Despite torturing their fans with a seven-year hiatus between 2002 and ’09, the undergroundLOVERS’ latest album Staring At You Staring At Me, proves that guitar riffs fused with synth-pop are a timeless mixture.
Melbourne has long been the epicentre of indie and progressive music in Australia, and for much of the 1990’s and 2000’s, local band the undergroundLOVERS pushed sonic boundaries in a manner that made them cult favourites.
Formed in 1989 by high school friends Vince Giarrusso and Glenn Bennie, the Undies experimented with different styles and line-ups prior to 1990’s breakout self-titled album. The success of singles like ‘Looking for Rain’ won the group the ’92 ARIA for Best New Band.
Later that year, the band’s second LP Leaves Me Blind demonstrated a finely honed blend of electro-pop and space rock. The single ‘Promenade’ appeared regularly on Melbourne radio station 3RRR and Triple J.
Around this time the Undies’ live shows became famous for their signature use of looped sound effects, heavily layered shoegaze guitar rhythms and psychedelic lighting. While the recorded version of the pulsating ‘Your Eyes’ lasted a good eight
and a half minutes, at gigs, the dreamily repetitive vocal choruses saw the track routinely extended to a quarter of an hour (and sometimes longer).
The band’s fortunes rose again in ’94 with the release of a third album Dream It Down. While this LP maintained the pulsating electro soundtrack of its predecessors, popular singles like ‘Losin’ It’ suggested a push more into the mainstream, taking out a spot in the Triple J Hottest 100 that year. Whilst live performances during ’93 and ’94 were noted for their stratospheric renditions of ‘Las Vegas’, another standout track from the album.
Until 1996, the undergroundLOVERS were blessed with two vocalists of consummate talent – Vince Giarrusso and Philippa Nihill. However, during the recording that year of the band’s fourth album Rushall Station, Nihill left the band leaving Giarrusso in charge behind the main mic.
Around the same time, drummer Derek Yuen (himself a replacement in 1993 for founding member Richard Andrew) also departed. The Undies’ creative output continued though, as evidenced by 1997’s Ways T’Burn followed by ‘99’s Cold Feeling.
Although the undergroundLOVERS entered into a self-imposed hiatus in 2002 after supporting New Order on their Australian tour, a formal reunion took place in November 2009 at Melbourne’s Toff in Town. I was there that night and the crowd loved what they saw. Whether you define the Undies as new wave, synth-pop, indie-rock or electro, doesn’t really matter; what the
band delivers both on stage and via vinyl (still the best way to appreciate their sound) is as vital today as it was two decades ago.
In conjunction with the reunion, Rubber Records re-released undergroundLOVERS’ 1990 selftitled album and post-1996 output digitally on iTunes. Well-received club shows in Sydney and Melbourne were also performed in December of that year.
In October 2010, Craig Mathieson and fellow music writers and critics John O’Donnell and Toby Creswell, listed Leaves Me Blind as the 54th greatest Australian album in their book, 100 Best Australian Albums.
Underground Lovers seventh album, Weekend was released in April 2013, created with longtime collaborators Wayne Connolly (recording engineer), Tim Whitten (mix engineer), Don Bartley (mastering) and a new addition to the production crew, Tim Prince (recording engineer).
May 5, 2017 will now add to that impressive discography, with Staring At You Staring At Me aptly paying homage to the band’s hometown of Melbourne, even to the degree that Melbourne’s obsession with footy is explored from a betrayed fan’s perspective in the plaintive opening track ‘St Kilda Regret’.
Another preoccupation for some Melbourne folk, consumerism, comes in for attention via ‘Conde Nast Trap’. This track’s driving, rhythmic guitar beats showcase front man Vince Giarrusso’s upbeat vocals.
Influenced by a mixture of late ‘70s Joy Division and ‘80s pop, the third single form the album ‘The Rerun’ sees “Faceless users come undone”. Clearly a reference to either drug addiction or ALP factional politics!
Co-lead vocalist Philippa Nihill’s performance on ‘Seen it all’ shows the band at its most evocative. Exploring emotions of confusion and sadness between the sexes (another consistent theme throughout Staring At You Staring At Me), Nihill’s voice is a dream-pop delight. By way of contrast, ‘GLamnesia’s’ synths rapidly give way to a haunting, noisy and disquieting cascade of
sound. And the final track, and debut single from the album ‘Unbearable’, echoes 1993’s plaintive yet triumphant Las Vegas, by showcasing a woman who just likes seeing “her name on the door”.
Like all good Undies albums, Staring At You Staring At Me defies singular analysis. Elements of pop, shoegaze, synth-rock and pounding bass feature throughout, but rarely at the same time. Those old enough to remember 1994’s Dream It Down will know one thing however: Staring At You Staring At Me showcases the Undies’ varied talents at their greatest.