BEHOLD, THE NEPTUNE POWER FEDERATION. (No, really, that’s what they’re called. I’m not making this up. Look them up on the youtubes and the instaface.) And gaze upon their new album, Le Demon De L’Amour.
Out front is the Imperial Priestess, blessed among us, who speaks only through the songs. Naturally. And even then, cryptically. Behind her is Inverted Crucifox and Search & Destroy, on guitars, Jaytanic Ritual on bass and (the) River Styx on – you guessed it – drums. (What do you mean those names aren’t real? How very dare you! I’ll have you know their individual pedigrees include the likes of Frenzal Rhomb, Nancy Vandal, The Tenants and, Musk. Yes, Musk. No one accused them of making shit up did they?)
You want to know more don’t you? Admit it. How could you not want to know more? If only to work out whether to run and hide or cry “come to daddy!” to the Sydney quintet. (Meanwhile, if some of you Friday Night Lights fans are wondering if this has anything to do with the late, lamented Crucifictorius, the finest speed metal punk and other bits band ever not to really emerge from the Texan town of Denton, the answer is no, Landry Clarke, or his lesser talented alter ego, Jesse Plemons, have nothing to do with this crew.)
So, even before you get to the music, the name itself is the perfect balance of ridiculous, powerful, brilliant, futuristic, stupid and historical that you want in a rock band’s moniker. Almost too much. Almost.
“One of the reasons the name is so long and specific is to not get confused with other bands,” says band spokesman and principal songwriter, Inverted Crucifox, who for reasons of brevity if nothing else, allows me to call him merely Fox. (Yes, Court Jester fans, as in “you’ll never outfox the Fox”.)
Well, you wouldn’t want someone turning up thinking that you get The Neptunes and wondering ‘where’s Pharrell’ would you? “Though there was a review of us once as the New Power Generation.” Ah, you gotta know, Prince would have loved that.
If it wasn’t already clear, there is so much fun to be had with this album, with this band. Ten years in, five albums to the good, enough mythology to sink a couple of dragons, a dedicated fan base in Germany (“We’re still wondering why that is,” says Fox.) and local support that crosses from hardcore metal to softcore music journalists.
“Metal is a funny tag for us, I think,” says Fox. “I see it, obviously, but if there weren’t so many metal magazines, and people who are akin, into the band, I probably would distance myself from it.”
Metal isn’t what they do, but metal is certainly in the mix. How do you describe a band that has rock, glam, hard rock, metal, garage rock, psychedelia, and pop? Especially that not so secret ingredient, pop. There are riffs galore, but there’s also rhythm and melody, and that’s what may tip some waverers over the line into fandom.
“That is where we start everything, though we do try to hide it from some of the more hard-core metal enthusiasts: they all start as pop songs. They are very conscious of melody and the classic pop structure, then we add on all the more gnarly bits to that framework,” Fox explains. “One reviewer I talked to the other day described us as the heavy metal Abba. Which I guess is what you’re saying in a way.”
Hmm, heavy metal Abba might be pushing it. Still, they’ve got the tunes, they’ve got the power, and they’ve got rhythm – the kind of things that would be the basis of any half decent band. On top of this basic set is the willingness, the outright enthusiasm to “make show” - as legend has it, the exhortation by a Hamburg bar owner to the young Beatles on their first trip to Germany.
The costuming of The Imperial Priestess, may She live forever, makes a Kylie Minogue concert or a Harry Styles video, look underdone. The flamboyance of Her performance would leave no mini Stonehenge untouched.
And, lest we forget, the final element: humour. Not piss taking out of the audience humour, but a finely honed sense of the ridiculous that balances their love of the form.
“Yeah, yeah, exactly. I’ve been listening to this YouTube podcast by Justin Hawkins from The Darkness, and he said something really interesting about how they get dismissed as a novelty band, or a comedy band, and he doesn’t really take that as an insult because he can see humour in all the music that he likes, from AC/DC to punk music to Queen. If you ignore all traces of humour, you are just left with really, really earnest stuff, and there’s a place for that, but there’s plenty of room for a sense of humour.”
Which may or may not bring us to the monarch of the headdress, the czarina of vocal power, the Imperial Priestess, glory to her future. Serious or not, Fox is wont to say things like “The Imperial Princess is the only one you really need to know” and “the rest of us are in the background; she is the star”. Modesty? Or knowing their place in the world?
“It is kind of an overt attempt to make us look like the band behind James Brown: obviously of a piece, but can you name them all? It doesn’t matter. They’ve got a job to do and that’s to stay in the background.”
On the other hand, even if mere mortal interviewers could get to the undoubted centrepiece and star of the whole experience, the Imperial Priestess, may Her light be undimmed, does not talk, leaving that to these otherwise seemingly anonymous men.
“She speaks in tongues,” Fox says. “Her between song patter is her way of communicating, which is kind of a slight regurgitation of lyrics and some other random thoughts. She is not a traditional presenter or storyteller; she has to be interpreted.”
And who is there to interpret her thoughts for us? Or are we meant to absorb and then decipher their meaning as if we were supplicants of the Oracle at Delphi?
“In a live setting, that is part of the challenge. But when we do play live, and this is one of the best things about playing in this band, no matter where we play – overseas, or places we’ve only played once before – everyone falls into line really quickly with regards to her. There’s a reverence, and they are aware that they are part of ritualistic proceedings, without anyone needing to be told what to do.
“It’s like walking into a church of a religion you’re not familiar with and knowing you must be quietly reverential to the person at the front here. That’s what they do, and I love that.”
Maybe it’s the lapsed Catholic in me but given the rituals and the paraphernalia, it’s a shame really that the band, as a way to emphasise their relative anonymity, aren’t performing in full monkish robes and cowls. (For fans of ‘60s brutalists, The Monks, yes, they did it first, but that was more than 50 years ago and no one wears a tonsure now. Let it go.)
Lo, it turns out that it had been discussed early in the band’s life but the decision was made to avoid their costuming on the basis that it would provide a distraction, another angle, when the attention had to be on the Imperial Princess, blessings be upon Her.
Back on planet earth, as the conduit for their exalted frontwoman, the Fox has been tasked with writing the songs, which no doubt is an honour but one with weighty responsibility. “A heavy, heavy chalice,” is how he puts it. A heavy, heavy chalice of blood you would hope.
These songs “wade in that ‘70s rock pool but then weave in that meta narrative that the Priestess has lived these multiple lives throughout human history”. But there’s also the drive to refashion these tropes through a female perspective of power. Those internal contradictions, or what may appear contradictions, then flourish.
And on top of that the records have become concept albums, the most recent album full of love songs. That is, if love for you encompasses death, violence, blood, historical cults, ghosts, vengeance and the evil nemesis, The Wizard Princess. (For fans of Bewitched think of the Wizard Princess as the Serena to the Imperial Priestess’ Samantha. Or maybe the really evil Serena to the more complex Serena.)
If one can address a practical matter when one is discussing the Imperial Priestess, glory be now and forever, it worries me that with her elaborate headwear, her attendants must have to do some proper advance work at venues to make sure ceilings and other potentially dangerous things are not within headwear reach.
“Funny you say that. Somebody mentioned to us this morning at this place that we are playing on the Gold Coast, called Vinnie’s, ‘are you sure that the Priestess will have clearance to get in there?’,” an unconcerned Fox says. “But we have learned through literal trial and error that we have to ask can you use a smoke machine, because we made that mistake before and the fire brigade has been called on a show.
“Actually, two fire brigades, but one was not our fault.”
Le Demon De L’Amour is out now. The Neptune Power Federation play:
Holy Smoke II Festival, The Tote, Melbourne, April 22
Crowbar, Sydney, April 30
The Zoo, Brisbane, June 17
Vinnies, Gold Coast, June 18