Inside the Melbourne town hall, an organ stands over 30 feet tall, comprised of a maze of 300 feet of pipes, 300 miles of wires, and over a century of history. This is the genesis for Heavy Machinery Records, an Australian label that’s released over 50 projects in its five years of existence featuring the broadest range of music imaginable.
Miles Brown, the label’s founder, was playing the theremin in a local park one day when a man approached him and said, “Hey, I’ve got this organ. Maybe you’d be interested in doing something with that?” So Brown and the Night Terrors band were commissioned to create a performance for the massive instrument, which they recorded and released on the U.S. horror movie soundtrack label Death Waltz. It became a proof of concept for how the projects could be released properly. “We were able to show how valuable this commissioned work is,” Brown says.
Soon, Brown was commissioning other artists to create work for the organ and releasing them on Heavy Machinery. He’s doing the same for the Federation Bells, a collection of 39 upward-turned bells that jut two stories into the sky at a city park. The label’s first release was the 2017 Cling Clang compilation of dark electronic artists working with the bells. The scale and nature of these instruments loan themselves to gothic and industrial creations, all of which was intentionally captured with the name of the label. “It had mostly been used for classical, jazz, and a little bit of experimental stuff before that. It’s great to take it into different worlds and genres that are not normally recipients of traditional commissions,” says Brown.
When the pandemic hit, Melbourne—regularly called Narrm, its indigenous name—went into a cascading series of extensive and strict lockdowns. Musicians were unable to work and were cooped up alone at home, so the government stepped in to offer a hand and created the Flash Forward project. Through Heavy Machinery, they commissioned 40 projects, offering up to $20,000 each to create new work. Everything happened at a blinding pace, with the first record dropping in June 2021 and the last release in Feb 2022, all at a time when many of the artists’ lives were very complicated and they often couldn’t work together face to face.
“We offer total creative freedom and help them to get their work to a level where the records sound good together,” Brown explains of the label’s relationship with its artists. “We just want to make sure everyone gets the best possible outcome while working with us while they have access to our resources. We want to have some community care with the way we work with our artists. We want to create a label experience that’s enjoyable and doesn’t have a downside. We’re not trying to test an artist, we’re trying to reward them.”
Considering the amount of money involved, it was exceptional how few strings were attached with Flash Forward. “My measure of success is completion; we make the record and put it out there. It’s contributing to the artist’s story,” Brown says. Every project they commissioned, they pressed records for. Some performed well, like Jalang’s Bahasa punk record Santau, which sold out quickly. Other more experimental projects weren’t expected to sell quickly; artists are able to take them to sell on tour, which works in their favor. They can do whatever they want with them now that they’re pressed, and the label doesn’t take a cut. “We’ve already had young bands pop up who were inspired by the records we put out. That’s what you really want.”
Brown went into the project looking to bring different communities together, and they cast a wide, diverse net—both in terms of backgrounds and styles. “Every kind of diversity is importance to us, you try to represent as big and broad a range as you can,” he says. There are Aboriginal, Pasifika, and Asian artists; there are LGBTQ and neurodivergent artists; there are long-haired white boys. There are stars and there are obscure artists. There are punk bands, soul singers, indie hip-hop acts, club music, industrial tracks, drum & bass, and footwork. As long as they have talent and vision, the label has been all ears.
The main reason it’s such a diverse project is in large part because it’s such a diverse city. Seventy percent of residents in Narrm have parents born overseas and the most common ancestry in the city is Chinese. “It would be ridiculous to not have a diverse roster,” Brown says. It’s also a music city, with artists moving from all over the continent to be a part of the scenes there. “There are so many overlapping communities—communities based around sexual orientation, ethnicity, and interests. And most of these people are expressing themselves through music. The political and personal are always connected.”
With the lockdowns behind them and a sense of normalcy creeping in, Heavy Machinery has returned to commissioning bells and organ projects. But they’re also working towards a follow up of Flash Forward, continuing their mission of challenging the Australian music industry at large. “We don’t want people to feel like they need to sacrifice themselves financially or morally to participate in music,” Brown says. “Usually you’re bartering and negotiating with the devil in terms of paying for your place at the table. The industry wants you to think you have to play that game. We’re trying to create an alternative narrative of Australian music, because if you don’t do that, you end up with a big pile of people who are already successful. We want to encourage people to think when they make music and treat it like an art form.”
Here are a few selections from Heavy Machinery’s wide catalog.
2 x Vinyl LP
When we talk about the gothic tendencies of a label created around a towering organ and floating bells, V’s new album Faithless drives the point home with darkwave synths and throbbing drums drenched in spiraling echos, choral chants, and howls. The drums capture the rhythm of a heartbeat and never let up on the sense of tension, with the layers of bells creating an unrelenting, subliminal feeling of alarm. The title track captures all the ideas spread across the record and pieces them together in one track, solidifying and clarifying the mood and tension, coupled with lyrical tones that drip with melancholic hope.
Remembrance Of Things To Come
Papaphilia treats the dancefloor like a therapist’s office, a place to sweat away daily existence under the spell of sound. Her EP Remembrance Of Things To Come is a dimly lit open floor with space for introspection, a place to let go to the rhythm and free your body and soul. Dragged new jack swing and reverb-soaked Bollywood samples are spliced onto experimental club rhythms with bouncing kicks, warbling gongs, and warm basslines. It’s simultaneously futuristic and rooted in history, bringing together disparate cultural references to create new and necessary connections. It’s aspirational, speaking new worlds into existence while refusing to gloss over the struggles of reality—after all, it’s necessary to affirm pain to truly heal.
Nate Lust heads straight for the dancefloor and keeps listeners moving unti the early morning light creeps in on his debut LP Club Medic. The experimental rapper and performance artist channels the queer New York rap wave of the 2010s, avoiding any straight-up bars—do not expect a hot 16. His vocals are entirely meant to create a vibe and mood, sometimes falling to the back and getting chopped like any other sample. The whole project feels like a throwback to a retro-future that never existed, like it was made on scuffed plastic hardware pulled from dusty closets and reassembled in new ways. The clipped, distorted snares and brittle analog keys are playful and energetic, and whole album is oozing with style, spirit, and confidence.
RINUWAT’s Dua Naga melds metal inclinations and experimentation with classical Indonesian sounds. It’s full of atmospheric, almost ambient tracks, leading with an angsty electric guitar that sheds distortion like dust particles, which bleeds into airy gamelan nipple gongs that pluck along at a patient pace. Javanese vocals in the form of growling mantras are braced by a cold wind that howls deep in the background. It’s followed up by a more straightforward metal section softened by dainty wooden percussion alongside monastic and meditative tracks with drifting chants and vibrating metallophones. At the very end, a sudden burst of flailing chords stamps out the project’s finale.
Ambient music can feel hard to grasp at times, but the soundscapes of Kalaji (better known as Nyikina actor Mark Coles Smith) are as tangible as the Earth that the music is based on. Built on top of field recordings he collected from his ancestral home—the Nyikina lands are in the northwest of Australia— it’s sensitive and earnest but also bold and expansive. This self-titled album is much more than sound design and mood creation; that’s just the start. Passionate vocals drift off into the breeze and spoken word prose grips at the heart, while sweet acoustic melodies and deep chord arrangements take flight like sighs of relief. Soft techno acts as bedding for lyrics, delivered in an indie soul vocal style, and counter melodies on keys. Throat singing and didgeridoos are saturated with the call of chirping insects, the cleansing rumble of distant thunderstorms, and glittering synth arpeggios. It’s hard not to listen to this project without a sense of awe towards the music and the land, something that’s urgent in a time of catastrophe and that brings into focus the necessity of the work of indigenous land custodians.