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Gig Review: Mermaidens at The Hollywood Avondale

The Hollywood Avondale
Friday 8 December

Photographs by Sofia Kent

Words by Liam Hansen

There’s something incredibly theatrical about the music of Pōneke’s Mermaidens that made the setting of The Hollywood Avondale, at their self-titled album release tour, feel incredibly fitting. I don’t mean ‘theatrical’ in a Broadway sense, or that there’s some grandiose narrative being subtly told throughout their lyrics: Rather, the trio commands the audience's attention in a hypnotising way few other bands from Aotearoa manage to achieve. We may as well have been in The Hollywood’s cinema mode, sitting down politely and chowing down on
popcorn- but I think even if we were, the entire audience would’ve been too enamoured to even take a bite.

The evening began with the heavy-psych side project of Mermaidens’ guitarist/vocalist Gussie Larkin, Earth Tongue, which was undertaken with drummer Ezra Simmons. Despite only being a two piece, the duo created a wall of sound that enveloped the audience and left the floor of The Hollywood vibrating. The chaos, anger, and strength they brought to the stage was only halted between songs, when Gussie referenced that weird other band that’s playing tonight. Who are Mermaidens, anyway? I bet their guitarist is cool.

Although their entire set was great, I truly fell in love with Earth Tongue during their last song, Pentagram On The Moon. For context, a friend of mine in the Aotearoa music scene has one sole story highlight on his Instagram account, which consists of nothing but clips his mates have tagged him in of Ezra Simmons' extended scream at the top of his lungs during this song. I’ve seen these clips before, but never in person. The duo announced their plans to release their next album in 2024- and if the tracks on that record don’t motivate you to see them live next year, then please for the love of god see them live for this fucking scream. Up next was Power Nap, the strange electro-pop brainchild of UTR founder Chris Cudby. Well, maybe not brainchild- it’s more like Chris became Doctor Frankenstein, pulling bits and pieces from vaporwave, disco, video game dungeon music, and synth punk. It’s cool.

As always, his set was a fever dream in the best way possible. The stage of The Hollywood had been adorned with pot plants while I was outside, and the crowd was having a wee boogie to all of Power Naps classics in a mid-sized circle near where I was standing. Hopefully at their next gig there’ll be a full on, mid 2000’s high school movie dance circle, where a tropey nerd character turns out to be an incredible breakdancer. I’ll take on that mantle, if it’s really what the people need.

Mermaidens came on soon after, with Gussie back on stage in a different (but equally cool) fit and bassist/vocalist Lily West affectionately referring to the night as ‘GusFest’ in her honour. Their set was absolutely jam-packed- obviously focusing on their new self-titled album, but without letting go of the tracks that have been run through the 95bFM playlist for years. The band, also including drummer Abe Hollingsworth, was joined onstage by the everpresent Louisa Nicklin, who should need no introduction to anyone who’s been to a gig in the last four years. She boosted the sound of the trio up to new heights, as the sonic explorations we heard in the newest album were played live for much of Tāmaki Makaurau for the first time.

The self-titled record has a newly pop-adjacent flair to it- one that’s very much welcome as the usual, action-movie worthy bangers of Mermaidens’ past sit alongside catchy hooks that still feel edgy and real. This could be seen in their live rendition of Dress for Success, a punchy art-punk track that echoes classic Gang of Four with a bit of cheeky reverb to keep the vibes nice and ethereal. It’s like you’re floating through space, but absolutely rockin’ out while doing so. Gussie’s vocals fit just as well against this lush, loud backdrop as they do the deep distortion of Earth Tongue- it’s clear to see where the two intersect, but you have no excuse to think you don’t need to see both to get the true GusFest experience.

Earlier on in the set, we got a taste of Mermaidens’ slower side, with the track Tear it Down feeling like a soft descent back down to earth. Lilly took on the vocal reigns of this one, and fit into the dreamier vibe like a glove. Listeners are guided through a curated tour via synth pads, making you wonder if you’re about to be abducted by aliens, but not really minding if you do. The track culminates in a powerful, doubled chant of “I felt so left out, I felt so let down.” A sombre lyric, for sure, but one that feels easy to sing along to within the context. Post encore (and another outfit change!) the trio finished off with what they described as “some very special butts” , referring to a variety of audience members who took part in the show, swaying left and right onstage with their hands in each others back pockets. This dance was unsurprisingly to the albums lead single I like to be alone, the hook of which asks an endearing, and pining lyric, "keep your hand in my back pocket" against a hypnotising guitar riff that has slowly become one of my favourites out of Aotearoa this year. The best part is, I wasn’t the only one.

I’ve been at gigs properly for about a year and a half, due to an unfortunate combination of my age and that whole pandemic thing. I’ve seen some of Aotearoa’s finest, and been holding myself back from singing along to their lyrics (despite oftentimes knowing them off my heart). Unless it’s a legacy act, or a legendary group in the scene, the usual Auckland approach is to stay politely quiet, cheering at the best parts and applauding loudly when the song is over (with a surprisingly respectful heckle thrown in if you’re lucky). Everyone is just a bit too cool to sing along to lyrics even if they do know them - but not at Mermaidens. There was a full choir within the crowd, yelling “you know I like to BE A-LONE!” with confidence I seldom hear a Kiwi gig. This goes to show how strong Mermaidens have come in the scene- I had a brief chat with Anthony from promoters 100% Good afterwards about it, and he pointed out the decades-long prevalence Merms have held in the scene, but I
mean, this was a song that came out four months ago! And people weren't too cool to sing the lyrics! I want to see this continue. Next Mermaidens gig in Tāmaki, I hope to see you all there- and I better not be the only one singing along.