Sky Chefs’ discography listens like a good night out. Their self-titled debut was the predrinks, an overflowing tankard of pumped-up zeal and anticipation. Then second chapter ‘Ghosts & Goblins’ is the thick of the night; a bigger, badder beast with tequila slammers a-plenty and a boisterous switchblade-juggling undercurrent. And now, with the arrival of ‘Aquarians’ we’re into the weird bit of the evening. Where the barman turns into a pelican and you start to see faces in the shadows.
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For bandleader and former Spy Islander Dale Nicholls, and the motley ever-changing gaggle he calls his band, ‘Aquarians’ is both tried-and-tested and pastures new. On the one hand, it’s an album that could only come from Sky Chefs. It’s got that psyched-up B Movie pulpiness that’s made them such a snug choice for Halloween playlists, and Nicholl’s trademark brand of screwball, Dickens-on-Amphetamines lyrics.
But it’s also, undoubtedly, their most consistent album. Though there’s ample wiggle-room, ‘Aquarians’ keeps things mainly planted in the neo-fifties lo-fi rock ‘n’ roll they’ve teased but never committed to in previous albums, and flavoured it with a hearty dollop of psychedelia. Between the smooching saxophones, Tutti Frutti pianos and a scowling, acid-oiled lead guitar, it balances out somewhere close to the Rocky Horror Show soundtrack. Or perhaps Grease, pulled naked and insane from the black swamp.
The likes of ‘Young Gods of Hollywood’ and ‘Trouble in the Treble’ are the album’s steel foundations. Upbeat garage rock tracks sharing the water with Courtney Barnett and The Hold Steady, left out on a hot day and gone a little strange with the sunstroke. Nicholls and co-vocalist Leeann Skoda both bring their usual, hungover sing-song vocals to bear, making lyrical sapphires like ‘Star-crossed chemtrails’ and ‘Solar powered cowards’ sound like the ramblings of drunken beat poets.
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In amongst the garage rock, there’s a heady sprinkling of psychedelic sultriness. ‘False Flag’ takes the sluggish, hit-of-the-bong style, seething with organs and down-in-the-gutter brass. ‘Herman White Whale’ takes more from the King Gizzard playbook, ringing with feedback, broiling anti-solos and a vicious bassline. Always kept 60s, never straying too far into expansive quests across the audiosphere. Or almost never. The finale title track is an eight-minute long 70s-style odyssey complete with a starchasing blues guitar solo. Like Pink Floyd forced to play in a back-of-beyond Texas divebar.
At the end of the day, Sky Chefs are still Sky Chefs, and this album stays true to their history. It still sounds like, what one imagines, it is: a patchwork canvas of larking musicians for Nicholls to weave his vocabulary ballets over. The difference this time round is that canvas has a frame. A backbone running through the core made of fuzz pedals and drive-in nostalgia. It’s subtle, but just enough to let the endeavour stand tall.