Six years on from their last recorded outing, Pleasure Maps, The Sand Pebbles have finally managed to out-manoeuvre a global pandemic to release what is arguably their finest work to date, The Antagonist, the seventh long player (and eighth if you include the US compilation, A Thousand Wild Flowers) from the band.
Over a 21 year career, The Sand Pebbles (Andrew Tanner – vocals/guitar, Ben Michael X – guitar, Christopher Hollow – bass, Gareth Skinner – cello/vocals, Leroy Cope – drums and Malcolm McDowell – guitar/vocals) have continued to push the boundaries in delivering superb-quality and ever-evolving psychedelic rock music.
To that end, in the week before the pandemic hit, three Sand Pebbles (Ben, Chris and Andrew) took themselves for a five-day silent Qi Gung retreat.
The only way they could communicate was via written lyrics and in the two hours every night when
musical instruments were allowed to be played. From this refuge, they came away with enough material for the raw bones of a full album of new music.
Little did they know how, when the world turned to shit shortly thereafter, that their efforts would not bear fruit for another three and a half years.
So, during the Melbourne Covid lockdowns, and given that Andrew, Gareth and Leroy were busy with other musical projects, Ben and Chris took over the reins for the material and began to polish and tease it into shape for the long-awaited album that was to become The Antagonist. The basic tracks were recorded in a single day during one of the breaks between the many lengthy lockdowns.
Following on from this, the band went through a furious process of mixing and re-mixing, with overdubbing being done in their home studios along with the recruitment of friends from around the world to add horns, strings and extra voices to add extra vitality to the songs. They also wanted their lyrical content to have some deeper meaning and greater reflection of lived-experiences (Sweet Tenderloin and The Field Of The Lord being prime examples).
Strings and horns were added to tracks such as The Field Of The Lord, the jazzy, mesmerizing Honey Rush and certainly helped to created the lush mystical feel of the heady Self Talk.
Two instrumental tracks grace the album, the transcendent The Light (Slow Reveal) and the album’s finale, Barry Michael Takes A Train with its’ Simon Gallup-like bass line (played by guest, Kath Dohelguy) punctuating its’ jaunty rhythm.
Whilst growing their sonic palette, the band are also not scared to continue to wear their influences on their sleeves, with elements of the classic psychedelic Velvet Underground sound swirling across The Field Of The Lord and later Black Angels-like tones and mood in the imposing (yet somewhat sinister) title track, The Antagonist. Elsewhere, jangling guitars provide Princes Highway with a time-honoured Byrdsian ring.
Elemental Thing is reminiscent of classic Ceduna-era (2008) Sand Pebbles, showing the band pays a healthy respect to their own history and sound, and likewise ensures that fans who have remained loyal from earlier albums have plenty to hang their hats on.
Two slightly left-field numbers make up the rest of the eleven tracks. The first is the punchy album opener, Sometimes A Great Notion, while the other is the delectable Russian Ending, a duet between Andrew Tanner and guest vocalist, Britta Phillips (from US rock band, Luna).
So…..it’s time to fire up those lava lamps, project your liquid lighting onto your ceiling, whack your headphones on and melt into the abyss as The Sand Pebbles take you on a sublimely trippy journey through The Antagonist.
An official album launch gig is planned for Tuesday, 7th November, 2023 at the Northcote Social Club with tickets available here.