New Zealand is not somewhere known for producing a wealth of contemporary musical talent; comedy duo Flight Of The Conchords or Crowded House two of the more memorable imports. However, Popstrangers may just change that. After releasing several singles on fabled New Zealand label Flying Nun, the trio arrive with their sonically-charged and intriguing debut album Antipodes. Recorded in the basement of a 1930s dancehall, Popstrangers’ first LP is packed with snarling guitar hooks and distortion from start to finish.
The band first began to make waves with their debut single, the infectious and claustrophobic Heaven. The song, which is one of the highlights on Antipodes, clearly channels early Radiohead, with the swarming guitars combining effortlessly with lead singer Joel Flyger’s nonchalant vocals, as he yells: “Do I, do I, do I know you/ do I, do I, do I show you.” It was not a surprise, then, to see it picked up by fellow New Zealander Zane Lowe to play on his BBC Radio 1 show as part of a segment looking at the future of music.
Yet, while Heaven showed that Popstrangers have an ear for a good pop hook, Antipodes sees the band explore more awkward and noisier sounds. Opener Jane kicks off with a pleasant enough guitar riff before transforming into a sonic wall-of-sound, as the guitars become a fuzzy and distorted mess. It’s a fascinating start to the album, laying down the foundations for the careful balancing act between frenetic garage rock and pop structures that dominates the album.
What Else Could They Do is another of the more easily accessible songs on the album, with a crashing beat and chunky riff providing the basis for Flyger’s crooning vocal. The song sounds not too dissimilar to Camden four-piece Tribes, who also welcomed comparisons with early Radiohead and Pixies when they released their debut album last year. It’s followed by the atmospheric and creepy Cat’s Eyes, which begins with an unsettling guitar riff for the opening two minutes, until the vocals creep in and the song takes on a quite-loud dynamic.
Elsewhere, Full Fat sees Popstrangers embracing the garage rock elements of their sound, with a thrilling guitar riff and something resembling a chorus, while Witches Hand quickly descends from its catchy opening into dissonant chaos. In fact, much of this record could be described as organised chaos. Take Roy Brown, a song that begins with a twisting, melancholic guitar riff, before the guitars suddenly explode from nowhere into a crashing crescendo of noise.
Throughout their debut album, Popstrangers never leave you feeling comfortable. Just when you think you have them pinned down they throw in an unexpected tempo shift or a strange detuned guitar riff. It’s a method that means they are both an intriguing prospect, as well as being frustratingly difficult to embrace. While there’s the almost pop-like Heaven on the one hand, on the other hand there’s the sinister In Some Ways, which features a whiny, bendy riff that sounds just plain creepy.
There is no doubt that Popstrangers have a lot of ability, and Antipodes is an accomplished and ambitious debut record. But there is also something about the trio’s first full-length LP that makes it both an engaging yet exhausting listening experience. There are plenty of great moments, but at times, it is almost too experimental. But if Popstrangers can hone their craft, they undoubtedly have the potential to transform from being a promising talent to the real deal.