Rebel Yell at The Tote Upstairs, Melbourne, Friday July 13, 2018

Words | Nicholas Kennedy

You will see many things after taking the two flights of stairs up to The Tote’s upstairs bandroom. I had always seen it as the beating heart of the Melbourne institution’s sweaty rock-dog past, often hearing gnashing, heavy riffs and punkish yowls drifting down from the upper floors. However, flip and coin and more times than not you’ll find it the scene of the goth, the electronic, the eccentric and the fearless. Rebel Yell, Brisbane’s own Grace Stevenson, was last Friday night’s pioneer of choice for pulsating, roaring bangers in that vein; woven within her music are vital messages of unaccountability, power, and the scars of both.

Being the kind of show that stretches to the AM hours, Stevenson had curated a support list with the likes of EN V, Vacuum, Nerve, and Brooke Powers. Nerve provided a rolling set of house and techno-affected beats, and Vacuum contorted their vocals to a demonic degree. EN V is a more conventional avant-pop act; frontwoman Natasha Vomit used her music to explore themes of sexuality and mental health. Backed by synthesizers both professional and home-made, she commanded the small stage with astonishing confidence and humour, always ready with a wry dig for either herself or the audience between each track.

Rebel Yell herself said little but commanded movement with her music. Her latest, Hired Muscle, brought her production sensibilities into sharper focus – the almost ambient nature of her earlier work is reappropriated into something entirely more danceable and energetic. Let Go saw Stevenson joined by Melbourne locals Pillow Pro, their intertwining vocals floating above crunching beats and sawtoothed synthesizers.

When Stevenson did speak, her voice was muffled, wrapped within the levels of sound. On Toxic she provided a full-stop rebuff to masculine ‘music dude’ bullsh-t: “Back off, don’t touch me, get off my wave, back off, don’t touch me, get off my stage.”

The maximalism of Stevenson’s production left the audience lost within their own version of the cacophony, the room bathed in red, the vibration of bass all-encompassing. This was the kind of performance you remember via silhouettes of bodies moving in the darkness, rather than a setlist or between-song banter. Stevenson’s earlier release Mother of Millions may have been fearless and industrial, but her performance under Hired Muscle is entirely more movement-oriented.

Rebel Yell is playing The Gaelic Club in Surry Hills on July 28, and supporting These New South Wales during October (NSW, VIC and QLD). Head here for details.