Shit Narnia: cathartic and complex post-hardcore from southern WA

On their long-awaited debut album ‘Cloudbelt’, Shit Narnia take you on an overwhelming ride on the arc from flagellation to forgiveness

2013 was an interesting time in Perth’s music scene. A post-Tame Impala wave of psych-rock guitar bands was crashing over the waning days of a brilliant if fleeting milieu of lo-fi bedroom-pop singer-songwriters – a scene where Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts jazz students were co-mingling with the outer-suburb DIY scene, resulting in music, bands and songs unlike that anywhere else in Australia.

This was the music borne of the tyranny of distance, what being so far away from everyone else on the planet gets you: uncut, brilliant freaks.

Exploding onto this scene of extroverted technical prowess and introverted lyricism was Shit Narnia, a post-hardcore punk band comprised of four friends from Western Australia’s far south: Sam Atkin, the Pritchard twins Albert and Wills, and the band’s lyricist and singer, Hugh Manning.

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Shit Narnia formed in 2013, playing their earliest gigs in brown-grassed suburban backyards replete with asbestos fencing for leaning/pissing against, sun-faded milk crates for sitting on, and a rusty hills hoist turning idly in a rare summer breeze. They have since become one of the best live acts in Perth: a malleable force of nature, who duck and weave between blunderbuss bursts of sonic bravado, and hypersensitive, softly-devastating, emotional introspection.

Shit Narnia
Credit: Emma Daisy

Now, after nine years of tunes, tears, and toil, two EPs and a string of singles, they’ve released their first LP ‘Cloudbelt’ into the wild, and it’s as stormy and blustery as the cover art by underground comics artist Steven Christie suggests.

Work on the album began as far back as 2017 with the song ‘Choke’ as a starting point. “From there I developed this grand vision for a record based around binaries,” Manning tells NME, “where every song had a counterpart apart from one central thematic song which stood on its own.”

’Cause I wanna be open to those I love to express my fears and doubts,” they sing on ‘Choke’, “connection sabotaged no more by an inability to choke a single genuine thing out.”

That desire for genuineness can be said to be the core tenet of Shit Narnia and the album. The startlingly direct earnestness to Manning’s lyrics are saved from any mawkishness by the hard veracity that underpins them and their delivery. Anyone who has seen Shit Narnia live can attest to Manning’s intensity as it cascades over you in a hurricane of guitar, bass, and drums. Experiencing that energy as it has been caught and coordinated on ‘Cloudbelt’ can feel overwhelming, like an intense therapy session being held on a chairlift in storm conditions.

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To Manning, the bombastic catharsis in some of the older songs has shifted into something more reflective. They can look back with newfound empathy for their younger, punishing self. “ I am well enough now that the self-flagellatory aspect of songs like ‘Control’ and ‘Flooded World’ and ‘The Water Pt. 1’ seems a bit sad,” they say. “I still really like them as songs, but at the time I saw a righteousness in the way I tore myself apart in them that I don’t see anymore.”

The arc from flagellation to forgiveness carves a great twisting highway through ‘Cloudbelt’, the music’s barbed fence line of sound winding through Manning’s reconciliations with their past self, and the spaces they travelled through. And throughout ‘Cloudbelt’ there is a sense of shifting within a geography, mapped out not only by roads and town signs, but by memory, history, and communities. “This highway traces all these lonely drought-ridden places / bitter locales hidden behind smiling servo faces,” Manning sings on the closing track ‘Abundant, Scattered’, “to this disaster it belongs / it articulates the exact arc I have descended along.”

Shit Narnia have deep roots in Kinjarling/Albany, a town on the southern tip of WA where Manning grew up and where the Pritchard twins spent their teen years; Atkin grew up in nearby Denmark. Albany has produced a tongue in cheek micro-genre of music known colloquially as “Albocore”. “[Albocore is] basic hometown pride shit,” explains Manning. “We (particularly Sam and I) grew up in a DIY coastal metalcore scene and ‘Albocore’ is an assertion of our connection to that place and that scene. It’s also a dumb joke.”

‘Cloudbelt’ untangles the tricky relationship we have with our hometowns – particularly those that are isolated, and, as more often than not in Australia, entwined with a bloody colonial history. It is, by default, a relationship built on a delicate tension: the tension of stasis that forces a person to watch cycles wash, rinse, and repeat, leaving you with the options to buy in, check out, or, as ‘Cloudbelt’ does, observe. As Manning wails on that closing track: “So I’m building my defences / and fixing my mother’s fences / sliding back into life here / watching these weekends disappear.”

Shit Narnia
Credit: Emma Daisy

Manning, who is non-binary, says that despite their anxieties about living as an out and proud adult in the town today, their relationship with it is “not as tortured as maybe our conventional narratives about queers in small towns would have it”, they explain. “I think that people expect that for queer people who grew up in country towns queerness will be at the forefront of their relationships with their hometowns – which I don’t think is necessarily the case for me.”

Manning also doesn’t get bogged down in the wistful nostalgia that a lot of Perth bands impart onto their geographical ‘otherness.’ “I think that I have been lucky to be able to reconcile those complex feelings and see the genuine value and joy and beauty in my hometown. Definitely part of what this record is is an attempt to work through those conflicting emotions.”

Angst and heartbreak runs through a lot of the album’s takes on love, sex, and relationships. But that angst also presents itself as the price of a good time: “we had clumsy stilted sex on the golf course one school afternoon… my mother gave us one look over and I’m pretty sure she knew,” Manning drawls in ‘Ribbed Pleasure, Beach Party.’ They may go on to describe the town as an “inward looking Salem,” but there’s not so much the suggestion that it pushed them into exile, but rather that it springboarded them into life.

There is a largess of kindness to Manning’s songwriting that has subtly steered Shit Narnia in a direction that similar bands are unable to head in. You see it in how the band eschew the typically hypermasculine cis-het trappings of hardcore music and its spaces; you hear it in songs like ‘Coax’ that want to let you in on this hard-earned tenderness and contentment. “These precious ugly truths / let me murmur them to you,” Manning chants, like a sort of off-kilter mantra, not just for them, but the similarly naked and fragile.

Acceptance of fragility – in yourself, others, your community, and environment – lends power to the songs on ‘Cloudbelt’, and forms the bedrock of the mercurial contrasts of Shit Narnia, the band and the experience. This is a group with immense musical prowess: Atkin and Albert and Wills Pritchard are some of Perth’s best-known multi-instrumentalists (whose solo projects Thylacine and New Nausea are worth your time in their own right). Their insanely tight playing is interwoven with Manning’s wide-eyed desire to confess, expel, and heal, leaving the songs to radiate with the heat and glow of hot bitumen on boiling day in one of Perth’s outer suburbs.

Shit Narnia’s ‘Cloudbelt’ is out now

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