A reassertion of the Scientists’ outsider status
While unsung in their heyday (often by design), the bands of the ‘80s punk/indie underground have long since received their dues. From Sonic Youth to Mudhoney, the sprawling network of DIY bands who made the alt-rock boom possible has been endlessly memorialized with books, tribute albums and t-shirt after t-shirt. But to this day, at least outside their home country of Australia, the Scientists fly under the radar. Hence “Outsider,” the opening track off their first album in 35 years, Negativity. Rather than make some sort of grand comeback statement, the band decided to reassert their outsider status with this record and pick up right where they left off as if they never broke up in the first place.
“People think of the ‘80s as being keytars and mullet haircuts, but there was another side to all of that, and we were part of it,” lead singer Kim Salmon said, “This record is another thing again. It is like a contemporary version of the Scientists of the ‘80s.” And he’s right. Unlike most comeback albums, this is a surprisingly good entry point for the band—if you don’t know what the Scientists are all about, Negativity provides a good summation.
But it’s also a love letter to the musical underworld from which they emerged. “Outsider” reeks of The Gun Club, while art punkers like The Birthday Party and The Jesus Lizard are all over “Make It Go Away” and “Safe,” among others. The best track, “Moth Eaten Velvet,” is described as a Velvet Underground homage in the album’s Bandcamp description, but the three-piece string section featured on the track more closely evokes The Pixies. And “I Wasn’t Good At Picking Friends,” with its gnomish backup vocals, campy lyrics and synthesizer, sounds like a bluesy B-52’s cut.
An entire decade’s worth of underground rock gets thrown into the Scientists’ meat grinder, and the result is enjoyable but slightly unbalanced—tight, propulsive punk songs are outweighed by dirges and feedback-drenched freakouts. This is what the band has become known for, but they’re plenty capable of the former too. The instantly catchy “Outsider” proves their songwriting chops are alive and well, so it’s disappointing when subsequent tracks mostly fail to exploit this. The sludgy stuff isn’t bad, but wouldn’t it have been fun to hear them channel the songwriting heights of their earliest records?
Still, the band manages to keep things exciting with a seemingly endless supply of scuzzy, juiced-up riffs and skull-battering percussion. “The Science Of Suave” might be the best example, with its gleefully deranged, freewheeling lead guitar riff and spastic drum beat, and the abrasively-textured rhythm guitar on “Make It Go Away“ sounds like someone’s head being slammed against concrete. “Dissonance” is more stripped-down, built solely on troglodytic, Scott Asheton-style drums, while the guitar settles into the background to supply a steady hum of feedback. Guitarist Tony Thewlis is no stranger to effects, though—on “Seventeen,” he shamelessly coats his guitar in a syrupy layer of tremolo. Meanwhile, Salmon sounds like he’s crooning from some primordial, watery abyss with all the reverb on his vocals. It’s like a surf rock song from hell.
In his old age, Salmon’s voice hasn’t diminished the youthful petulance of the music in the slightest. If anything, his world-weary snarl sounds more convincing than ever. Whether he’s serving up an impassioned, gravely wail on “Safe,” or a calmly demented growl on “Outer Space Boogie,” Salmon proves that rock isn’t just a young person’s game.
Negativity might not always rock—it trudges a bit more often than it should—but this is what it ultimately reminds people: that rock and roll is a “teenage sport, meant to be played by teenagers of all ages,” in the words of Calvin Johnson. And after 35 years, it’s clear that the Scientists have still got it (down to a science, you might say).