Harmony Review: Let’s Talk About Love

I first encountered Melbourne band Harmony in February 2013 during an unforgivably hot afternoon at an entertainment and leisure centre in the south-west suburb of Altona. The group played in an ornately figured ballroom as part of All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. The setting was odd—dated, sparsely adorned, reminiscent of the 80s—but the performance lingered: it now appears mirage-like, but I remember, in the moment, knowing it was good.   

I was in my early twenties and, at that time, my knowledge of Melbourne’s local punk scene was abysmal. Not that Harmony are really much of a punk band, but something indefinitely punk exists within them—perhaps it’s the idiosyncratic way they approached music-making. It’s difficult to pigeonhole them: they transcend through the rigid lines of genre barriers and simply exist as a band unto themselves.

Because Harmony seemed unique to me, I decided to find the  facts: that the band comprised of a vocal harmony section which included Erica Dunn (MOD CON, Tropical Fuck Storm), Amanda Roff (Time For Dreams) and Quinn Veldhuis, and this section was placed alongside frontman Tom Lyngcoln’s intense guitar and lyrical probing and drummer Alex Lyngcoln. The entities seemed as though they’d be at odds, but instead they complimented each other. Beautifully. Harmoniously. From first glance I felt I understood the idea behind Lyngcoln’s creation.

I’ve always found Lyngcoln to be one of this country’s most interesting artists. His other main act, The Nation Blue, can initially appear to be a fairly straight forward punk rock band, full of the fist pumping angst that defines that particular genre. Though dig a little deeper and you’ll find a treasure chest of lyrical content and dynamic chord progressions that can inspire those of a more nuanced mind. While Harmony and The Nation Blue share similar elements, mainly the same songwriter, I view Harmony as Lyngcoln further exploring his artistic vision beyond the constraints of punk rockthrough the intelligent arrangement of Harmony’s songs.

My favourite example of this is the track ‘Big Ivan’
. A song from their second album Carpetbombing (2014), it encapsulates Lyngcoln’s true genius. Lyrically it concerns a hydrogen bomb that the Soviet Union dropped in the early sixties: “A dense catalyst for doom” perfectly describes Cold War era nuclear competition. But it’s the song’s outro that always grabs my attention: the continuing lyric “Disconnected from this”, sung by the harmony section. As a brilliant counterpoint to Lyngcoln’s gravelled voice, it leaves the listener open to interpret its meaning. Does it suggest Lyngcoln’s own sense of disconnection? Cold War paranoia filtered into the contemporary? Could it be KGB operatives tapping phone lines? Has the (literal or metaphoric) bomb dropped?

Carpetbombing was a bleak album. It largely concerned Lyngcoln’s fascination with the vulgarities of terrorism. He studied the subject at University before the September 11 attacks in 2001, and it’s no doubt had an impact on his song writing. In an interview with The Music Lyngcoln stated; “I finished my studies in 2000 and by 2001 every single bit of info I’d learned was public knowledge or had been printed in the papers after 9/11. I had to use all that somewhere so bombing lyrics always come up – it’s the easiest thing for me to write about, and you can extrapolate on it pretty nicely.”

On Double Negative Lyngcoln largely steers clear of such topics—instead we have an album that is mostly about love. At first I was dubious, not because of the notion that Lyngcoln had perhaps mellowed after the birth of his first child and thus the album would become a tribute to miracles of life, but rather I feared that after years of focusing on such gloomy topics with such introspection, I wondered about the capacity to write on anything that could be considered ‘nice’.

Fortunately I was wrong. Yes, the album’s theme is love, but at times there is nothing ‘nice’ about it. The opening track, named ‘I love you’, begins with each member of the band whispering the song’s title before drums and guitars ease into a slow dance. Then comes the opening verse:

No casual destruction, no vascular obstruction, no holding on
No transient attention, no short term intentions, my aim is long
Sure, love is a rough ride out past the good times but I’ll tag along

It’s almost a tease that a word like “destruction” is dropped in the opening verse of an album about love. But from here onwards you can feel the sense of a longing commitment, a love that has been in existence year after year, and will continue to carry through the thick and thin. It’s a balanced account of love, delivered so modestly by Lyngcoln’s coarse vocals. Later comes the distorted guitar, bringing the song together as the harmony section soars along beside it.

Another morbid highlight for me is the title track
Double Negative, where Lyngcoln hands over vocal duties to Quinn Delany-Veldhuis. The song has a sombre bounce to it with a creeping guitar line coursing through there versesbut it’s the lyrical content here that shines brightest:

Oh I think I love you but I must be really high
Oh I think we’re great together but I’m waiting for this high to subside
When two blue minds find something in each others arms it’s not negative, it’s double negative, resulting in a positive charge

It’s chilling in its honesty that love can be so transientsomething that’s no better described than through the metaphoric midst of drug binges. Here lies a small example of the brilliant exploration of this album: that even though we’re all aware of the complexities of love, Lyngcoln continuously finds acute angles to approach it from. While I would struggle to find a moment on this album where I’m feeling any sense of obvious joy, this is not a criticism: the fact that I can deeply connect with the majority of Double Negative in many complex ways is a testament to its brave commentary on human nature.

‘Love is a Chemical High’ continues these explorations, starting with a quick tempo and containing my favourite vocal harmony arrangement, slotting in neatly between the verses. The final lines bring Lyngcoln to his most animated, and this is something to note. For nearly all of this album he remains calm and restrained: not that he’s holding anything back from his performance, but most lyrics are almost spoken word in their delivery (which makes sense thematically and also means a bigger emphasis on the harmony section, of course a great thing).

Then there is the lead single, ‘Fatal Flaw’. It’s a slow burner that best captures Harmony’s soft side, weeping from start to finish in a way you’d expect from the band, but its chorus is melodic to the point of being catchy. It’s a sad song: the lyrics are some of the most gut-wrenching on the album. Watching a loved one’s struggle with pain medication is how I’ve interpreted it:

Bulk buy pills to fade the pain
This heart races rate, rebate the day
I know your fatal flaw
High percentage chance you’ll go
Where’d you go my baby

As the band sings the chorus in unison, one can’t help but be moved by this nightmare of a scenario. It’s so eloquently described that it’s disarming.

While the songs I’ve mentioned are the ones that have affected me most, Double Negative, as a whole, is a highly considered album both in terms of arrangement and performance. For the most part the signature sound of Harmony has been maintained (and considering it’s what has garnered such admiration with the band’s fans, it would be unwise to make a major departure).

The thing that sets Double Negative apart from its predecessors is the subject matter, which is mastered by Lyngcoln’s unflinching deconstruction of loving relationships. Lyrics matter most here and they’ve been crafted with brilliance, setting this album apart not just from the band’s earlier work, but also from other contemporary artists. There’s a lot songwriters who aren’t afraid to get dark, but few can do it as honestly and poignantly as it’s done here.

Harmony – Double Negative
Released by Poison City Records in July 2018

Alex Pink is a freelance writer and musician living in Melbourne via Sydney/ South East Queensland.

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