Live Review: UNIFY Gathering, Gippsland 11/03/22

Teenage Joans. Credit: Dani Brown
(Image credit: Dani Brown)

WHERE: Tarwin Meadows, Gippsland VIC
WHEN: Friday March 11th and Saturday 12th, 2022
REVIEW: Matt Doria

For the first time in UNIFY’s eight-year history (notwithstanding, of course, the cancelled ‘21 edition), rain didn’t strike the ground once all weekend. It was odd – we’d become accustomed to flooded tents and muddy moshes – but you’d nary hear a complaint. It wasn’t overbearingly hot, either – it was like the gods of weather had felt sympathy for us (a welcomed change from their usual spite), having gone two full years without a heavy music festival of this caliber, and as such offered us the optimal atmosphere for peak mosh brilliance.

Perfect weather wasn’t the only thing different about this year’s Gathering. It felt a little more laidback, compared to the typically turbulent UNIFYs of years past. Crowds felt more spacious, the campsites were quieter, and the morning dew smelt much less intensely of hangover spew. The festival ran at less than half the capacity it normally does – 7,000 punters this year, down from 15,000 in 2020 – and though we did miss the raucous party vibes that larger scope brings, it was nice to be eased back into the UNIFY Gathering atmosphere (which can, at times, become quite profoundly batshit).

Our first act of the weekend was Bloom, a melodic hardcore quintet from Sydney whose energy rippled through the arena with every bitter, biting chug of Oli Butler’s lead guitar and every walloping thrash of Jack Van Vliet’s cymbals. They certainly weren’t as tight as they are on record, and there were some moments where it seemed as though an extra few rehearsals could’ve done them well – but what they lacked in stability, they made up for tenfold in passion. Butler and co-shredder Jarod Mclaren played with a bewitching chemistry, and Mclaren’s singing gelled perfectly with Jono Hawkey’s grisly screams.

Dream On Dreamer’s set was bittersweet, marking one of the last times – if not the last time – most of us there would see them live, with their plans to disband announced over two years ago. Though it’s no surprise that cuts from 2011’s Heartbound scored the warmest reception, it was the tracks from their swansong record, What If I Told You It Doesn’t Get Better, that truly shone brightest on stage.

While UNIFY marked another step towards Dream On Dreamer’s imminent death, it was the opposite for Teen Jesus And The Jean Teasers, who – armed with a slew of new bangers in tow – delivered one of the weekend’s most memorable sets. The unreleased ‘Bull Dragon’ wowed with its red-hot groove and earwormish hook, while ‘AHHHH!’ proved fittingly titled when it sent the crowd into an energised flurry. The biggest standout of their set, though, was an authentically snarky, amped-up cover of Avril Lavigne’s 2007 classic ‘Girlfriend’ – which, no doubt thanks to Teen Jesus, ended up being a campsite anthem on the Friday night.

Honing in on his heavier, more djenty material, Plini’s set proved that an outdoor festival can indeed foster the right setting for some instrumental prog. And though it was immediately clear that he and his band had rehearsed the hell out of every song they played, it was the brief moments of improvised soloing – like an extended “conversation” Plini had with his guitarist at the end of closing number ‘Electric Sunrise’ – that really blew our minds. Oh, what we’d give to be a fly on the wall during one of their jam sessions…

Gravemind were easily the heaviest band we caught on day one of UNIFY, but they were also the weakest. Generic, no-frills metalcore doesn’t really tickle our fancy anymore – not when there are so many more interesting, more sonically exciting and dynamic artists to see at the festival – so there was no reason to stick around for more than a few (greatly underwhelming) songs.

WAAX, on the other hand, came out swinging with their searing and scintillating, vibey-as-f*** punk. When he joined the band in 2019 – shortly before the release of their debut LP, Big Grief – lead guitarist James Gatling struggled to gel with their inimitable dynamic. But after a few years in the fray, he’s become their crutch, tearing up his fretboard with vicious aplomb in WAAX’s punishingly short 30-minute set. Like with Teen Jesus’, the highlight of WAAX’s set was a cover of an ’07 pop-rock gem: this time, My Chemical Romance’s ‘Teenagers’.

Nostalgia continued to reign for Ocean Grove’s career-spanning set, with former frontman Luke Holmes swinging through to rock the mic on ‘Lights On Kind Of Lover’ and ‘Stratosphere Love’. Unannounced, his return offered the biggest “wow” moment of UNIFY ’22, and even after three years out of action – his last set with OG being at UNIFY ’19 – Holmes proved that he still has one of the best voices in Australian metal. New tunes like ‘Cali Sun’ and ‘Silver Lining’ soared with Dale Tanner at the helm, though, and new touring axeman Andy Szetho delivered a stunning showcase of his skills.

Trophy Eyes continued the trend of rose-tinted throwbacks, performing their breakout record, 2016’s Chemical Miracle, in full. But even though it remains one of the best albums of the 2010s, it fell depressingly flat on the UNIFY stage, with messy playing from Andrew Hallett and weak, fractured vocal runs from John Floreani (who relied far too heavily on the “sing one line, then point the mic to the crowd to fill in the blanks” trope). Trophy Eyes’ UNIFY sets have always been phenomenal, but with round four, they completely dropped the ball.

Speaking of which, day one of UNIFY ’22 was headlined by The Amity Affliction. So, after an early night, we returned to the arena early on Saturday arvo with spirits high and elbows primed for swingin’. First up on the agenda were Pridelands, who set a high benchmark with their viciously heavy, though melodically charged metalcore. Obvious highlight came in tracks from their recent long-player Light Bends, with Liam Fowler’s monstrous riffs as crisp as they were callous.

Redhook’s off-kilter nu-metal felt ill-suited for UNIFY – they’re tight and hot-tempered in a club setting, but in the open air, seemed a little out of their element. Nevertheless, Emmy Mack and co. delivered a strong performance, with set-closer ‘Bad Decisions’ – featuring almost every female performer on the festival’s lineup – making for an especially explosive climax.

Showcasing cuts from last year’s spellbinding Help Me, Help You record, Stepson hit the stage with a kind of liveliness that made yesterday’s most energetic acts look like twee bluegrass outfits. They evoked the glory days of late-‘90s emo, with guitarists Nick Bennett and Robert Suthern pouring an intense amount of emotion into their fiery and raw fretwork. The album tracks were incredible, of course, but a hint at Stepson’s new direction, the brutish and poignant ‘This Is How It Feels’, proved that their best work is yet to come.

It’s hard to imagine some of the more pop-leaning bands on this year’s UNIFY existing without Short Stack. They were an entry point into pop-punk for many an Australian millennial, and so it came as no shock that tracks from their 2010 debut, Stack Is The New Black, went down to rapturous acclaim. Their set was defined by its schtick – giant beach balls, cheesy banter they’d clearly rehearsed – but the performance certainly didn’t require it; like Australia’s answer to Blink-182, Short Stack used their comedic edge to punctuate genuinely fantastic songs, played with the spirit and skill you only get when you’ve been friends with your bandmates for decades.

Bugs may not be at that same veteran status, but the Brisbane trio aren’t far off. Their set – heavy on hooky, singalong-ready belters from their recent fourth album, Cooties – shone with youthful buoyancy and a summery, feelgood vibe that felt perfectly suited to their 5:30pm slot. Bugs were another band to make waves with a cover, theirs taking us back to the halcyon days of 1999 with a scratchy, soulful rendition of Tal Bachman’s ‘She’s So High’.

Few bands have established themselves as staples of the scene quite as quickly as Teenage Joans have. The Adelaidian punk-pop duo dropped their debut EP, Taste Of Me, just shy of a year ago, yet they’ve already become one of the most anticipated acts on any bill they play. UNIFY was no different, with their crowd thick and buzzing with hype from the moment they burst onstage. Cosplaying their best Disney Channel approximation of goth culture, Teenage Joans kicked off with the unreleased ‘Girls Don’t Cry’, a snarling and venomous “f*** you” to the countless cishet men that make being a woman in punk hell. All the Taste Of Me tunes went down a treat, but were greatly usurped by slivers of its as-yet-untitled follow-up – ‘Terrible’ in particular, with its downright volcanic crescendo.

Playing their first – and possibly only – set in almost six years, Stories delivered the kind of set that entire books are written about: every second felt like a memory in the making, with cuts from the Sydney band’s sole studio album, The Youth To Become, having been galvanised as cult classics and respected here as such. It was like Stories had spent the last six years preparing for this set – and goddamn, how we hope it wasn’t actually a one-off comeback.

It’s here that we (regrettably) had to throw in the towel, though by all reports from our sources on the ground, the rest of the bill – pop-punk stalwarts Yours Truly and Slowly Slowly, digicore deviants Thornhill and the crème de la crème of ocker punk, Violent Soho – offered a riveting end to the long-awaited comeback of Australia’s best rock festival. If it’s even a quarter as fun as this year’s edition, we truly cannot wait for UNIFY ’23.

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…

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