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Live Review: Hockey Dad graduate from garage to main stage with brilliant third album, 'Brain Candy'

4 August 2020 | 5:33 pm | Mack Perry

With their third album, Brain Candy, Hockey Dad smash down the garage door and move into the stadiums.

“Nirvana if Cobain grew up surfing on the Australian coast and smoked even more weed,” is how I described Hockey Dad to my friends through their first two albums. With EP Dreamin’ (2014) and albums Boronia (2016) and Blend Inn (2017), the Windang duo have become one of Australia’s most popular and exciting acts, cutting their teeth at pubs and festivals up and down the New South Wales coast, sold-out shows across Australia, and successful tours in the UK/Europe, US, and Canada. Over their four releases, you can track their sound from garage, to pub, to festival mosh pit, to stadium.

After two months of COVID-related delays and a postponed set of drive-in shows, singer/guitarist Zach Stephenson and drummer Billy Fleming have released their third studio album, Brain Candy, an assured statement and a successful gamble in genre experimentation. The two have fully graduated from the garage to the main stage.

The scrappy, sea-drenched, garage punk music of Dreamin’ and Boronia encapsulated their young and care-free adulthood on the coast: surfing, chasing girls out of their league, and drinking beer. Sounds like a good life. The more serious Blend Inn, recorded in Seattle with John Goodmanson (Death Cab for Cutie, Blondie, Soundgarden, Sleater-Kinney), was built upon a notion of constant movement, typical for a sophomore album and a band’s adjustment to the rock star life. The album tackled fame and nostalgia with creative arrangements and instrumentation, better melodies, enhanced sound mixing, and introspective lyrics that reflected their first tastes of fame. On Brain Candy, the two-piece sounds more like a four- or five-piece, finding a working balance to their sound while cranking up the psychedelic twist in their garage fuzz. It’s broader, confident, and colourful.

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With its chiming riff and charged drums, “I Missed Out” finds Stephenson and Fleming in a parallel universe, where they got “real jobs” and never left home, a reflection on the ups and downs of their hectic touring and recording schedule. Its counterpart, “Good Eye”, is a celebration of their rock-star life with Oasis-level swagger. “Yeah I picked it from the start/ I called it early, called the shot/It won’t sneak by, I got a good eye”, Zach sings with a wink. It’s them patting each other on the back seven years after the band’s formation—an ode to going with their gut.

The two are fully warmed up by track six, “Itch”, the first sonically impressive song on the album. They sound like a complete band, reminiscent of The Bends-era Radiohead and Silverchair. The building plucked guitar sits behind Zach’s unconvincing screams of “I’m OK”. “It’s definitely the most non-Hockey Dad song we have ever recorded,” Zach told Triple J when the single was released in February. “It’s kind of saying ‘come on in and keep me captive. I’m all yours.’”

It’s easier than ever to hear their broad range of music influences. Their temporary Seattle home is shown through the Soundgarden grunge of “Heavy Assault”. “Dole Brother” is led by Zach’s phaser-thick take on a Keith Richards-style blues riff, turning into an indie joy. “Keg” shows flashes of Motown R&B with its stylish background vocals and Hammond organ. They slow down for the penultimate track, “Reno”, with slide guitar traces of Mac DeMarco and Pink Floyd behind Zach singing to a lost lover, “Let me be your Saturday morning, just have me back for 9 to 5”.

There are some classic fuzzy, power chord-heavy Hockey Dad jams on the album, like “In This State”, “Nestle Down”, and “Tell Me What You Want” -- perfect for blasting in the car with the windows down on the way to the beach. With impressive rhythms and fills, Billy’s drumming chops don’t go unnoticed, especially on “Germophobe” and “Milk In the Sun”.  Blend Inn’s closer, “Eggshells”, is a somewhat-developed shoegazing soundscape, a track that you could loop for an hour and float away to. Like “Eggshells“, Hockey Dad leaves with a hint of what could be possible for the band with the freeing slow burn “Looking Forward to The Change”. Zach sings to an unknown interest about his troubles (“I can’t eat this, I need a pill to sleep”) and patience (“And there’s nothing you can say/I’ll just let it change, take off the restraints”) as a menacing buzzsaw synth rises behind him. The last ninety seconds of Brain Candy is a frenzied instrumental of snare drums and overdriven guitars with a wavy psychedelic hum floating in between, going full circle with its fuzzed opener “In this State”, yet leaving fans with a completely different aftertaste. Neither finale is perfect, but they both lead to somewhere.

With the five singles and accompanying music videos from Brain Candy (“I Missed Out”, “Itch”, “In This State”, “Good Eye”, and “Germophobe”), the duo dropped two other releases: triple J Live At the Wireless – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne 2018, along with a demo time-capsule on May 1, four weeks before their original release date and available for just 24 hours on Bandcamp. Early Days is a four-track tape from the band’s infancy in 2013. It’s grainy, distorted, and muddled. Track 2, “Sambuca at Six”, sounds like it was recorded all into one microphone in a tin-walled garage. But there’s some charm to it. For fans who have been with them since the beginning, it’s like looking at an album of baby pictures. In fact, the cover is a purple-stained picture of the childhood friends at a kitchen table. Look how much they’ve grown. Two of the tracks (“Jump the Gun” and “Seaweed”) made it onto future EP’s and albums. Perhaps Zach and Billy thought it would be nice to drop a little gift to fans before their big release. Maybe they wanted to use it to show off how far their production and mixing skills have come, which is vastly improved with each new work.

Known for their high-energy performances, Stephenson and Fleming are creatively working to scratch their itch from being unable to tour. Alongside the (now-postponed) drive-in shows, their album campaign involves them dropping off their own “Brain Candy” brand of breakfast cereal to 50 lucky NSW households. The band’s rescheduled April 2021 tour has already sold out its Sydney and Melbourne shows, but if they have any chance to get on stage beforehand, they’ll take it—for both the thrill of performing and to capitalise on momentum of from new release to continue building their domestic and international fanbase. Brain Candy could present an opportunity for Hockey Dad to follow Tame Impala as Australia’s next great global music export. With grown maturity in musicianship and production, Hockey Dad officially closes the garage and knocks open the ceiling, carving out a wide space for the duo’s future.

Brain Candy is out now via Farmer & The Owl. Buy/stream here.

Words by Mack Perry

Image: Supplied