By Gray Vickers
It's been a busy year already for Sydney's Sleepmakeswaves. They've traversed Australia supporting Post Hardcore heavyweights Underoath, as well as embarking on an extensive tour of China before returning triumphantly to their homeland for this, the “Made of Breath Only” tour – Supporting their excellent new album (by the same name), also released this year. These guys are no strangers to touring – spreading their wings through Asia, The UK, and Europe, as well as their own backyard, Sleepmakeswaves have become a force to be reckoned with on the road, and with a series of dates coming up with The Devin Townsend Project, the guys are showing no signs of letting up.
I always feel a sense of trepidation when I come to Brisbane's Max Watts. By all rights, I should love the place. Situated right in the heart of the West End, surrounded by a plethora of great restaurants and bars, and offering ample parking for a guy like me, too cheap to get an Uber. But alas, there's something wrong with the venue itself that irks me. Although I'm not technically proficient enough to properly explain what it is, in layman's terms, it's simple. The venue sounds like shit. At first, I thought it was the bands, then I thought the sound guy was drunk at the wheel, but having been to enough gigs there and never experiencing what I would consider to be good sound, I must conclude there's something wrong with the place. However, I'm a professional, dammit, and I refuse to let a home-made PA system in an echo chamber ruin my fun!
By the time I got through the door, Aerials were already ripping through their set. After a 9 month hiatus from live shows, the Brisbane locals were shaking off their stage rust as the venue started to fill up. Ploughing through tracks from their previous 2 Ep's, their set was dynamic and sharp, mixing moody ethereal textures and big booming passages, and high energy rock tracks. They brought the energy to wake the crowd up and dominated the rarely enviable opening slot with their bold performance.
The growing crowd cheered as fellow locals Caligula's Horse took the stage, but in what would appear to be act one of vocalist Jim Grey's comedy act, he decided it wasn't up to his high standards and took a second crack at it. The audience roared, we all had a laugh, he told a few jokes, then the music started. Godamn these guys can play! Taking the prog foundations that have been so prevalent in Australian rock music for the past decade, and meshing it with glorious Steve Vai style soloing and guitar work, Horse have developed a whole new evolution in prog rock. The playing is absolutely ridiculous and these guys are a tight unit. Vocal harmonies all through the set were on point between Grey and bassist Dave Couper. Every member of the band plays a significant role in the overall package presented. Whether it's Grey's massive vocals and hilarious anecdotes (not to mention his glorious “punishment” moustache, which if you ask me, is definitely more of a prize than a punishment) or the massive thundering of the drums and bass together, or the insane shredding by Guitarist Sam Vallen, live, the band truly is the sum of its parts. They came to entertain and to impress and they did both, as they tore up Max Watts with old songs and even a few new ones that were showing off a heavier, grittier, more djenty side of their sound.
Now it was time for the main event, so I took stock, as I often do, of the audience around me. I find a fascination in the construction of an audience. Who does this band attract? Who is their target audience? With Sleepmakeswaves I was more curious than normal, as I've never truly understood the place of instrumental bands. I've always enjoyed watching virtuoso's with backing bands, such as Joe Satriani, or even virtuoso bands like the Heavy Metal Ninjas, and I've even had the great pleasure of touring alongside atmospheric genius', Jakob, But I've always found such a specific audience with these bands – Musicians and appreciators of high level musicianship. With the rock and prog instrumental bands that seem to popping up all throughout Australia, I've started to notice a diversity in attendance. It seems no longer are audiences comprised of guitar enthusiasts and gear heads (yeah, we're easy to spot), but its a growing appreciation from the wider heavy music audience as these bands find their way into the mainstream – the mere fact that Sleepmakeswaves are ARIA nominated is high praise of this progress. So a near full house in a fairly large venue is a hell of a pull – especially when sharing Brisbane this night with Prog Godfathers, Cog - and I was excited to see what the band would do with it.
Sleepmakeswaves did not fail to impress. They exploded onto stage, no build up, no messing around, just full noise and full intensity right out of the gate. In a venue that traditionally sounds like absolute custard, Sleepmakeswaves sounded massive. Soaring staccato picking balanced perfectly against a backdrop of massive drums and bass. A wall of sound pulsed at the audience as they jumped and moshed along. The movement on stage was intense as guitarists Otto Wicks-Green and Lachlan Marks climbed the stage risers and got right in the face of the audience. The band was engaged with the crowd from the get go. There was no shoe gazing or hiding behind the music as is the case so often with instrumental bands, this was a rock show and there was no way they were going to hold back. When the band kicked into evening highlight “The Stars are Stigmata”, it was apparent this is a true rock band. Big riffs, big drums, melody, dynamics – every song is a careful crafted piece of art, and the live translations are epic journeys for the audience to immerse themselves in. Behind the lights and fog, keeping the entire ship afloat, drummer Tim Adderley is an absolute monster. Shifting time signatures and locking in tight grooves plays such an important part of Sleepmakeswaves sound. Without such a reliable foundation, the melodic complexities and movement would be set adrift in a sea of confusion.
As massive and glorious as Sleepmakeswaves sound when the throttle is pulled all the back and they're unloading the heaviest of heavy tunes, their true strength is in the space between. In the slower passages of songs and even through the more stripped back and melodic tracks like Great Northern, the true exceptional melodic creation has air to breath. As Alex Wilson shifts between Bass and Keys, the dynamics shift heavily and gorgeous passages of guitar harmonies play out complex motifs, weaving in and out of rhythms gracefully and effortlessly. The playing was tight and confident when it needed to be, and complex and emotional when the occasion called for that too.
The show was dynamic, to say the least. A carefully constructed, well-flowing set that kept the show interesting and the audience engaged is vital for any instrument band. Without the immediate connection of a singer and the hooks of vocal melodies, an audience can grow weary and fatigued, Sleepmakeswaves never lost their audience, not even once. They had pulled out a great set and played it incredibly well. Their stage engagement with the audience was phenomenal and the individual performances were simply electrifying. It's not difficult to understand how the band has been wowing audiences across the world.
To be an instrumental band is tough, to be a great one is even tougher, but to reach the level is such a rarity, they definitely need to be witnessed.