The Rational Academy
The cathartic third album from Brisbane’s The Rational Academy is soaked through with their past in Toowoomba and sees them finally catching the titanic highs they’ve long been chasing, writes IAN ROGERS.
There’s no understanding The Rational Academy without thinking about the town they grew up in. Located about an hour west of Brisbane, Toowoomba (“The Garden City”) sits on top of a mountain and it can be a deeply weird and romantic place. To Brisbane’s humid, beer-drenched heat, Toowoomba is cold, druggy and green. Elevated, it’s still somehow susceptible to flooding, as if it exists in a different realm of physics. Culturally it’s a little the same way; a university town with urban amenities, demanding an uneasy truce between violent hicks and exiled freaks.
The city’s relationship with Brisbane is equally tricky and unfair: the only creatives who move from Toowoomba to Brisbane – instead of Sydney or Melbourne – are those who can imagine and daydream of central Brisbane as “the big smoke.” You can do that in Toowoomba, just like you can live in Bundaberg or Cairns or Park Ridge or Mansfield and feel that same gravitational pull. But as Australia’s second biggest inland city, Toowoomba is Brisbane’s biggest external supplier of young bodies, wild ideas and, it must be said, misplaced ambition. In other words, Brisbane is where Toowoomba dreams go to die.
That’s the dead and heavy loss that hangs over every note of The Rational Academy’s third album, and it’s fucking beautiful. Winter Haunts is about the consequences of all this and it’s made by someone (a friend) who is staring at this stuff head-on. When Benjamin Thompson sings, he drags not just his whole life around through each verse and chorus but also all of the ideas and fantasies he has too. In each song they’re there, hidden away. There are the girls he’s known too well or not at all. There are the drifting ghosts of anxiety, bad mistakes and, on ‘Summer Husbands’, children, families and futures.
I can hear the years of his listening: his Sonic Youth phase, his Japanese pop phase, his interest in black metal and Boris and the centripetal force of his lifelong, all-consuming love of The Beatles. (Good for him.) And all of this is in there, on the album. All of these songs are full of all that life that happened while he was listening to this music and playing it and thinking about it. Song for song, he comes back around to the same things: the cigarette smoke in his lungs, the daily uncertainty (always a vast sea or a storm, a force of nature) and the totalising image of the bruise. Those bruises are everywhere in the lyrics. The vinyl edition of the album is even a bruise-coloured purple. And these bruises are rarely shown for rock bravado: ‘Winter Haunts’ is about the small bruises of a lover’s thighs and neck as often as it is the aftermath of an accident or a beating. These are the results of how the body is marked by decision, or a lack thereof.
“This is probably the last Rational Academy record. It’s a relief in a lot of ways.”
With this in mind, it’s fitting that the band have taken a slightly heavier, slightly more metal turn here. Metal has always been a great cartographer of the body and its damage. So the guitars on ‘Winter Haunts’ drone deep and heavy and drummer Thomas Roche’s interest in black metal is pronounced, featured even. While The Rational Academy have never really been soft-rock, there are moments here where they’re indistinguishable from a doom band. It gets that dense and still in places, and the middle ground between this brutality and the band’s older indie pop is fascinating, especially on ‘Yellow Pony’. The album in a song, this track’s ocean-liner-sized wall of guitars all but obliterates the song’s delicate introduction. It’s a completely distorted and over-the-top move, but also a necessary one, as if the band’s noise were the way across that sea I mentioned. Inside all this cascading sound, Thompson sings very gently and in words barely understood, but the way he sings it tells you everything. His voice is the sound of calm defeat and the beginning of acceptance and, mature as it is, it’s something heard only very rarely in rock music.
This is probably the last Rational Academy record. It’s a relief in a lot of ways. There’s real catharsis in all this uncharacteristic heaviness and openness. All of that trouble, all that prior isolation and weirdness and doubt pours out of the band when they hit the high volumes. They own it entirely. It’s not faux or ironic; it’s a way through. So there’s no mire or depression either. When I listen to this, it makes me happy. I’m happy they caught the titanic highs they were chasing, just this once. Because you can listen to this album and debate whether it’s good or bad or somewhere in-between, but you can’t deny the power of it.
If you listen to this and you can’t hear these people desperately reaching for something and getting it, then you’re not from the same place. When it plays on my stereo, all I can hear is some kids from Toowoomba staring into their bedroom walls thinking, “Imagine if I made my life into something magical.” However many years later, however successful or bruising or busted-down that process was, this album now exists where nothing was before and every song on it beams.