Review Summary: Local band takes note of their environment - personal growth ensues
One of the few things I remember fairly clearly about the political situation in South Africa was the 1992 referendum on whether to allow universal suffrage. I don't think at age 12 I really understood the significance, but my teachers stopped teaching, turned up the radio, and nervously clutched the chalk in their hands, waiting and praying for the potential civil war averting "yes". I gathered it was important. Two years later, we actually had a democratically elected government.
A curious by-product of this binary conversion of an evil, binary government system was an explosion in the local alternative scene. When I hit my teens, bands were flirting with grunge, ska and mournful trumpets - and there were actual bands. Original scenesters Sugardrive released the horribly derivative 'Hey God... It's me again' in 1995, and I wrote them off as one of the worst of the new wave of South African rock. In 1997 however, they took an interesting sidestep. No longer were they missing the point of Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam - they had obviously assimilated new influences, and while it was coming out in a more traditionally alternative way, I appreciated that they acknowledged the existence of say, trip hop and Radiohead.
'Sand.man.sky' is an album of three distinct sounds - at its worst, it's unable to give up stodgy post-grunge in disappointing tracks like 'Wired' and 'Drunk - Pt. 1'. Lumped in with this are dated "experiments" like the opener, which trades in clunky lyrics and weak spoken word.
Then there's the sun drenched, meat-and-potatoes road songs. When you're going through the right of passage that is a road trip, then 'Friendly 101' or the 'The Road' sound like a uniquely local take on what that feels like. You're 18, and you're leaving town early on a Friday, a bank of sky gold forming crowns over the frame of the car window. You're heading out with just enough money for petrol, fire wood, boerewors rolls, and beer for the weekend. It's wheat fields broken up by canola yellow. Brick burners and apple orchards. Tractors and rock and fynbos, and white toothy space rock at the top of Sir Lowry's pass. They're perhaps too straight ahead, too plain, but they are charming.
The third (and most interesting) sound they're tapping into is when you don't have that petrol money. You're stuck after college, it's a sheet rain wall visible from under the awnings in the decaying bars of Kloof street. The drums and bass sound like making decisions slowly - 'Michelangelo's Holding Hands', 'Ten feet high' and 'Girl You Made Me Bad' are just winding grooves of thought process, splitting and opening at the end like a flower or a dam sluice. The guitar and piano make the wait beautiful - you're seeing the lights come on from the top of the city, and there's still time to shower and decide what you're going to do.
Some of the post-grunge works too though - 'Live On' is a simple loud soft dynamic, kissed with Karoo dust and mystery. And when you live in your head, and you're wondering if you are allowed to ask for something you actually want, 'Soul Vandal' is the sound of growing up. You're going to take a risk, and tell someone you want them to stay. You're aware of where you are, you're evolving, and you've found your own voice. That's pretty much why, flaws aside, I love this record.