Album Review: Sydney’s Magnetic Heads unveil ‘Moral Outage’: a scything blast of dark synth-driven pop

The Breakdown

'Moral Outage', from Magnetic Heads, is a sparkling ensemble of eighties-influenced, synth-based tracks that resonate with a darkness and refined intelligence.
Broken Stone Records/Remote Control records 8.7

‘Moral Outage’, from Magnetic Heads, is a sparkling ensemble of eighties-influenced, synth-based tracks that resonate with a darkness and refined intelligence. And when I say eighties, I mean the good stuff. Intertwining threads draw in the synth giants of Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire, New Order, The Beloved and even Devo, while the delicate intricacies of The The or The Smiths shine through. But this is no carbon of copy of anything that has appeared before: Magnetic Heads proudly stand alone as purveyors of their own distinctive wares.

Opening track and single ‘What You See Is What You Get’ is a gloriously rich synth-injected eighties-influenced motorik blast. Singer/songwriter Des Miller has the velvet rich, deep and resonant vocals of Ian Curtis, David Bowie or Iggy Pop, and the band has the syncopated rhythms and musical flow of Kraftwerk, New Order or M83, with a guitar refrain that echoes The The. There’s a dynamic and pulverising forward motion with slightly disconnected vocals singing mesmerising lines:

What you see is what you get,
there’s no use swimming through regret.

Well if I think the things I think I said, I think I said I did,
then I must have done them.

I choose
I choose

Dramatise philosophise, reprise
Dramatise philosophise, reprise

Miller says of the themes of the song:

The song is note to self to remember that the huge soupy mess of our past actions are not worth obsessing over and regretting. That what matters is our next choice.

He takes a philosophical approach to perception:

There’s a brutally elegant philosophy that suggests reality is a figment of our perception; that what you see is what you get. I’m interested in the slippery phenomena of agency and identity – the gap between what we think about ourselves, what we do, what other people perceive and how they interpret those perceptions.

Suffuse with a Euro-disco sparkle, this is a magnificent track that shines and glitters with an enigmatic presence and intelligence. Of the accompanying video, Director Andrew Lancaster says:

This is the 3rd of a trilogy of clips for the Magnetic Heads’ new album. Jono and I wanted a mesmeric feel, and I wanted to continue the idea of portraits using real people. The track, to me, feels like a progressive journey. It instantly reminded me of train tracks and tunnels. When I bumped into Valdamarra in Victoria Park London, I felt his character and unique freeline skating had just the right feel to give the track momentum. We followed him in one of those Dutch courier bikes with our DOP sitting in the wooden crate at the front, which was quite fun!

Second track ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ sets off with a Devo like robotic melodic synth bass that prowls underneath the syncopated percussion, mixing chiming guitars and a synth wash with Miller’s disassociated vocals adding a cynical air and dystopian lyrics – there’s no room for caring or sharing at all.

This is followed by the balladary of ‘The Street’, continuing the gloomier themes about alienation and isolation contrasting with the eighties zippy synths, melodies and percussive claps. A funky guitar outro towards the end makes me think of Heaven 17: dance music for the feet and the mind.

The video is utterly disarming and slightly surreal:

‘The Party Line’ deals with conformity and slavish obedience in a bright and boppy thick melodic flow on a synth wash.

There is a sparse and melodic grace to the most recent single, ‘The Time of Your Life’. Open, thrumming and celestial instrumentation provides a comforting bedrock for Miller’s elegant vocals, sometime soaring, sometimes speaking, always enigmatic and posed, replete with backing choruses and an innate sense of drama and theatricality.

The track deals with some dark themes – inertia and youth suicide:

The time of your life,
Has gone and flashed before your very eyes,
There’s no surprise you’re out tonight.
A kiss upon your lips and then a look,
You ask yourself… “what am I doing here?”

What are you waiting for, your time’s gone a running

But this darkness is leavened by a scintilla of hope in the title chorus. Shades of light and dark, matched by the beautiful music.

There is an arch lyrical poetry and baroque framework that evokes but is never a pastiche of luminaries as impressive as The The, The Smiths, Luke Haines and Pulp, and this is only augmented by one of the most enchanting videos.

Filmed at Ashfield Town Hall , director Andrew Lancaster recalls how he wanted to:

…capture something classic and timeless that could transcend age and place, a feeling of free abandonment mixed with the faded glamour of a bygone era.

Miller says:

Andrew, producer Noni Couell and their amazing team Patrick Harris (DOP), Lucas Corroto (1st Ac) and Gourav Gandhi (Gaffer) and Suriya Black (Colourist) managed to captured this sentiment and wrap it up in a fabulous documentation (shot by Nino Tamburri) of a community dance hall performance. Ashfield Dance Choreographer Yoppy Yap and his happy and committed collection of talented enthusiasts remind us that the life is about spirit.

It is a glorious clip that brings joy to even the bitterest of hearts.

The motorik beat of ‘The Wall’ maintains the delicious mix of raw bubbling synth with the earnest vocals and dark themes. A massive anthemic chorus and arpeggiated strings create an enthralling thrill with its lyrical themes of resistance and resilience.

‘The Beach’ spins around into a guitar driven indie pop anthem with an angular razor sharp bass forming a firm foundation. The track reaches a dynamic crescendo before sparking out.

‘Moral Outage’ marries an often bubbling, syncopated beat, with uplifting anthems and exploding riffs with a dark thread throughout that is often bleak and pessimistic. It is a nourishing dish as a whole: feeding the listener with visceral and energising instrumentation that carries an often wry and chillingly observational view of humanity and its failings.

Released through Broken Stone Records/Remote Control, you can download/stream ‘Moral Outage’ here or get directly from the band through the link below (much better!):

All instruments on the album were played by Des Miller & Liam Judson, except for Tom Kaldor on drums and William Miller on bass in ‘Time Of Your Life’.

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