HTRK’s music is not a quick-fix for restless, impatient minds; it needs to absorbed, contemplated and revisited. Listen to one of their records and you’ll find yourself slipping deep into their sound world, where the cavernous reverberations of dub techno are mixed with frosted post-punk motifs and the gravelly imperfections of industrial, reimagined in the setting of a dingy basement.
Their music is layered with enough subtle cultural reference points to attract critical dissection, raw enough to appeal to beer-swilling live crowds, and visceral enough to make sense throbbing out of a club soundsystem. Throw together the core influences of HTRK and you’ll find David Lynch’s unsettling surrealism next to Bill Henson’s industrial landscapes, with Mika Vainio’s minimal compositions alongside the malfunctioning synth-pop of Suicide. It’s a potent concoction.
Formed in 2003 as the duo of Nigel Yang and Sean Stewart in Melbourne’s north-western suburbs, the band soon welcomed vocalist Jonnine Standish into the fold, before self-releasing their debut EP, Nostalgia, in 2005 (re-released by Fire Records in 2007). From the off their sound was raw and visceral, with distorted guitar pedals caking Standish’s vocals in sonic grit. The band swapped Melbourne for Berlin in 2006, arriving in the German capital unsigned. There they remained for a year, rehearsing in the next room to Einstrzende Neubauten, hungrily soaking up the city’s revolutionary musical heritage that can be traced from cabaret through to the birth of krautrock, and Tresor and Berghain.
Jonnine and Nigel moved to London in 2007 – Sean adopted the city as a part-time home along with Berlin – and soon the band began to develop a reputation for incendiary live shows. They performed a memorable set at Corsica Studios in 2008, and appeared at the legendary Optimo club night in Glasgow back when it was a weekly Sunday night affair, perhaps the ultimate seal of approval in underground musical esoterica (Optimo’s JD Twitch recalls the gig being “rapturously received”).
The band followed up Nostalgia with 2009’s Marry Me Tonight, an LP co-produced by Rowland S. Howard, founding member of The Birthday Party and a towering figure in the Australian music scene. Marry Me Tonight was in many respects a neo-pop opus, with the band’s homespun sound now developed into something more spacious and immersive; tracks like “Disco,” which sounded like a club anthem anaesthetised and played at 33rpm, and the narcotic, shamanistic rhythms of “HA” cemented the band as a formidable outfit. In 2009 Howard died of liver cancer, but not before he had left a deep and lasting impression on the band, as both a mentor and a friend.
It was around this time Sean met Mika Vainio: Stewart, along with Yang and Standish, greatly admired the revered Finnish producer, and the rugged electronics dabbled with on Marry Me Tonight seeped further into the band’s sound as they continued to experiment with synthesizers and drum machines. Recording sessions at Netil House in London Fields led to the third HTRK album, Work (Work Work), released in 2011, a gloomy masterpiece whose resonance only becomes truly apparent after repeated listens. The band’s world was turned upside down when Stewart committed suicide halfway through the album’s recording. Standish and Yang finished the album as a duo, locking themselves away from the world and finding the ultimate catharsis in the studio. Work (Work Work) is intense and leaden with texture, a sonic monument to Sean that stands as one of the most underrated LPs of recent years. Thematically it explores the body’s reaction to personal loss, using humour and sex drive as lyrical themes, with Standish’s vocal delivery remaining strangely detached, her emotions severed and numb. It remains the band’s strongest work to date, the pools of murky noise suffocating the guitar and bass, with an overwhelming atmosphere that is at once malevolent yet seductive, drawing you further down the HTRK wormhole.