Amyl and the Sniffers are What’s Right with Rock

Eli Kasan (Gotobeds) on the drunken energy of the band’s new self-titled album.

I’m sick of hearing about what’s wrong with rock music. Plenty is right about it, and unless you’re talking about parity or diversity, I’d likely consider your points moot. What ails rock currently is what ails most music: the ability to transcend self-consciousness to create something larger than yourself.

Amyl (and the Sniffers by proxy) don’t give a fuck. Their blend of ‘70s sleaze and ‘80s punk is a book meant to be judged by its cover. If rock is dead, no one has told them. Australia is too vast and far away to look for lodestars in the press as to which direction they should turn. If yr the kind that likes variety in yr rock record, look elsewhere: The tone is set from the first second and rarely relents. And why should it? The band excels at transcending tropes and genre trappings while adding much needed piss n’ vinegar to the form.

Much ink has been spilled on front-person Amy, as a mix of Iggy and Dolly, and though I’m noting it here, it’s lazy journalism. I’d presume the Dolly comparisons speak to Amy’s proto-glam nature (or else dude writers can’t tell peroxide blondes apart) and the Iggy comment would mean high-praise from this lazy writer as he is king in command of any stage. Amy possess a swagger and a confidence that is natural and she more than holds her own on the record and morphs into something else entirely. If I was a guest on the Wire’s Invisible Jukebox series and you told me this was Coloured Balls 33 & 1/3 played at 45 RPM, I wouldn’t argue with you. The band shares tradition with other notable Aussie greats (Rose Tattoo, Scientists, The Victims) while simultaneously sounding nothing like them.

What the band does sound like is pure sleazy/blues-y/proto-glam-punk-rock in all its complicated simplicity. I implore a contradiction there because rock done well is a contradiction: seemingly simple while avoiding genre-clichés and face value spot-references; complex enough to blend rock styles seamlessly; “stupid” enough to be “smart;” “smart” enough to be “stupid.” Like any other caveman my age, I’ve always been drawn to visceral guitars with distortion, production that feels like it has no production (especially on the compression/light distortion on the vocals) and drums that thunder but are EQed flat as to clear the way for the songs. It’s easy to overthink your debut LP and spend too much time cooking the ingredients until they are limp, and thankfully this is not the case. The raw qualities balance well with the melodic aspects in a way that doesn’t feel overthought. Musically, The Sniffers strut, stumble, and bash at the music like a borrowed shitty car, Amyl shrieks, coos, and pushes notes with her throat to propel the songs forward in a direction that is forward, without ever feeling contrived towards some destination.

The only fault with the LP is the fault of all LPs of this caliber: If the form is done well, as it is here, it will always come second to the live show. Harnessing that much raw power and drunken energy is rarely ever able to be captured accurately. Can’t fault the sniffers here for missing a mark 99% of bands cannot hit, though the ability to try and fail is what makes it interesting.

What IS right about the record comes in many forms of abandon:

  • The solo in “Cup of Destiny” at 1:29 is so wildly inventive I’m mad I didn’t think of it, with its simplicity, Ginn-esque minor key crawl and its ability to sound both improvised and practiced in equal measures. It is my favorite moment on the record, as previously mentioned it sounds both “stupid” in it’s simplicity and “smart” for it’s inventiveness. It’s a great blend on a record with many of those contradictions.   
  • The LP’s slightly slower track “Angel” with its yearning verse that take the tempo down a few BPMs without sacrificing its potency. It works on the same level as the duality I mentioned for “Cup of Destiny” — a yearning lament of love played both sad and upbeat. Amy yearns and back-up voices “ahhhhh” in two notes, but it never drags or feels obvious.
  • The irony of the song “Control” and the lyric “I like control,” because the song’s relentless chug and churn is rarely in control, another strong suit for the band. Live, these songs will sound only better when speed up thru chemicals (adrenaline or “other”) without feeling rushed. The barely controlled effect is pulled off so well that it never feels labored over. It feels as if the band barreled thru live takes and picked the one that held together the best. No more no less.

After several spins thru the LP, it is better enjoyed in a car with the windows down while speeding, or late night drunk and loud — which are the only ways to approximate the live show without actually being stepped on, though the record is a fine facsimile. I very much look forward to what comes next from the band. If you find yourself not compelled by any of the aforementioned qualities, well, maybe you do not like rock music. And that’s OK. Just don’t bemoan the lack of rock bands in this current climate. They’re more diverse in every aspect (style/gender/color) than they ever have been, and we’re all the better for it.

Eli Kasan is the singer and guitarist for The Gotobeds.