Melbourne duo The High Heaven formed during the Great Southern Lockdown, and wrote and recorded Fairytales of the Heartland in three months. No doubt one of the reasons why they could achieve this is because they have form: Jackson Freud has played in industrial punk band Attack of the Mannequins and Tom Hulse in blues duo The Slugg as well as heavy rock quartet The Devil Electric. Experience is, of course, not necessarily a determinant of a quality outcome in any artform – you can get all the practice you like but if it’s not good practice it won’t amount to much. Happily, for music lovers, Freud and Hulse know exactly what they’re doing, to the point where it sounds like they were almost waiting for a lull in the world and a tight deadline to create these nine tracks of pure ‘Wild West’ (as they’ve called it) country rock entertainment.
There are nine tracks on this album but – with the exception of two very short tracks – each song feels like an epic, not because it’s long and drawn out but because the duo conjures landscapes and lifetimes in each song. Given that they take their inspiration from Sergio Leone’s films and Cormac McCarthy’s novels as well as Ennio Morricone, Neil Young and Tom Petty, this level of storytelling should not be a surprise – except it’s always a surprise, in a good way. Each time an artist creates a world, whether in a song or album, a movie or a book, it’s amazing and wonderful that such a thing can be done. And here is this pair, emerging from lockdown with a brace of tales-in-tunes that sound like they could just as easily have sprung from the Underworld or Zeus’s lightning bolt.
Hulse and Freud each take turns at lead vocals, and both of their voices are very well suited to this genre of music. As both are multi-instrumentalists they both played bass, rhythm and lead guitars, as well as keys across all the tracks. Drums were played by Brodie Casey (Easy Browns, Purple Curtain) and The Devil Electric lead singer Pierina O’Brien contributed guest backing vocals. These songs are rich musical and vocal experiences, as well as very tight constructions, and while this genre of country music is familiar, The High Heaven’s take on it makes for very rewarding listening and, fundamentally, a helluva good time. From the very first bars there is assurance without swagger and confidence without showing-off, which immediately puts the listener at ease – the musicians are telegraphing early that we can relax, and they never give us a chance thereafter to doubt them. This album is a pleasure and a curiosity and a genuine treat from start to finish.