The Presets' third album is a paradise haunted by darker currents. 'Pacifica' proves the duo's genius by setting punk sentiments and agit-prop against more blissful horizons, writes LAWSON FLETCHER.
Time has been good to Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes. After more than a decade working together and four years since their ground-breaking sophomore album Apocalypso, they have returned with an album that bears the traces of wiser souls, indulging the solace they seem to have found in the interim but losing none of the fire that has always fuelled them. Pacifica takes the duality of sweetness and savagery that has always been present in The Presets’ work to its extreme, but submits an artistic vision much grander than anything they’ve ever attempted.
But first, it’s an album that smacks of experience. Freed from the need to make floor-filling bangers, the pair’s perfect pop nous and their subtle, intricate musical craft shine through all the more: song dynamics that are at once confounding and utterly gripping; Hamilton’s ever-expressive and malleable voice; Moyes’ almost symphonic layering of synths.
Whether it’s the pristine pop of ‘Promises’ or the brooding, undulating ‘Youth In Trouble’, the sense of timing and structure is impeccable. But it’s also their ability to unexpectedly throw songs off course – or just as violently locking them on rails – that’s key. It’s an intuitive grasp of the genres they’re working with that allows The Presets to so thrillingly distort them or take them to such extremes that they become something else, something transcendent.
Most of Pacifica takes what have become some of the most tired, hollow EDM signifiers – soaring synths, 808 kicks, cookie-cutter trance chants, etc. – and with a theatrical, irreverent twist, alchemises these elements into truly beautiful, or at least fucking catchy, songs. Before you know it, you really do believe that you found love in the club.
“The song not only suggests a sinister continuity between past and present but also excavates a bleak future.”
Or at least you thought you did, before you find yourself indicting the very thing you thought you were celebrating. Now you’re thoroughly confused. Because it’s not just for our sensitive side that The Presets subvert the clichés of pop and dance. It’s also in service of a kind of larrikinism, where electronic music becomes a tool for burying under the surface and peering into the dark recesses of the national myth. And it’s when they truly give into the shadows that always flickered at the edges of their first two albums that Pacifica is at its most daring and brilliant.
Opener ‘Youth in Trouble’ is a case in point. A piss-take of the moral panics that tail young people everywhere, there’s nevertheless an almost clinical menace to the restraint it shows, always refusing to give into the beat and hit that drop, forever winding up. Rigid and claustrophobic, it both mirrors and ridicules the urban paranoia displayed in its accompanying film clip.
Next is ‘Ghosts’, perhaps the album’s greatest formal achievement. An unforgettable confusion of sea shanty and Eurodance, this very anachronism and the song’s title also hint at the deeper concerns of the song and, it seems, the album – the inexorable march of time, the hope and regret that accompanies journeys home and the history that haunts a place.
Far more intense than what we might normally expect from a dance record, these themes return in the epic album centrepiece ‘A.O.’, a visionary, vicious portrait of the duo’s hometown of Sydney. Hamilton has said he drew inspiration from Gareth Liddiard’s ‘The Radicalisation of D’ and John Birmingham’s Leviathan (an alternative history of Sydney), and the track is certainly poetic in its evocation and cataloguing of the city’s ills. But what makes it truly unique and inspired is the complex way the song treats history through the interplay of music and lyrics.
A warped, sickening vocal opens with the demand “Children mustn’t know that we’re living in a city that’s built on bones,” whilst Hamilton sings his verses in a snarled, increasingly thick Australian accent, describing a city in which “deep down” – past the iron and concrete, “the strut and the swagger” – “lies the cold, dark soul” of a city of “sorrow” and “shame.” Whilst we do our best to bury it, the repressed energies of the corrupt, violent past seeps out of the cracks of this city, gnawing at its present.
As he builds ever more nightmarish images of despair and disorder atop one another, aggressive arpeggiating synths and martial drums grow before Hamilton reaches his final vision: “Dearest little old ladies, die afraid and alone/Now surrounded by yuppies, small bars and coke”. Here, brutal static and laser bursts take over the remainder of the track; it’s pure anomie, and in this movement the song not only suggests a sinister continuity between past and present but also excavates a bleak future.
The politics-by-stealth of Apocalypso’s ‘My People’ was a subversive move to confuse dancefloors and detention centres, globetrotting romances with heartbreaking political exile – literally putting asylum seekers ‘centre stage’ in a nation that otherwise seems hell-bent on keeping refugees out of sight. ‘A.O.’ does something similar for the history of a city, but both speak to the darker side of this country’s history: the marginalised, the outcast, the black spots that are otherwise erased.
It seems jarring, but it’s actually Presets’ true genius that techno is the platform for such punk sentiments – it’s rapturous repetition and white noise is the perfect music for a police state, a city whose future lies in ruin and a country that hides its injustices beyond its own borders.
Certainly the agit-prop of ‘A.O.’ and ‘Youth in Trouble’ does sound quite dissonant against the more blissful horizon of the majority of the album, but listen closer and you begin to see a more complex picture – Pacifica is a paradise haunted by darker currents. If there’s any possibility of escape from bleak reality, The Presets seem to say it’s to be found in the intimate, the romantic. But seeking solace in these things is itself a kind of giving up. Even club-love track ‘Fall’ scans, “In your arms I fall/All the way to hell”. Or take the bittersweet finale, ‘Fail Epic’ – “Fail with me/Time to fall in love.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could leave behind the mess we’re in?” Hamilton asks his lover on ‘Promises’. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could sail this ship to calmer seas/and turn our backs on bushfires?” It’s a promise that can’t be kept. The past haunts you, haunts all of us who live here, and it’s in their singular declaration of that fact that The Presets just might have done what they’ve always threatened to do: made an Australian classic.