You likely know Nicholas Allbrook as the frontman of Perth psych-rockers Pond. Onstage, Allbrook – a marathon runner in his spare time – dances frenetically, a livewire vessel for the energy and movement that flows through the band’s music at its most focused. That kineticism guides his presence on their recordings, too. Take the synth-punk burner ‘Human Touch’, from 2021’s ‘9’, where Allbrook shouts manically above buzzy, off-kilter electronics, whirring noise and drums.
Contrastingly, Allbrook’s solo material has typically focused more on sonic experimentation than expression. 2019’s ‘Wabi sabi bruto bruta’ is a fascinating, eclectic record that liberally applies AutoTune to Allbrook’s voice, giving an alien quality to even its most sparse, intimate cuts.
So it’s interesting to hear a record from Allbrook as unhurried and focused on raw emotion as his fourth solo album, ‘Manganese’. The songs here, most of which move slowly, feel big and lush though they’re made up of relatively few distinct parts at any given time. Anchored by prominent basslines, the textures on ‘Manganese’ have a patchwork quality, as gently strummed chords, bubbling keys and flute unfurl around each other, each in their own time.
Allbrook’s vocals in Pond often feel like they’re working in tandem with the kaleidoscopic majesty his bandmates conjure, each getting something from the other. Here, his voice is distinctly in the foreground. These are sonically rich songs, yes, but they also specifically elevate and draw out the best in Allbrook’s vocals and lyrics. “Looking for the ocean, but the ocean’s gone,” Allbrook sings with a stirring lilt on ‘Babbel’, atop fingerpicked acoustic guitar, spacious electronics, an understated violin bowing.
It’s one of many moments on ‘Manganese’ where Allbrook’s voice feels like it might break under an invisible weight. “I’m petrified that I have cancer / staring down at the blood drips in the bowl,” he begins ‘Vale the Chord’. The frankness of the line is made all the more impactful by the stark instrumentation: hazy, languorous guitar chords and stuttering snare drum underneath.
The album’s poppiest, most propulsive moments come with opener ‘Commodore’ and ‘Jackie’, both of which see Allbrook crooning above kitschy synths and sparse drum machines. Allbrook has previously mentioned drawing on Australian rock’s flirtation with new wave in the ’80s for these songs – think Icehouse’s manoeuvre to synth-pop, or Antipodean pub rockers Dragon’s 1984 hit ‘Rain’ (which Pond covered last year for triple j’s Like a Version series).
The best music from that era reaches out with desperation for something bigger, something impossible to find in a song, and that’s what Allbrook does on these tracks too. Above a soaring guitar riff, ‘Commodore’ lays out his aspirations: “I want love, and a Commodore, and a photograph of you.”
On the gorgeous, heartbreaking ’Jackie’, Allbrook tenderly addresses a departed friend, communicating directly with them in a mythical better place, attempting to imagine some beauty in their release from the cruelty of our mortal plane. “Is it lonely, like it is down here?” he sings.
It seems obvious to describe a frontman’s solo work as “vulnerable” – a term often used simply to stand in for “confessional” – but that’s how ‘Manganese’ feels, stripping away many of the elements that have come to define Allbrook’s catalogue in favour of something that is, in its own way, just as intense.
In 1986, Wire frontman Colin Newman made a knowingly radical departure from the band’s abstract post-punk, delivering the reflective chamber pop record ‘Commercial Suicide’, its introspection elevated with ornate, spacious symphonic arrangements. Allbrook’s turn on ‘Manganese’ isn’t as drastic as Newman’s, but it’s one made in the same spirit, to equally effective results.
There’s a real, undeniable emotional heft to ‘Manganese’, as Allbrook processes heavy stuff, seemingly in real time. Themes explored are disparate – as big-picture as psychogeographic connection to place amid environmental collapse, as microscopic as a bittersweet dance in the kitchen with an ex the night before they leave the country.
However, they all centre on the kind of loneliness that feels deeply individual when it’s felt, but is, of course, something another person has always experienced. That’s the magic of these songs. “I need some human connection,” Allbrook sang on the aforementioned ‘Human Touch’ a couple years ago. His search for that on ‘Manganese’ is his most focused yet.
- Release date: June 9
- Record label: Spinning Top Records