Sunday, September 26, 2021

Moon, clouds, stars, I want it all!

Amy Taylor makes demands—to be heard, to be seen, to be able to make her own choices on her own time. Even on occasions when her demands feel less urgent—to be let into a pub, say, or to be taken out to the country—each still feels as if it's accompanied by a gun to your head. Yet turn around and she's guffawing at the same time, pissed off, aggressive, but thrilled to be alive. Amyl and The Sniffers' new album Comfort To Me is a potent soundtrack to those demands, barreling forth with clamor and boldness, and it's one of the great rock and roll albums of the year.

A challenge for any riff-driven punk band is how to expand its ambitions while retaining its elemental power.  The Melbourne-based group—Taylor on vocals with drummer Bryce Wilson, guitarist Dec Martens, and bassist Fergus Romer—wrote and recorded Comfort To Me during the lockdown, wrestling with free time, a trans-oceanic production, and unexplored emotional and psychological vistas. In recent remarks, the band's cited influences from AC/DC and Wendy O Williams to current rap and hardcore. “A bunch of [the new songs] are classic and true to what we’ve done in the past, but we’re also exploring some new sounds and ideas,” Romer remarked to Louder Than War. “We’ve got some heavier, louder, and faster tracks than we’ve ever done before. There’s a complexity in how we’re playing and definitely in Amy’s lyrics; they’re a lot more political.”

The Sniffers' self-titled debut detonated in 2019, throwing sparks of mayhem, fun, and danger in every direction. (I wrote about that album's amazing song "Control" here.) The band's live show is famously stirring, the diminutive dynamo Taylor prowling and leaping from the stage in equal abandon, her band driving powerfully behind her. (I had tickets to see the band in Chicago last year; the show was postponed twice. Meanwhile, on October 5th, the band's streaming a full performance of Comfort To Me "in one take, on a slab of concrete in a suburban wasteland somewhere in Melbourne, Australia." Info here.) (EDIT: it was a blast.) The songs on Comfort To Me, though identifiably, ear-ringingly the Sniffers', aggressively push against the band's sonic walls, Taylor expanding her concerns to include national politics ("Capital"), the limits and pleasures of adolescence ("Snakes"), and the mess of romance ("No More Tears"). As always, Taylor's chiefly vibing off the power of self-expression and the autonomy necessary to establish her own boundaries, and to piss on her own territory. "I've got plenty of energy" she gleefully chants in the album's first track, the remarkable "Guided By Angels," because "It's my currency." Such energy hums through the album, a dangerous current sparking at both ends of the power line, from the unbridled urge to go out to dance and jump around to the nervy desire maybe get in some trouble, too. Freaks to the front! she invites her fans.


Two songs on Comfort To Me powerfully demonstrate Taylor's emotional range. One is rollicking, irresistible, and brimming with joie de vivre, the other's pissed-off, embittered, and mournful—the album ricochets from one end of that spectrum to the other. "Hertz" is a great driving song about driving. She wants to rent a car, grab her friends, and hit the road, with the wind in her hair and the sun on her face. During this escape from the graffiti, grime, and toil of the city, everything delights her, from the mosquitoes buzzing past her to the employees at the fish and chip shop who "act like mates," and the music, a UK-flavored Post-Punk/New Wave martial-stomp, is as overjoyed as Taylor is. "Take me to the beach! Take me to the country!" Taylor demands, in what first sounds like a hijacker at your neck; the chorus revs up like an engine, and we're off. In interviews, Taylor's acknowledged that "Hertz" turned out to be a love song of sorts, the dawn of a new relationship about which she sings explicitly—in her fashion—in "Maggot." ("Come on maggot, put your maggots in me!" Hallmark, are you listening?)

The joys and freedom of that road trip, the pleasures of roaming the world with no purpose, are made complex by the hair-raising narrative in "Knifey," the record's other brilliant track. In this lament, Taylor describes the mounting frustrations she feels while alone on a walk, danger and violence lurking around her. The band slows things down here—if any Sniffers song can sound reconciled to anything, it's to the darkness at the center of "Knifey," a dirge relative to the band's faster tunes—and the spaces opening up allow Taylor to seethe about the simple pleasures denied her as a woman:

All I ever wanted was to walk by the park
All I ever wanted was to walk by the river, see the stars
Please—stop fucking me up

Sung by Taylor in a naked, plaintive voice, these lines are intensely moving, as is her grim recognition of the aggression she's obligated to act out when alone: "Out comes the night, out comes my kniefy, this is how I get home nicely." This is followed by a vulnerable confession, the album's emotional center: "I turn around and back track, because I ain't that tough." And yet, "Still, you fuck me up." What brutally stark realities. The safeguards she's forced to adopt, in conflict with the sinking and scary knowledge that her self-defense will likely be easily overwhelmed, inspire a fantasy in which Taylor herself fucks up her assailant, though it's only that, a fantasy. She confidently, if ruefully, admits at the end of the song that she's now "fucking tough," because she has to be. Though the last chord feels less resolved than resigned.

Listening to the heartbreaking "Knifey," you re-see that country side blissfully speeding past Taylor in "Hertz" and recognize how qualified that road trip was: she's out with a friend and future lover, traveling in numbers. "The moon, clouds, the stars," she gasps, "I want it all!" That she can't have it on her own without her knife getting her back home "nicely" (a fantastic, ironic spin on the language of good-girl decorum) is the unhappy, galling flip side to the joys and abandon of "Hertz." Listening, I'm put in mind (again) of the embittered complaints Sylvia Plath made in her journals: "Being born a woman is my awful tragedy," she writes. "From the moment I was conceived I was doomed to sprout breasts and ovaries rather than penis and scrotum; to have my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable femininity.” She adds,

Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, bar room regulars—to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yet, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.

"I carry weapons; I'm a really paranoid person," Taylor recently acknowledged in New Musical Express. About "Knifey," Wilson added, "It’s a pretty hectic subject to talk about. It feels powerful when we play it." That three men are providing the music behind Taylor is poignant, and perhaps culturally important: "When we play 'Knifey' the boys all get around it," Taylor says. "It hits them up emotionally."


"Music should be for everybody and about expressing ourselves,” Taylor remarked in New Noise Magazine. "Just a place that’s free of any kind of judgment to be whatever the fuck you want and to represent yourself." Punk AF. Taylor and her band make that space on Comfort To Me, grinning all the while at the intense and freeing pleasures that rock and roll can bring, even as soundtracking the more grim realities of what it means to be alive.

Amyl and the Sniffers photo by Jamie Wdziekonski

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