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Total Control
Laughing At The System Brendan Telford , January 29th, 2018 00:43

A wonderful album of rage, laughter, hysteria, all kinds of eclectic noise.

Australian caustic collective Total Control present themselves as an oft-indefinable paradigm – something that is easiest categorised as punk, but flagrantly flaunts and eschews genre notions and excursions at a whim. Their loose carousel-gate recording and touring roster rigmarole, their emphasis on unease either through frontal assaults, slanted asides, surreal detours or rancid reckonings – it could all so easily appear to be like minds recklessly and relentlessly doing whatever comes to mind and carving it in skin, irrespective of sense and self. When the band first festered and gestated, it was all about angular dissonance, which culminated in the brilliantly abrupt Henge Beat. But as they venture further and further from that quotidian Australian punk construct, their erratic output resembles more and more a subversive and succinctly crafted manifesto against the failings of the world.

Laughing At The System is their New Testament, three years after their last brilliant release Typical System. It is an eight-track, 20-minute screed of adenoidal abjection and mordant millennial milieu, written all over the blasted brown land of Australia, in all rooms and spaces a house can house, and Total Control have crafted a sonic scroll that is freer, weirder, and tighter than anything they have put together before.

Opening with one of two title tracks that bookend the album, we are confronted with a cracked carnival confection, all skewed simplicity, childish chimes and chants and garish grotesquery. It feels like a stop-motion march into a childhood nightmare, something Sid from the original Toy Story might maniacally concoct if he was listening to Pere Ubu, Low Life, Kitchens Floor and broken music boxes while methodically nailing baby dolls’ heads to the wall. The vexed politicism is greasepainted and gussied up and pinwheeled out into the crowd, causing maximum discomfort and errant laughter.

The second coming of the track is more visceral in a gravel and spit grind, that little psychopath all grown up and huffing nangs while at the very edge of sanity, a place the world has inexorably spun him and all those like him, all bug-eyed and whites around the irises. It is the closest to the putrid grit-punk growl that has become Australia’s unheralded bread and butter over the better part of this fledgling yet already burning century. Yet these two tracks, in very different sonic nightscapes, are parallel to each other, mirroring the same vexed and rabidly virile rants, bound by the same ridiculous social ineptitudes and mores. This is held together most obviously by Stewart’s dry, blunt singing/chanting, where “laughing at the system!” is both futile exasperation and a sardonic, subversive wink.

In between we get all kinds of eclectic noise, all delivered with the same at-odds sense of laconicism and fetid urgency. Even though we see more of Young’s proclivity for synth experimentalism, it has never felt more vital, more seditious in its deliberate downturns and wonky implosions. The melted pop dream that is ‘Her Majesty, Budgie’ somehow inhabits a world both sun drenched and sun deprived, a communal fever dream played to keep reality under narcotic lock and key. ‘Luxury Vacuum’ takes a warbled guitar line over a simple yet emaciated drum beat to emulate dolewave-isms while gently caressing its carcass, the sociopath laughing “Ha ha ha / As the threads come loose / Admit the gaze / Through the holes you choose”. ‘Vanity’ is closer to the synth punk staccato the band have crafted in the past, with the barked “You never think!” a more obvious kicking against the pricks.

Yet the two songs that stand out are ones that stray even further into the cosmos while cutting ever closer to the carotid artery of their mission statement, albeit with a hearty injection of pitch-black humour (as is the Australian way). ‘Vote Cops’ has the softest undulating synth line under stippled squelches and crossed wires while a plaintive trumpet guides Stewart through monosyllabic statements on totalitarianism veiled as consumerism shackled by technobabble and credit levels. A broken maniacal guitar line accompanies the repeated refrain of “get credit / get fast / get spent / built to last” which seems to get angrier but also crumbles each time it is spat out.

Then there is the penultimate ‘Cathie & Marg’, two Antipodean names if there ever were any. The song itself is an instrumental, a shimmering, mesmeric chimera of shadow and light, an electronic homage to outlier optimism, something that in light of everything that has come before should be cynical at best and parsimonious jetsam at worst. Yet it is neither – it is genuinely light- and hope-filled, cleansing the planet before the clatter and gruel of the title track outro.

So here we are, after a year that has usurped most others in its Hieronymus Bosch-meets-Francis Bacon-discussing-Thomas Pynchon-esque propensity for flagrant cartoonish horror and mental evisceration. A time when sense and sensibility has taken not just a back seat but jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. A time when millions and billions of people need to aggressively point, gesticulate and rage at the glaring injustices in the world, for the privileged few to squint through their pig crescent eye sockets and plead ignorance before blithely destroying another progressive institution. Total Control have, in their arc-light erraticism, given the world the response we deserve.