Albums Features

Outer Limits: The Bailter Space Experience

We take a trip through the maze of one of New Zealand’s finest acts.

Retrospective features are always a welcoming distraction. A chance to jump off the new music hamster wheel.

They are strange, though. How your perception and opinions change over the years, whether it’s moving on, the experience of life, or new sounds entering the consciousness, for better or worse, the altruistic deceptions of nostalgia are there.

Some people have a cut-off points with new music, and while that’s neither right nor wrong, perhaps this attitude would completely stonewall the hindsight one grapples with when discussing past glories.

Known as Bailter Space or Bailterspace (refer to the band’s artwork which sees them interchange the stylisation of their name), in many ways this trick was a precursor into their mind-bending ways, meanwhile causing us Last.FM users to have a mild panic attack…

While New Zealand was the zenith for jangle pop thanks to the well renowned Dunedin sound, Bailter Space looked further afield, finding tribal kinsmen through the heavier tones employed by the likes of Spaceman 3 and Loop.

Having previously spent seven years warping minds in Christchurch and all across the country as the Gordons, 1987 saw Alister Parker alongside the late Hamish Kilgour (The Clean) and together they formed Nelsh Bailter. Rounding out the line-up was keyboardist Glenda Bills and bassist Ross Humphries (The Terminals, The Pin Group). Later they shortened their name to Bailter Space, and after Humphreys and Bills left the group, Gordons bassist John Halvorsen joined, completing the line-up that gave us the debut LP, Tanker.

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Parker’s ear for a melody proved to be one of the band’s most potent weapons. However, what made Bailter Space true outliers was their resounding eccentricity, pitting obscurity against conventional songwriting. It was undoubtedly their ultimate boon.

Unpredictable, subtle, hypnotic and howling, through a melange of tenuous bass lines, growling guitars and splintered percussion, while periodically nurturing obscurity via vague lyrics and the quintessential sonic fade out, Bailter Space were an all purpose concern. A band dispensing the kind of passive objects that hit the same way whichever mood you’re in.

From melodic and near-bludgeoning to off-kilter and what-the-fuck-peculiarity, Bailter Space remain as one of the most vital guitar-based bands over the past 40 years. What makes them one of the most vital acts is their unruly gift to extract such different listening experiences. Take any number of their fans and the general consensus is that… actually… there isn’t one! The opinion of a favourite Bailter Space record? Well, it would would vary ten times over. Name another fan base that would garner similar results?

That’s why a feature like this may be considered a moot point, however it’s more to shake the frost for those who have spent their own years in obscurity, or to perhaps unveil the band to new listeners. In any case, here’s a take…

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Tanker (1988)
Flying Nun Records

Following the Nestle EP release, where full-length recordings were concerned, via the revered New Zealand label, Flying Nun Records,1988 saw Bailter Space fire their warning shot with Tanker.

If anything, Tanker wrestles its way through the mangroves of post-punk, drawing from early Echo & The Bunnymen and even their trans-Tasman cousins, the Go-Betweens.

In saying that, we do catch a glimpse of the odd-ball nature which defined Bailter Space in later releases; no better exemplified here than the skewed harmonics of Titan, which underpins Tanker. Meanwhile, The Today Song is drenched jangle-pop with those wiry tones reminiscent of Big Black in slow motion. Then there’s the driving rhythms and immediate melodies of the title track, which hint towards the template of sound we would become accustomed to in the future.

Slightly uneven, Tanker may be a release to revisit after consuming Bailter Space’s more wholesome sound, which they would captured in later years.

Thermos (1990)
Flying Nun Records

Following the release of Tanker, the band travelled to the United States and played at the New Music Seminar. Whilst the band returned to New Zealand, Kilgour opted to stay in New York with his new wife and form a new band, The Mad Scene. Parker and Halvorsen recruited Brent McLachlan as their new drummer, recreating the original Gordons line-up and the one that would remain for the decade.

Carrying the momentum of Tanker, on Thermos Bailter Space began to shape the sound and aesthetic we would become familiar with in the coming years.

Thermos see the band revelling in a tension previously unheard. While Hard Wired bursts with hazardous anxiety, it’s opening track, Fish Eye, which sees the band shift significantly. A song combining Godflesh’s creeping, nihilistic noise-rock with the alternative tuning madness of early Sonic Youth: essentially it’s the sound of a runaway freight train.

There is plenty of room to manoeuvre throughout, too. Zero Return sees the band twisting and bending the futuristic sounds of New Order into a new monolithic beast inspired by the science fiction that would prove even more prominent on the band’s next release.

While the post-punk blur of Fuse, Earth Fed and Skin continues the march across previously untrodden recesses, it’s a track like Ad Man that enmeshes all the Bailter Space hallmarks. That cult-like madness, capturing a transparency that makes you feel like they are exclusively your band.

Perhaps not talked about enough, Thermos was the first moment where Bailter Space really hit the mark. Uneven, for sure, but that’s always been the band’s key characteristic. That unhinged nature which has always separated them from their contemporaries, both in New Zealand and beyond.

And it started right here with Thermos.

Robot World (1993)
Flying Nun Records/Matador Records

Having moved to New York and signed by Matador Records, on Robot World Bailter Space really hit their stride. While Thermos was undoubtedly their gateway album, those who favour an instant rush of noise may wish to start their journey here.

Whilst Tanker and Thermos are rightly lauded as cult-classics, Robot World sees Bailter Space shake off the cobwebs, mixing elements of noise, space-rock and shoegaze into something more pressing to the ear.

Dubbed as a concept album whereby the themes are centred on man’s estrangement due to the ascending trends of technology (see Be On Time), if anything, Robot World is probably the most prescient record released on either Flying Nun or Matador, lending itself to the works of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson.

And, of course, the songs stack up, starting with the slow burning drone of Ore and the motorik space-jam that is Get Lost. Combining dream-pop splendour with searing melodic drones, spidery bass lines and tumbling drum fills that corral all throughout the Bailter Space discography, Make is Robot World’s shining beacon.

Robot World’s closer, Remain, runs it a close second, etched in the signature drone-rock parlance Bailter Space carved out and made their own throughout the ’90s. It really is the finest closing number in the band’s canon, marking lift off.

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Vortura (1994)
Flying Nun Records/Matador Records

As Bailter Space drew us into their clutches with Robot World, their follow-up Vortura is a little more impenetrable. In some instances, it told us everything we need to know about the band: expect the unexpected.

Having said that, the classic droning tones that underpin the Bailter Space experience are prevalent all the way throughout Vortura, making it an important part of the band’s story.

Process Paid is the kind of song The Jesus and Mary Chain would have killed to write post-Honey’s Dead. It’s another glimpse of Bailter Space’s majestic rhythm sections colliding with Parker’s distinctive melodies. Other highlights include the metallic chime of X, the diesel-powered one-two of No 2 and Dark Blue, and droning blast of album highlight, Shadow.

Vortura does lack the cohesion of the band’s finer moments, perhaps due to the fact it was recorded all over the world, not mention that Bailter Space were swimming against the tidal wave of grunge. Remaining true to their roots, the band didn’t move the needle from their core themes and aesthetics – unlike many others during a time where major labels were sniffing around and flashing the cheque book at anyone with a guitar. No, Bailter Space kept doing their thing.

And it would prove vital upon their next release.

Wammo (1995)
Flying Nun Records/Matador Records

Perhaps the most renowned release in the Bailter Space oeuvre, Wammo is most certainly amongst the band’s most accessible work.

With opening gambit, Untied, Splat (their most recognised song) and the aptly titled At Five We Drive, Bailter Space emit the kind of hook-induced sound waves that are more than partial to scorched earth and open-roads.

Whilst easy on the ear for the most part, Wammo does contain the left-field weirdness from their earlier releases, with the space-rock reverie of Zapped and the near throw-away number, Voltage, making sure that Bailter Space don’t overshadow their eccentricities with hooks galore. Not in a self-sabotaging kind of way, of course: this was merely a part of the band’s make-up.

Then there’s Retro. The thrum, the chime, the diesel-powered roar, this is perhaps the best representation of Bailter Space, bottled up and presented in four minutes and 29 seconds of utter glory. It’s led by Parker who unveils his space obsession through a warped sci-fi odyssey, (“The rockets have landed/ The spaceman have stranded/The people are standing/ Not where they want to be”). It’s Bailter Space gleaning the excess in what is one of their finest moments captured on tape.

Bailter Space make sure that Wammo isn’t burdened by Retro’s majesty, with the seamless bliss of Glimmer, the lo-fi growl of D Thing and the anabolic sorcery of the closing title track rounding out one of the band’s finest offerings.

With an array of beautiful inflections and aggressive textures, Wammo was the band’s final release for Matador; in some ways, a fitting end to their marriage with the New York indie staples. On the flipside, some found it quite mystifying, considering what they served up next.

Capsul (1997)
Turnbuckle Records

Following their departure from Matador, the band quickly regrouped by signing with rival New York label, Turnbuckle Records. For this writer at least, it would see Bailter Space at their zenith, throwing all their mind-bending ideas against the wall in utterly reckless fashion. The result was Capsul: a release rivalling ’90s underground records such as Exploding Drawing and Repetition.

The problem with an album like Capsul is that there is too little space to underline its importance. An album that will forever remain at the core of the Bailter Space experience, here the band part with the kind of hypnotic grandeur that – even after years spent listening attentively – still maintains an elusive superiority that you can never quite nail down.

That’s ultimately the hallmark of a special album, and for Bailter Space, Capsul remains shiniest jewel in the crown.

The songs? Pick a weak spot if you dare. The nebulous churn of the excellent opening cut, Shield where Parker begins a journey of poetic snapshots (“I wanted to go / But I wanted to know/ Was it too far or was it the start/ Is it the street or / Was it the car”).

Then there’s the wiry thrum and crunching chorus Pass it By, the multi-faceted dronescapes of So La and, barely able to catch a breath, Dome; a cosmic rush of infinite possibilities, where Bailter Space reverse engineer dream pop (“Death aside / I want to be with you for the rest of time”).

Meanwhile, Tag explodes like rocket from the launch pad in its pursuit of a lonely orbit (“I’ve been working on the outside”). And falling like debris from the sky, Collider is Bailter Space in slow motion (“All of our vision / Just make a decision / Avoid the derision / Don’t want no collision”).

While the odd-ball magic remains intact with Picking Up, it acts as the gateway for the album’s equally enthralling backend. Starting with the post-rock lustre of Argonaut which bleeds into II – a lengthy number built around McLachlan’s dynamic and distinct drum patterns which separated Bailter Space from the rest of their contemporaries.

The dead-eyed drone assault of The Sun juxtaposes the melodic magic of Shades, which – ironically – captures Capsul in the perfect light. While many thought their parting with Matador may have stymied their creative force, it actually had the opposite effect, and with the benefit of hindsight, proved to be the catalyst that helped produce their watershed moment.

Yes, Capsul was the album in which Bailter Space spent the preceding 12 years threatening to make. A stone-cold classic in every sense.

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Solar.3 (1999)
Turnbuckle Records

It was always going to a mammoth task replicating the allure of an album like Capsul. But if any band could break through their own obscurity and mirror the glory, it was Bailter Space.

Alas, it didn’t quite work out that way on their follow-up, Solar.3, which would mark the band’s final release for the next 13 years.

Somewhat disregarded, while it didn’t shape up to its predecessor blow for blow, Solar.3 does hold moments that would easily end up on a Bailter Space best-of compilation. Parker maintains the themes that were dotted all throughout Capsul, via the glacial-like melodies of Right Now and the slow crush of So Am I and I Could Live For You. It’s no surprise that these moments proved to be Solar.3’s finest.

And while the stock standard oddities drift in and out of Solar.3 (Windows of the World), the creeping drone rock battering ram of Strand and what is perhaps the quintessential Bailter Space epic in penultimate track, Tide, are further evidence that this record should have garnered more attention at the time of its release.

With Solar.3 being their last album at this juncture, along with the benefit of hindsight, while Solar.3 fails to maintain the level of consistently Bailter Space produced with their preceding works, they hit the mark more than enough times on here to make it worth a revisit.

Strobosphere (2012)
Fire Records

Following a fallow start to the century that saw the band disappear into wilderness, Bailter Space returned for a live show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom in 2008. Four years later, they made a roaring return with Stropobshere – their first of two records under the Fire Records stable and the first where Parker plays bass, replacing Halvorsen who left the band in 2004.

12 years is a long time, and although Strobosphere maintained the band’s sonic hallmarks, things here were a little looser; Parker’s vocals slightly more strained.

At 11 songs at under 38 minutes, Bailter Space only once exceed the four minute mark during Strobosphere. It’s a condensed, back-to-basics affair, and in a bid to shake off any rust, in many way it can be considered the band’s most straightforward release.

Leading the way is the jangle-laden noise-rock of Things That We Found, the sheer metallic rumble of the title track and the vaporising roar of Polarize, while Meeting Place sees the band pitting dream-pop-inspired melodies against knife-wielding riffs.

With Island and OP1, the ghosts of New York’s past slowly infiltrate, with the influences of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground peering through the cracks. It quickly vanishes with Live By the Ocean. Consisting of nimble percussion and a vintage Parker melody, it’s as good a song as any the band has released.

As the strangest moment arrives via the laser beam Loop-inspired madness of Dset, it showcases Bailter Space as a band forever throwing curve balls, and despite operating during this period as a two-piece, Strobosphere stacks up admirably in comparison with the rest of the band’s work.

Trinine (2013)
Fire Records

In a career that has boasted many, Trinine was yet another surprise. Not to the point that Bailter Space were releasing new music, but following up Strobosphere so soon. It’s always dangerous to see a band release albums in quick succession, and there are no exceptions to this rule.

However, the results of Trinine speak for themselves. The snarling mess of Painted Window and Tri5; the squalling drone rock of Today; the wiry arpeggios of Plan Machine; the warm tremolo of Silver – all of which are nestled amongst the finest tracks the band have produced since their humble beginnings.

Then there’s In the World. Something that rivals anything from Sonic Youth’s Nurse, it sees Trinine as somewhat of a companion piece to Wammo. Both suitable ‘driving’ albums, and while Bailter Space have also been a worthy travel partner, with a slightly more streamlined sound, Trinine tops the bill.

Alongside Strobosphere, Bailter Space confirmed their Indian summer would rival the likes of Polvo, who themselves released two excellent comeback albums during this period.

From front to back while Trinine may not go down as a classic, at the time of its release, it both appeased their long-time devotees and welcomed in new comers. An album that hits in all the right places, making it yet another essential chapter in the Bailter Space story.

Concret (2020)
P+C bailterspace

Like most bands 30 years on releasing music sporadically, Bailter Space took many by surprise when they released Concret. After an eight year absence, not only did it seemingly appear out of thin air, Concret provided a much-needed welcome into the homes of many during the lockdown period.

Following the subtly shambolic appeal of Trinine and Strobosphere, Concret is the denser of Bailter Space’s latter releases. There is a notable shift in Parker’s vocals, as he continues to delve into the abyss, almost tiptoeing into the realms of sing-speak, evident from the brilliant opening gambit, Telephone (“I thought I heard your voice on the telephone / Wondered why it wasn’t my own”) and later on Heard It Once.

Make no mistake, though, this isn’t aligned to the endless modern day scourge of Mark E. Smith imitators. At times it feels like Vortura at quarter speed, mixing the vague orbit-scapes with murky post-punk rhythms (Glaciite Rain).

With Halvorsen re-joining the band on bass, he anchors the archetypal Bailter Space moments throughout Concret. The metallic chug of the title track. The low rumble of Outta Sight. The savage growl of Wasn’t the First Time. And the downright beautiful closing track, Delta. While it takes a while to sink into the bones, the more time spent with Concret, and alongside Strobosphere and Trinine, it not only rivals them – some may see it as the finest of the three.

In any case, as mentioned earlier, Concret was further proof of what we have come to realise in the story of Bailter Space: expect the unexpected. A band that has always crystalised the magic of art by finding new ways in delivering and enthralling with their piercing melodies, agile rhythms and wild eccentricity.

The beautiful mess that hits and stirs the consciousness.

The beautiful mess that you wish was frozen in time.

The beautiful mess that is undoubtedly Bailter Space.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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