One of Australia's most imaginative exponents of contemporary music
By Mike Watson
For most of their ten year-plus career, Australian combo Not Drowning Waving have been one of Australia's most innovative recording acts. Their relative lack of commercial success seems to typify the problems the record-buying public has always had with music that crosses boundaries or doesn't fit comfortably into well-worn categories. Yet even at its most adventurous, the band's eclectic combination of ambience, ethnic music and pop balladry is surprisingly accessible. Perhaps a little more thought on the part of radio programmers over the last decade may have seen things turn out differently...or maybe not. But let's not dwell too much on what might have been, for NDW's eight album legacy is there in all its glory for anyone who could be bothered to sit and listen.
Formed in 1983, the initial line-up consisted of keyboardist and vocalist David Bridie and guitarist John Phillips, soon expanding to a six piece. Until Claim (1989) the group's songs only occasionally equalled the evocative power of its instrumentals, and it's the instrumentals that provide most of the highlights on early albums like Another Pond (1984) and The Little Desert (1985). The solo piano pieces "Water Drops", "Blackfish Creek" and "Wilma's Dream" are blessed with a mysterious lyricism and lovely melancholy and show Bridie to be a pianist of considerable distinction. NDW's reputation for experiment and innovation is also evident in abundance on these albums. Witness the simple but strikingly effective combination of piano and conga drums on "Tide", or the strange meeting of bongos, marimba, voice samples and watery effects on the amusing "John Wayne Visits Port Augusta".
Claim remains the band's most cohesive work, and it's here they invest their songs with all the rich, atmospheric power of the accompanying instrumentals. This is music deeply rooted in the Australian psyche, from "Thomastown" - a vivid, haunting tale of urban decay - to the beautifully evocative interplay of piano and Kieren Casey's cello on "Maroon Rust". And if on earlier albums David Bridie's voice sounded a tad thin, here Tim Cole's production captures all its depth and throaty resonance. Claim is in every respect a masterwork, yet on release was sadly ignored by the record-buying public despite being voted by the staff of Rolling Stone as the best album of 1989.
Circus (1993) is another strong, song-orientated set, though listeners seduced by NDW's forays into ambience and ethnic music will perhaps find the other latterday albums more interesting. The delightful Tabaran (1990) came from six weeks of recording sessions in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, many of them done with local singers and musicians. The straight NDW songs offer engaging observations on the local culture and lifestyle, while the traditional pieces and various group collaborations are often vital and brilliant. "Sing Sing", "Call Across The Highlands" and "Funeral Chant" recall the epic majesty of Peter Gabriel's album Passion in their potent fusion of ethnic, folk and pop elements. The musicianship is excellent throughout, but what gives Tabaran its real power is NDW's complete unpretentiousness in exploring Papua New Guinea culture.
In recent years some of NDW's much lauded soundtrack work has also been released. Proof (1991), Hammers (1994) and Projects (1994) are all fine, self-contained collections of mood music and show film and television to be an ideal medium for the group's unique brand of aural impressionism. Proof is a sparse, at times haunting soundtrack to the award-winning Australian film and itself won an A.R.I.A. award for Best Independent Release. Hammers is music from the film Hammers Over The Anvil, a lovely collection of rustic mood pieces with piano, cello and acoustic guitar featured prominently. But for sheer diversity, Projects 1983-1993 is the pick of the bunch, an album released by Bridie and Phillips outside of the NDW banner. It's a remarkable collection of 22 tracks from various projects the pair have worked on for film, television and theatre productions. The solo piano of "Slow Grandpa's Tune" or the cello-whirly-guitar combination of "Body Work" would fit comfortably enough on any NDW album, but generally Projects paints its sonic pictures on a broader canvas. Sampled voices are used to striking effect, notably on the chilling "Hibakusha" in which an American voice translates the story of a Japanese man who witnessed the A-bombing of Hiroshima.
Not Drowning Waving has now disbanded. But Bridie and his colleagues have left a recorded legacy of which they can feel justly proud, a legacy which has enriched and expanded the language of Australian pop.