Instrumental music is very much a niche style of art. Prog rock/metal is arguably just as niche-level a form of musical expression as music without vocals and lyrics. So instrumental prog is about as far left of centre a sub-genre of music as you can get before you get into truly weird and experimental styles.
At the same time, that niche has grown and grown in recent years, on the back of such wonderful and diverse artists as Animals as Leaders, sleepmakeswaves, Scale the Summit, Russian Circles, Intervals, David Maxim Micic, I Built the Sky and many, many more. To the point where many of these artists, against all odds, are making a good living from writing, recording and touring their music, selling merch and so on. Followings have grown, as have the numbers of hits, views and streams on Youtube, Spotify, Bandcamp and other such platforms. Instrumental prog rock and metal artists tour the world (prior to Covid-19 anyway) and do extremely well.
One of the artists at the absolute forefront of this global movement is Australia’s own Plini. Now a household name within the niche, the young Sydney guitar prodigy has just released his sophomore album Impulse Voices. He joined us recently to kindly give us some in-depth thoughts about each track, detailing the thinking and inspirations behind the creation of this most eclectic and fascinating collection of vocal-free progressive music songs.
‘I’ll Tell You Someday’ opens proceedings in cathartic style. From ambient beginnings, it builds into a sweeping, grandiose epic that sends veritable shivers down the spine of the listener, Plini’s lead lines both blistering and steeped in melody and feel at the same time. It is arguably the album’s best cut.
Plini: I was having a conversation with a friend during the writing process, about the role that people you know are going to play in the rest of your life. I said, “what do you think my role in the rest of your life will be?”, and she said, “I’ll tell you someday.” I just thought that was one of the most smug things I’d ever heard (laughs).
I kind of think it just matched the emotion of the song, it’s kind of warm but it’s also kind of curious. And I thought, because most of my song titles come across as ‘prog’ song titles, kind of abstract or sciencey or whatever, that made for a bit of a poetic difference, just in the way it was used as a phrase, and yeah, that’s the story behind that one.
Most recent single ‘Papellilo’ is a little more bluesy, a little more laid back, a little more groove-based, although it still reaches for the heavens at points, in true Plini style.
Plini: That one starts off with that riff that repeats through the first couple of minutes. Pretty immediately I had the idea that I wanted to do something that was sort of Snarky Puppy influenced. It didn’t necessarily end up that way, but I imagined that it would be this quite repetitive rhythm section with lots of different things cluttering around it, like a big band was playing it.
And then another influence for it was this old composer called Les Baxter. A lot of his stuff has a similar vibe, it’s the kind of stuff that would be on the soundtrack to adventure movies before Indiana Jones, when traveling the world was still quite exotic. I just wanted to bring in some of that exotic tonality to it, if that makes sense? And then I just ran with that.
The title was in the list that I had of potential song titles. I’ve been walking around a lot, and lots of people seem to have the bougainvillea flower, and I would have loved to have called a song ‘Bougainvillea’, but as you know, as an Australian, the ‘bogan’ part of it is not very flattering. There’s a stigma to that word, even if it’s got nothing to do with the flower. So I did a bit of a Wikipedia expedition and found that ‘papellilo’ is the Peruvian-Spanish name for the same flower. And then, a number of Spanish-speaking fans pointed out that that’s also the name of a rolling paper when they make a joint!
‘Perfume’ maintains the swirling ambience created by ‘Papellilo’, although adds a slightly more eerie and experimental edge, and throws in some moments of electronica for good measure.
Plini: It was the first song that I sent to my drummer Chris. I liked how it sounded, thematically, but I absolutely hated how it sounded in terms of the beat that I programmed for it. It was kind of a Plini disco sort of thing. So I sent it to him and said: “I like this a lot, but I also fuckin’ hate it, can you come up with something a bit weird to help me like it again?” He sent me about eight different grooves, and I ended up picking one of them. It’s that hi-hat pattern that’s not quite where it should be.
I think it’s the creepiest sounding thing on the album, its harmony and texture, so it’s named after the book of the same name, it’s this really creepy fantasy/horror thing.
A quiet piano intro announces the arrival of ‘Last Call’, another groove-laden blues exploration. Yet again, the note selection in his lines is supremely tasteful and the track winds up soaring to the very heavens.
Plini: ‘Last Call’ was almost going to be the album title, because I was just thinking about ongoing experiences or feelings that I’ve had in the last few years while I’ve been coming up with new ideas. I always like to put in a bit of travel at the end of a tour, so I’ll stay in a city for a while afterwards. That feeling I get when that’s finished and I’m going home, it’s like, I don’t want it to end but at the same time I’m not going to live where I’ve ended up. So it’s that melancholy, can’t win either way thing, a bit of a negative way of looking at it.
And that also reminded of when you’re a bar having a good time and they call last drinks and there’s not that much more fun to be had. You’ve got to make do with the amount of fun you’ve had ‘til then and then call it a day. That song is one of the jazzier and more upbeat ones, which just reminded me of being in New York and going to jazz clubs and that kind of thing. So that’s how that title attached to that song.
The title track features yet more of Plini’s famed dynamics as its snaky groove twists and turns across the track’s teasingly brief length, before it reaches another lofty climax.
Plini: There’s something kind of funny or ironic about the shortest song being the title track. That helped it. The title, I was listening to a psychology podcast, and they were talking about impulse voices being the voices in your head that you had from when you were a child, that basically lead you to do all the funny shit you do when you’re a kid, like eat dirt and play with insects. And then when you get older, adult life and being serious drowns out those voices.
So that title was like trying to re-amplify the childlike instincts that you have, especially with music. An adult eating dirt is probably less acceptable than having fun with music. It’s something that’s important and it’s something that a lot of professional musicians might forget what’s seriously good about it.
That song covers quite a lot of musical territory and seemed to suit that idea.
‘Pan’ introduces yet another new and different element to the fold, some sweet bluesy/jazzy sax that both soothes and explodes, and duels with the steepling lead guitar as Plini proves he can shred with the best of them. Another real highlight track on a monumental album.
Plini: It’s a combination of Pan, the Greek god, I think the only god who had no motivation for great good or great evil, he was just this cheeky dude that hung around having fun. And then I was watching this space documentary with Pan, the moon of Saturn. I was thinking it’s really a cute moon, it looks like, a lot of people call it a ravioli or a walnut. It’s this tiny little thing out there that just hangs out around Saturn.
So that song turned out to be the most djent song on the album, and I think there’s almost a stereotype of djent almost always being influenced by astronomy and that sort of thing, so I thought I may as well just go for it with that.
‘Ona/1154’ provides some cruisy, laid-back respite between ‘Pan’ and the album’s towering closer, and does so with real style. The bluesy, noodling trade-off between the lead guitar and piano at the end is just sweet.
Plini: Ona is a café in Marrickville, Sydney that we went to while we were recording that song. If you look it up, they’re very serious about what they do, and Chris my drummer has a friend that works there. I think we had about five coffees each, all different things, all served in different cups to enhance the different flavour palates and all that.
I think the combination of me being in the studio and a lot of coffee and having a good time, it was like, I’m going to name a song after this place.
And then, 1154 is the name of an Italian restaurant in Wellington, New Zealand. The first and only time we’ve played in Wellington last year, it was just amazing to play somewhere I’d never played before. It was one of those days when everything was going well, I think it was raining, but it’s a really pretty city. So we went to that restaurant and it was such an enjoyable experience. I looked it up, and 1154 was apparently the year when pasta as we know it was invented.
So coffee and pasta are two of my favourite things. I guess it’s a shame to reveal this, but at the same time I don’t think it hurts people to know, it sounds totally like a mysterious title, but I like that that’s what it comes from, two of the simplest forms of sustenance there is.
You wanted a big finish? You got it; ‘The Glass Bead Game’ is an absolute gem. It is nine minutes of building, ebbing, flowing dynamism that rounds things off magnificently and takes the listener on a journey across soundscapes that only this most imaginative young artist could conceive and execute.
Plini: I think because it’s such a prog song, it deserved a prog title. The Glass Bead Game is a book, which embarrassingly enough I haven’t actually read. It’s been sitting on the book shelf, I actually planned to read it before I finished the album so I was able to be more authentic, but I just didn’t get around to it. But I read the blurb, and thematically it’s got a lot of ideas about society, overarching stuff that I would like to think that I’m trying to convey in a song like that, even though it comes from a place of just writing music for fun. It just seemed like a fitting title for a prog song.
At this stage, due to the impact of Covid-19, there are no concrete plans for the touring of the album, but as Australia and the world slowly but surely comes out of the pandemic, rest assured Plini will be on the road again to promote Impulse Voices.
Interview by Rod Whitfield @Rod_Whitfield
Impulse Voices is out now
Grab a copy here
Plini – Impulse Voices tracklisting
1. I’ll Tell You Someday
4. Last Call
5. Impulse Voices
7. Ona / 1154
8. The Glass Bead Game