THE VIOLETS – Smoke, Mirrors & Other Half Truths

Long before Matt Cahill became vocalist/guitarist with Evoletah, he was a member of Aussie rock band The Violets. The Violets received critical acclaim in Australia, but like so many other bands from the southern hemisphere, they didn’t really achieve any commercial success overseas. They were always a band Matt looked upon favourably, but the more the years passed and the more Evoletah covered new musical ground – since 2012, they’ve evolved from being an alternative rock band, into an almost proggy affair, taking in elements of pop, jazz and electronica along the way – the more it seemed as if The Violets would be forever associated with the past.

…And then something happened. With the world gradually thrown into turmoil by a global pandemic, Cahill found himself with a lot of time for reflection, and decided to move forwards by essentially going backwards. Old friends began exchanging messages and, eventually, The Violets had reformed, and found themselves in the same place for the first time in twenty years. In Matt’s own words, the experience was “nerve-wracking” with doubts as to whether they’d “still have chemistry”. When old bands reconvene, things can go either way. Sometimes, despite best efforts, the cracks are obvious; sometimes there’s a genuine spark that shows how time apart can be a good thing. In this case, the latter certainly applies, as The Violets’ 2022 release ‘Smoke, Mirrors & Other Half Truths’ has more than its fair share of great songs.

The opening track ‘Sideways’ sells the album on its own. Beginning with a busy rhythm and clean toned guitar, it immediately grabs your attention, but by then settling into a moody groove where a very 80s drum sound collides with a warm bass, it sets up a great melody. The addition of ringing guitars and a very sly sounding vocal are a perfect counterpoint, and within the retro, slightly gothy sound, there’s something very familiar. It isn’t familiar from Cahill’s own world, though; it could be said that the core of this track – vocals included – are strongly reminiscent of The Church, circa ‘Sometime Anywhere’. This, of course, can only be a good thing. ‘Love Lies In The Rain’ is much busier, unafraid to showcase more of The Violets’ pop credentials, wavering within Del Amitri territory in places – musically, if not vocally – and the retro jangle is both friendly and accessible. Those who love 90s influenced pop/rock will certainly find an instant love here, as there’s a real heart to the music itself, and the way the music Cahill utilises his sometimes limited, often breathy vocal creates a brilliant contrast. It’s optimistic, yet introspective, and suggests the vocalist has approached The Violets’ more accessible, melodic sounds with the same cinematic ear as his own Evoletah project.

‘My Whole World’ has more of a demo quality feel due to a loud snare drum, but still manages to work despite feeling a little rougher around the edges. Taking a very 90s indie groove and shaking it into something a little harder, it’s possible to hear traces of peak Church material once again, but a more upfront bass and dual vocal make it more obviously Violets – older fans will certainly hear musical callbacks to 1995’s ‘Leased Regret’ both here and during ‘Love Lies In The Rain’. That said, there’s a sparkle at the heart of everything that sounds like a band pushing forward into the twenty first century and not relying on pure nostalgia, and any initially perceived weakness here is purely down to the first two tracks sounding so much stronger on those all important first listens.

Opting for groove over hooks, ‘Shaken & Stirred’ whips up a slow rhythm that sounds like a rock band attempting acid jazz. The retro heart is amplified by a brilliant, echoing guitar that’s almost certainly been inspired by Monty Norman’s James Bond theme, while a deep funky bass drives everything forward with a muscular sound and minimum effort. Switching gears midway for an indie rock middle eight, everything sounds more like traditional Violets, but this allows a tougher vocal to shine before a return to the main melody makes the band sound like they’re tighter than before. In some ways, this track’s whole never manages to be quite as impressive as its individual parts, but will certainly be loved by those merely looking for an entertaining distraction. ‘All Went South’ returns to some taut goth rock, where a pulsing bass and emotive vocal pull together as if bits of The Cure’s ‘Faith’ era singles have infiltrated the Violets camp, and as before, the combination of rigid bass work and very rhythmic guitars sounds almost timeless, whilst a very natural vocal adds a more fluid melody. There so much about this that sounds like The Violets of old, it’s easy to imagine it being a fan favourite. In a change of mood, the haunting piano and cello sounds at the heart of ‘April’s Fool’ could easily be an Evoletah track, and yet it still feels natural as part of this more (often) upbeat release, allowing the listener to focus a little more on an emotive vocal, before ‘Here I Am’ teases with a strange hybrid of gothic pop, prog rock and arty indie in a way that refuses to be easily labelled.

Up against some serious competition, ‘Here I Am’ could be this album’s crowning glory. Hard snares punctuate a superb rhythm; jangling guitars waver on the edge of a waltzing time signature; crying vocals pull from old Cure tracks, but always meld the angst into something new. Beneath the rockier elements, synth strings flesh out the sound and tinkling keys rattle with abandon, as if playing something different, and yet sounding integral to a multi-layered arrangement. It’s one of those tunes that immediately sounds superb, but sliding into the second half where heavily sustained guitar work adds a heavier edge – bringing in a couple more prog rock infleunces – and multi-tracked guitar harmonies fill a massive space, The Violets really come into their own with a genuinely timeless sound.

It honestly doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of The Violets before, this album stands up well on its own merits. It doesn’t necessarily aim for one hundred percent originality, but it has plenty in the way of strong arrangements and confident hooks. Like finding a long forgotten piece from a musical past, this shows The Violets’ ability to sound like they belong…no matter how many years have passed. Also, at barely half an hour, the band have ensured there’s no real time for unnecessary bloat or filler here, creating the kind of listen that really won’t wear thin too quickly. All in all, a very welcome return.

April 2022