digging out the antipodean underground: The Chills / The Scientists

chills scientists

Half a world away from pop music’s centers, bands in Australia and New Zealand have often had to wait for or approximate second-hand the latest sounds drifting over from the UK and US. In this context, the English-speaking antipodes have shown a certain genius for reinventing and reigniting Anglo-American idioms in unexpected ways, as two excellent new anthologies from the post-punk era show.

Kaleidoscope World presents the “Dunedin Sound” of the Chills, quite likely New Zealand’s greatest band and a perennial influence on indie-pop since they formed 36 years ago. Lead Chill Martin Phillipps uses punk’s license to create a singular style of pop music undaunted by songwriting convention or technical virtuosity. As a rotating cast of musicians accompany him along a restless path through 60s psychedelia, pub folk, wiry guitar rock, and gauzy new wave, the Chills always come out sounding wide-eyed and gently melodic. Paradoxically, Phillipps plumbs grey themes like depression, anxiety, and loss, yet his idiosyncratic approach reveals no trace of extant genres like goth or British postpunk. Witness, for instance, two songs ostensibly about death: the eerie magic of “Pink Frost” and effervescent affirmation of “I Love My Leather Jacket.”

Not an exhaustive career retrospective (for that, try Heavenly Pop Hits), Kaleidoscope World compiles the group’s early, inspired singles recorded for New Zealand’s famed Flying Nun Records. The new reissue adds b-sides, demos, and live cuts to the 1986 track listing, plus liner notes recalling the band’s heartbreaking and redemptive saga (also the subject of a forthcoming documentary).

A Place Called Bad unearths the deathless sound of the Scientists, who rose from Perth, Australia’s punk scene to lay the foundation (and, the story goes, coin the actual term) for grunge era that followed them. Fronted by Kim Salmon, who’s had his hand in several beloved Aussie bands, the Scientists initially plied a frenetic power-pop that soon yielded the Hoodoo Gurus. By 1981, Salmon and crew arrived at a menacing, sludgy swamp-rock that earned them accolades in the UK underground. Developing this style alongside contemporaries the Birthday Party and the Gun Club, the Scientists swapped out those band’s histrionics for a distorted, repetitive din that inspired a generation of Americans (Mudhoney and Jon Spencer, to name two) who steered underground rock well after the Scientists imploded.

If this story is old news, then you’ll want to pick up the 4-CD version of A Place Called Bad that compiles every studio recording by the Scientists. Me, I’m digging the shorter, all-killer-no-filler version on vinyl, which also includes liner notes and an authoritative “Perth Punk family tree.”

The Chills’ Kaleidoscope World is out now on Flying Nun/Captured Tracks.
The Scientists’ A Place Called Bad is out now on Numero Group.