Yyou probably know Nicholas Allbrook as frontman of Perth psych-rockers Pond. Onstage, Allbrook—a marathon runner in his spare time—dances frantically, a livewire vessel for the energy and movement that flows through the band’s music at its most focused. That kinetic also governs his presence on their recordings. Take the synth-punk burner ‘Human Touch’, from 2021’s ‘9’, where Allbrook shouts maniacally over buzzy, off-kilter electronics, whirring noise and drums.
In contrast, Allbrook’s solo material has typically focused more on sonic experimentation than expression. 2019’s ‘Wabi sabi bruto bruta’ is a fascinating, eclectic record that liberally applies AutoTune to Allbrook’s voice, lending an alien quality to even the most sparse, intimate cuts.
So it’s interesting to hear a record from Allbrook that’s as calm and focused on raw emotion as his fourth solo album, ‘Manganese’. The songs here, most of which are slow-moving, feel big and lush, even though they consist of relatively few distinct parts at any given time. Anchored by prominent bass lines, the textures on ‘Manganese’ have a patchwork quality as gently strummed chords, bubbling keys and flute unfold around each other, each in their own time.
Allbrook’s vocals in Pond often feel like they’re working in tandem with the kaleidoscopic majesty conjured by his bandmates, each drawing something from the other. Here his voice is clearly in the foreground. These are sonorous songs, yes, but they also specifically lift and bring out the best in Allbrook’s vocals and lyrics. “Looking for the sea, but the sea is gone,” Allbrook sings with a touching lilt on ‘Babbel,’ atop finger-picked acoustic guitar, spacious electronics, an understated violin bow.
It’s one of many moments on ‘Manganese’ where Allbrook’s voice feels like it might break under an invisible weight. “I’m petrified that I have cancer/staring down at the drops of blood in the bowl,” he begins ‘Vale the Chord’. The openness of the line is made even more effective by the sharp instrumentation: blurred, languid guitar chords and choppy snare drum underneath.
The album’s poppiest, most driving moments come with openers ‘Commodore’ and ‘Jackie’, both of which see Allbrook crooning over kitschy synths and sparse drum machines. Allbrook has previously mentioned drawing on Australian rock’s ’80s flirtation with new wave for these songs – think Icehouse’s move into synth-pop or Antipodean pub rockers Dragons’ 1984 hit ‘Rain’ (which Pond covered last year for triple j’s Like a Version series).
The best music from that era reaches out with desperation for something bigger, something impossible to find in a song, and that’s what Allbrook does on these tracks as well. Over a floating guitar riff, ‘Commodore’ lays out his hopes: “I want love and a Commodore and a photograph of you.”
On the beautiful, heartbreaking ‘Jackie’, Allbrook tenderly addresses a departed friend, communicating directly with them in a mythical better place and trying to imagine some beauty in their liberation from the cruelty of our earthly plane. “Is it lonely like it is down here?” he sings.
It seems obvious to describe a frontman’s solo work as “vulnerable” – a term often used simply to stand for “confessional” – but that’s how ‘Manganese’ feels, removing many of the elements that have come to define Allbrook’s catalog to advantage. of something that is equally intense in its own way.
In 1986, Wire frontman Colin Newman took a deliberately radical departure from the band’s abstract post-punk, delivering the reflective chamber pop record ‘Commercial Suicide’, its introspection heightened by ornate, spacious symphonic arrangements. Allbrook’s turn on ‘Manganese’ is not as drastic as Newman’s, but it is one made in the same spirit, with equally effective results.
There’s a real, undeniable emotional weight to ‘Manganese’ as Allbrook deals with heavy stuff, seemingly in real time. The themes explored are diverse – as big picture as psychogeographic connection to place amid environmental collapse, as microscopic as a bittersweet dance in the kitchen with an ex the night before they leave the country.
But they all center on the kind of loneliness that feels deeply individual when felt, but is of course something that another person has always experienced. That’s the magic of these songs. “I need a human connection,” Allbrook sang on the aforementioned ‘Human Touch’ a few years ago. His search for it on ‘Manganese’ is his most focused yet.
- Release date: June 9
- Record label: Spinning Top plates