During the ’90s, it could be argued that Australia enjoyed its most fertile period for arts funding. Thanks to Prime Minister, Paul Keating, perhaps the only leader in Australian Labor Party history that placed the arts in the high priority bracket, radio station Triple J and the country’s national broadcaster, the ABC, were vital gateways for Australian artistic talent.
Admittedly, many of the artists during this period haven’t aged well, with the remnants of grunge and American slacker culture influencing a swathe of bands during this time. Now holding an ear to the likes of Spiderbait, Jebediah, Frenzal Rhomb and Something For Kate – Australian artists who garnered moderate major label success in the mid to late ’90s – it now feels nothing more than a nostalgic concern.
This is why the underground is so vital and, like always, it was no different during these times. Each city having its own underbelly for outliers and miscreants alike to come together and form their own communities.
Hobart was a part of this, and after the Labor Party conceded to John Howard’s Coalition government in 1996, the wheels were in motion for public funding cuts and all other standard hallmarks within the ideological framework of a conservative government. Just like today, these circumstances make underground scenes all the more important, and where art is concerned, these communities act as the last line of defence against conservatism.
A scene boasting The Nation Blue, with 50 Million Clowns, Little Ugly Girls, The Frustrations and the Sea Scouts providing a solid undercard, there was another band making a glorious racket within the decrepit pub walls of Australia’s forgotten state.
They were called The Stickmen.
Not only did The Stickmen emerge as a celestial force, but with the benefit of hindsight they turned out to be Tasmania’s most revered act from the underground.
Led by Aldous Kelly (vocals/guitar), Luke Osborne (bass), Ianto Kelly (drums), Matt Geeves (turntables), The Stickmen self-released two albums: 1998’s self-titled debut, with the follow-up, Man Made Stars, arriving a year later. Shortly after Man Made Stars, the band vanished into obscurity.
Kelly’s abstract lyrical assaults were seemingly ripped from tatted notebooks and delivered from the knife’s edge. Even Geeves turntable antics felt fresh and weaponised, providing sinister, metallic soundscapes akin to fingernails running down the chalkboard; essentially a technique that was never replicated, even via the scourge of nu metal acts that followed in the years to come.
With blinding dynamics and horror-like atmospheres, The Stickmen bastardised punk and surf-rock to bestow a unique brand of haunted-house post-punk. The result was something no other band in Australia was doing at the time and with Man Made Stars, The Stickmen were at their glorious best.
While both albums were later reissued in 2008 via Homeless Records, The Stickmen returned in 2013 via the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Melbourne curated by The Drones. The conduit of this return was The Drones’ then drummer, the late Mike Noga, who was also part of the Tasmania scene when The Stickmen where showering audiences with their maelstrom of unyielding noise.
This reunion also saw both of the band’s records reissued on vinyl later that year.
While The Stickmen laid the groundwork for the band’s riff-riding mongrelisation of surf-rock and is, indeed, legendary in its own right (to the point where it’s merely splitting hairs), Man Made Stars perhaps shades it on this particular day.
With alternative tunings and Ianto Kelly’s nimble percussion whipping up a sonic backdrop akin to your worst nightmares, opener, Field, soars with ghoulish indignation. Being an instrumental, it sees The Stickmen throw us off the scent.
Not for long though, as Maps of Places follows. “Machine gun fracture the bones that hold us together,” Kelly anxiously screams as if he’s trying to escape from a straight jacket.
While Kelly’s lyrics felt more narrative-based on The Stickmen, he creates far more space to manoeuvre during Man Made Stars and on Maps of Places, he continues to writhe in discomfort (“Living within boxes within boxes“). It’s the kind of nervous energy that makes The Stickmen what they are. Revelling in unease while they scrape their audience across razor wire.
“Parasite invention / parasitic attention,” screams Kelly on Paradise. Here, it sounds like The Stickmen taking the stable Flying Nun artists hostage, launching a sadistic sprawl of noise that went on to influence The Icarus Line in the early ’00s. The remnants of this can later be heard on the medieval-inspired Mary Anne Beck, the lingering dread of City is Dead and fevered blast of Measure Your Limbs.
The one-two assault of the title track and Shoot to Kill are The Stickmen at their raging best. Man Made Stars, an aloof noise-punk delight with Kelly sounding like he’s trying to shake off a family of pitbulls. Lyrically, it’s The Stickmen at their most potent, too, filled with metaphors that succinctly describe the rigours of life (“Man made Stars / making us closer / making us further part”).
Bristling with contempt and outlandish vigour, Shoot To Kill’s combustible fits of anxiety explode, showering the sky with vivid colours. It’s The Stickmen’s greatest moment, bottling up their finest qualities within four minutes.
Wait For You sees The Stickmen turn down the dial and Man Made Stars is all the better for it. Warped in mystic with every note sinking deep into the grooves, every great album needs a Wait For You. It’s a strange way to end Man Made Stars (side note: the reissue marks it as the penultimate track), but The Stickmen’s natural habitat was always making their audience feel uncomfortable and here their punk roots are well and truly defined.
While the production of Man Made Stars may be considered uneven, it captures what The Stickmen were. A ham-fisted ball of bizarre dissonance, mustered and committed to tape, forming a startling reality. Both live and on tape, The Stickmen don’t lose their intensity and while original, these facets are what make them one of the most underrated Australian bands from the ’90s.
Bucking trends and going against just about everything the country had to offer musically at the time, Man Made Stars is an album that stands completely on its own. There’s still nothing out there like it.
Man Made Stars was reissued by Homeless Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.