Ex-Olympian – ‘Afterlife’ review: Melbourne groove-journeyman builds a fantastical neo-soul world

Liam McGorry (Eagle and the Worm, Saskwatch and Dorsal Fins) makes his solo debut

Melbourne’s neo-soul scene stretches out like mycelium: It’s an interconnected organism of musicians, radio stations and record stores that produces a trippy antipodean trifle of Afro and Latin jazz, soul, funk, prog rock and cosmic disco. Musicians work at the shops selling their own records, which are owned by the hosts of public radio shows – like the iconic Fitzroy store Northside Records, where skilled groove-journeyman Liam McGorry works. On his debut record as Ex-Olympian, ‘Afterlife’, you can almost hear the rustle of that store’s dusty covers and rare pressings.

The record kicks off with undulating synths, chimes and keys on the short intro ‘Javelin Flight’, before descending into the instrumental ‘Netherworld Boogie’. The track’s certainly subterranean, with the skittering percussion sounding like it’s reverberating off close walls and bottomless pools. This is no claustrophobic jam, though – its bassline leads you down tunnels that open up into vast caverns. We’re talking Fraggle Funk here.

The track’s a nifty bit of world-building for the fantastical sonic landscape on an album which only steps back through the portal to the real world once. That moment comes on ‘Lilac Youth’ – a classic soul cut on which McGorry’s old Saskwatch bandmate Nkechi Anele examines an old relationship. McGorry could’ve taken that road again on the Mayer Hawthorne-channelling ‘Penny in the Well’, but wisely elevates singer Sam Lawrence’s vocals above the Los Angeles artist’s ’60s soul pastiche with texture, gooey reverb, brass and the elation of letting go.

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McGorry adds his own fragile higher register to the tracks ‘Voices In My Head’ and ‘Ripple In Time’. The former goes a bit ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ with its vocal samples and subject matter, but he steers away from the split personality of the iconic Avalanches single, settling more in peaceful self-analysis rather than being battered around by a chaotic id.

For the most part, ‘Afterlife’ feels unconcerned with dwelling on the heaviness in the world. Sometimes the record wades through uneasy waters, like on the title track with its minor chords and lurking baritone sax, but that song’s about looking to a positive future, too, even when the past is lapping at your ankles.

Sometimes, though, it can be hard to completely step out of the pond and dry your feet. The record was intended to be McGorry’s break from playing in big ensembles like Eagle and the Worm, Saskwatch, and Dorsal Fins, but as guests pop up on the record it seems clear that trying to escape such a rich pool of talent is a folly. The record boasts immaculately funky drums from Graeme Pogson (The Bamboos, GL), multi-instrumentalist John Castle, the previously-mentioned singers Anele and Lawrence, and more.

‘Afterlife’ shows that while artists might crave autonomy, it’s hard (and probably unwise) to break free from the super-organism when its tendrils are wound through so much talent. The record’s as much a testament to McGorry as it is to the scene that fostered his talent.

Details

Ex-Olympian Liam McGorry solo album Afterlife
  • Release date: October 16
  • Record label: Dot Dash Recordings / Remote Control Records
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