) was Spencer P Jones’ favourite Rowland S Howard track and is afforded suitable reverential treatment. Rounding out the evening we get “Crowned” and “Insomnicid”’.
As the reality of the end sets in, you wish we could be suspended in the moment forever. In our mortal existence, that can never be. We are all lost souls in some sense, all trying to find enlightenment and awakening, to make sense of our otherwise confused and contradictory environment. This was a night that will live on forever – just like the genius of Rowland S Howard.