We are living through what often feel like end times for genre. If recording studios had windows, rulebooks would be flying out of them constantly, endangering passersby. Crossover smashes such as Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road have been obvious manifestations of this shift. But colouring inside the stylistic lines has been in decline for a while. Few, it seems, want a creative life without hyphens or slashes.
Into this free for all come Amyl and the Sniffers, a punk rock band who do one simple thing very well. This is time-honoured stuff – bass judder, scorched earth guitar, pummelling from the kit – but Amyl and the Sniffers take what could be a played-out sound somewhere unexpected, channelling singer Amy Taylor’s rage and joyous abandon. Rippling with sinew and seemingly limitless life force, Taylor is like a boxer crossed with a wood sprite; sometimes it’s a little like listening to Poly Styrene fronting Motörhead.
She appears at the start of tonight’s set wearing a baggy beige jacket. Beneath are purple plastic hot pants and a lace-up top worn with boots. The effect is far more WWF wrestler than pin-up. The Sniffers’ drummer, Bryce Wilson, isn’t wearing much either; plus, who cares? “I could be in the sluttiest outfit, but you still gotta respect a bitch,” Taylor announces, to whoops. This sold-out night has been postponed twice by Covid; an extra night was added to meet demand. Next year, the Sniffers will be playing much bigger venues.
Throughout Taylor’s hour or so on the stage, she struts, flexes her biceps, does press-ups, stands on monitors, shadow-boxes, climbs the lighting rig and sits on a speaker. She shakes her bleached blond mullet whenever guitarist Dec Mehrtens solos succinctly. The band’s one curveball is a cover of the disco-era track Born to Be Alive by Patrick Hernandez. But that is less a celebration of dance music than it is a reflection of Amyl and the Sniffers’ own pulsating joie de vivre.
In 2019, when Australia could no longer contain them, the Sniffers made an international impact with their self-titled first album. Those curt songs were easily boiled down to sticky essences: resentment, partying, lust, frustration. The appeal then was that Taylor managed to put an original spin on so many themes. While songs such as GFY (“Go fuck yourself”) remain self-explanatory tonight, tunes such as Gacked on Anger describe a life of unrelenting financial stress and dry-eyeball rage.
There the Sniffers might have remained, but for a couple of factors. Taylor did a blistering guest spot on a Sleaford Mods track Nudge It last year, alerting other demographics to her snarling brio. And the Sniffers’ second album, Comfort to Me, released in September, upped the ante considerably with more precision-tooled music – and a wider window into Taylor’s brain.
Many of the new songs remain pithy. But while sticking to the band’s thuggish primalness, they also do unexpected things. Hertz is, of all things, a taut, nagging punk earworm about wanting to escape to the country. And metaphysics. “I tell you, time is not linear, especially when we’re here in this car,” she yells.
On the face of it, a song such as Security finds Taylor charming a hard-hearted pub bouncer. “I’m not looking for trouble, I’m looking for love!” Within, though, is a brooding sense that Taylor is somehow different from the “normies” the bouncer has just let in.
Freaks to the Front finds Taylor seething that she’s “short”, “shy” and “fucked up”, but people would do well to get out of her way. Each track seems to drill down further into her internal world, swinging between tough-girl affirmations and nuanced vulnerability. Knifey is a very female howl of resentment at the danger inherent in getting home; in the song, Taylor carries a weapon but won’t use it. Snakes takes us into her childhood, where there were “snakes in the dunny, snakes in the chook pen” (chicken run); “I was feral,” she avows, “I still am.”
The extraordinary Guided by Angels kicks off the album and the gig with Taylor’s personal anthem. “Energy! It’s my currency!” she howls repeatedly. She reckons angels are “on my body”. Normally you’d raise an eyebrow at anyone’s close relationship with winged beings. Here, though, the otherwise down-to-earth Taylor is convincing: it seems not just possible, but logical that something irrepressible and inexplicable possesses her.