Arriving on typically grey but strangely muggy Melbourne Sunday afternoon, Howler in Brunswick became the ideal venue for the annual Semplesize Block Party. Tucked in behind the beer garden at the entrance, the Howler band room transformed into a veritable playground of raw, local talent that seemed to catered to every music lover’s taste.
I was greeted into the dark and cavernous space by the contrasting pop electro sounds of Stax Osset. Self proclaimed 90’s baby and sucker for all things nostalgic, Megan Kent performs as Stax Osset in a contagiously bubbly and offbeat manner. While watching her performance I was immediately reminded of Grimes (Kent even dons the same white blonde hair as Grimes circa 2012), and it became clear to me that this young artist is channeling those same idiosyncrasies in a new and fresh way. Even though Stax Osset runs with the undeniable Melbourne brand of young, electro pop, there are interesting tenants of K-Pop or even J-Pop that add a playfulness and complexity to her music and her performance.
Changing pace completely, the band to follow was Melbourne-based five-piece indie rock bank, The Trotskies. Electro duo, Habits and the Vanguard Runway Show were meant to be in this time slot, but for various reasons got pushed back. Luckily, The Troskies were happy to jump in. In a sound deliciously reminiscent of 70s and 80s post-punk, their set showcased some of their newer tracks that take on a darker, grittier tempo. The lead’s voice made me think of Brandon Flowers from The Killers in his smooth projection and deeper undertones, and the overall unison of sounds from the band threw me back to days of watching Interpol at Festival Hall.
Despite the initial timing hiccup, the Vanguard Runway Show went on, and the excitingly dynamic sounds of Habits provided the perfect soundtrack. Local fashion labels Lady Petrova, Pai, Mimi, Zikki, and Am.Xander, each displayed a disparate, yet complimentary range of styles from their repertoire. It was great to see something as floral and feminine form Lady Petrova on the same runway as some of the more pared back androgynous styles of designers like Am.Xander. Once the models had done their lap, I was more able to focus on the interesting performance by the Habits. Each song and each voice from the four musicians reminded me of entirely different genres. The Habits were able to expertly meld them together in a seamless electro performance. The post-punk industrial vocals on the one hand sounded to me very much like Crystal Castles, yet when the male vocalist took the microphone it had the same sweet vibrancy of someone like Oscar Key Sung. The result was an overarching, genre fusion that was Purity Ring-esque at the same time as being particularly uncommon.
As the day shifted into late afternoon, funk, hip hop, jazz quartet, AYXNMD, or Anthony Young and the Next Man Dead, welcomed the growing number of audience members to the band room with their smooth and tempered beats. While in their bio it may seem as though they have almost too many genres for them to be able to create a unified or fluid sound, watching them perform live proves otherwise. Each song was different from the next, but underlying funk or reggae elements joined them all together to produce a well-blended performance. One thing I found most astounding about AYXNMD was the lead singer’s musical range. He could rap like Kendrick Lamar, then slowly melt his voice to sound more like jazz or soul. It was captivating to watch and listen to his vocal range, and also the musical range emanating from the entire band.
The Stiffys call themselves an ‘art rock’ band, and as soon as they graced the stage wearing matching astronaut costumes and placing a sign in front of the microphone asking if all patrons could “please have at least two drinks on them at all times”, there was no doubting the humor attached to their image. They sang songs about champagne being their favourite thing while gradually tearing off the elbow and knee sections of their costume. By the end of the set, both the drummer and lead singer wore something that more closely resembled a mini jumpsuit. They even had helmets. But aside from the obviously jovial nature of their live performance, the quality of their sound and the punchy riffs were, in all seriousness, excellent. They weren’t just a fun band to watch but clearly had talent behind them, too.
The House of Laurence played their set of psy-rock to a swelling crowd as the time neared closer to some of the bigger names on the set list. Their set was again noticeably different from bands before it, which I think is a testament to Semplesize’s expert choice of musical talent. Twin Beasts (formerly known as Toot Toots) are a hyper-rowdy five-piece band that have a playful sound and an ability to get the crowd engaged. The country elements had the audience clapping to songs like “Fool’s Gold”, while the more surf-rock songs were more relaxed.
By the time Melbourne RnB duo, Milwaukee Banks got on stage the band room space at Howler was almost at capacity. I was particularly excited to see these guys after the recent announcement that they won the Triple J Unearthed Award and would be playing at Laneway Music Festival with the likes of FKA Twigs, Mac Demarco, and other such heavyweight names in the music industry. The set at Howler was intimate and gave me a good sense of exactly why these two are doing so well. Their sound draws from the popular new wave RnB genre but doesn’t shy aware from more upbeat electronic sounds. They crafted their set excellently, beginning in a much more relaxed fashion but building the tempo in a crescendo of electronica. By the end of the set it was obvious that most people were moving their body in some way.
Complimenting the sounds of Milwaukee Banks were the electronic twosome, Deja. At this point the audience seemed sufficiently lubricated (even if it was a Sunday night), and were keen to get into some deeper electronica. Their sound is dark and looming, while the vocalist’s voice is sweet and unassuming. The collision of sounds adds to the overall eerie persona they put across. Again similar to the darkness of female vocalist duos like Crystal Castles or Purity Ring, Deja incorporate a modern, Melbourne sound with pop electro influences from a time gone by.
Closing what was an astonishingly impressive afternoon of emerging and established artists and musicians was Banoffee, who put forth a stellar set. I was personally a little too excited when she opened with a Drake song. It was also beautiful to hear her preamble for each song. “This one is one I wrote for my best friend”, she said shyly into the microphone with the sort of smile that would make any heart melt and, as if I were her aforementioned best friend, ear’s open and ready to hear any confession, she revealed to the audience before “Ohhhh Owww” that, “This song is about being cheated on”. While the crowd wondered how anyone could do anything to hurt the doe-eyed talent that is Martha Brown, she amped up the tempo and mixed her well-known tracks to create something very danceable for her final tracks for the evening.
It was almost sad to call it a night at the end of the performances, for the musical prowess I had seen far exceeded my expectations. Semplesize orchestrated an impressive afternoon that was a celebration of all things Melbourne – music, art and alcohol in the heart of hip Brunswick. The sound quality was on-point, the lighting was always fitting, the fashion was exciting, and even the beautiful poster design by Olivia Gatt made the experience pleasurable to all senses. I look forward to see the career progression for many of the bands who played at the Semplesize Block Party, and wait with breath that is bated for the set list they arrange come next year.