For a band that have elicited such a passionate response, it’s something of a surprise to learn that RVG never intended to be more than a one-off act. A group as incredible as this surely was in the making for years, rather than being a spontaneous decision made by songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Romy Vager when she didn’t feel like playing solo. Assembled in the hallowed halls of The Bank, a former share house on the outskirts of Preston where creativity and collaboration collided, RVG quickly became something of a sensation, cultivating a loyal following of dedicated gig-goers who were immediately spell bound by the quartet’s presence.
The band cut their teeth in packed sweaty band rooms across the city, earning a reputation as a compelling group to witness live. They’re a band of few words on stage, allowing the lyrics and instruments space to truly shine. Vager completely transforms when performing, channeling the energy of great front women before her like Patti Smith and Siouxsie Sioux. Alongside Vager is Reuben Bloxham on guitar, Angus Belle on bass and Mark Nolte on drums. Together they are an impenetrable force, steady and fixed on their instruments as they weave in and out of rhythms. When they play live they’re clad almost entirely in black, an appropriate aesthetic for a band with an unshakable intensity.
Last year the launch for their debut album, A Quality of Mercy, saw upwards of 300 people cramming into The Tote’s band room (a space where the album was also recorded). The magnitude of the night felt monumental: the sense that it would go down in Melbourne music folklore was overwhelming. Perhaps the most significant moment came during ‘That’s All’. Throughout the crowd you could see friends putting arms around one another, freely crying and singing the song’s lyrics back with uncontained conviction. It was a perfect reminder of the power of music in bringing people together: it affirmed that RVG’s impact was beyond what any band room in Melbourne could contain.
Despite existing in the age of digital production, RVG’s sound borrows more from the bygone era of post-punk: their music is imbued with melancholy and romanticism, alongside the razor sharp lyrics delivered via Vager’s formidable and emotive voice. Vager’s lyrics possess a captivating vigor and impressionability, pairing personal experiences with current affairs seamlessly. Take the album’s opening track, also titled ‘A Quality of Mercy’, which delves into the plight of the Bali Nine, with Vager cleverly combining the experiences of the individuals on death row with commentary on the importance of being able to change one’s perspective.
Yet it’s important to mention that the album, and the song, takes its title from a Twilight Zone episode in which an American soldier is made to see the world from the mindset of his Japanese enemy, and it’s this shift in his perspective that allows him to reappraise the larger situation. Vager’s now-iconic line, “Staring at the ceiling, feeling numb/thinking about the readers of the Herald Sun”, is evidence of her witticism and her ability to think beyond. The empathetic tone of the song is one you’re unlikely to find in the pages of a tabloid newspaper.
While the song’s melodic guitars are reminiscent of bands hailing from the United Kingdom in the 1980s, it’s the sound of a tram that preludes the instruments and closes out the track, transporting the listener to the streets Melbourne. It’s this distinct quality, not too dissimilar to the relationship a band like The Go-Betweens had with their hometown of Brisbane, that makes RVG all the more remarkable.
Yet Vager isn’t afraid to go beyond the physical locality of where she lives. She tries her hand at absurdism, with the track ‘IBM’ chronicling a love story between a person and a computer. It’s a current-day metaphorical tale that represents being in love with someone who lacks a personality, or perhaps a veiled critic of the modern era of internet dating. Once again, however, RVG distance themselves from modern technology as they intersperse sounds of dial up computers. In addition, the stop start of Bloxham’s guitar, paired with Vager’s sprawling fretwork, creates an enthralling combination.
Yet it’s ‘Eggshell World’ which seems to hint at some inner-core of the album. The song’s poignant lines have the tendency to break your heart if you listen carefully to the story, which tells of the pain of wanting to be two different people at once: “If there were two of me, well/ One could be with you/ One that lives/ The other hurts.” It’s one of the more candid moments on the album, and it tells of Vager’s anguish trying to assimilate in public as a trans woman.
Alongside these explorations, Vager also casts a critical eye over those who glamorize a life of self-destruction (listen to ‘Vincent Van Gogh’), while the narrative of ‘Feral Beach’ takes you on a wild ride through the shambolic environment of a share house. Musically it’s one of the more upbeat tracks on the album, but behind this exterior is a portrait of life as a disillusioned runaway attempting to figure out exactly where they fit in this crazy world. Vager doesn’t distance herself from the song’s narrative: instead she embraces the experiences that have shaped her life and give them considerable colour.
The album’s devastating apex comes with the final track ‘That’s All’ – a sweeping number that is part love letter, part plea for acceptance. The song’s journey begins with a repeated riff that compliments Vager’s soliloquy. Here she lays bare her innermost thoughts, conjuring more energy as the song progresses. By the time the chorus hits you’re windswept by her sheer talent: you’re awe-inspired by words that never feel laboured or dramatic, but rather universal in their reliability, despite coming from such a personal place. It’s here that Vager reaches her full power and rises above trying circumstances to become something truly remarkable—a woman unashamedly revealing her thoughts and feelings to the world.
The fact that RVG come at time when some of the loudest and most exciting voices within the Australian music community are those that belong to women, gender diverse and LGBTIQA+ people is all the more special. For far too long punk music was synonymous with masculinity and aggression, but the shift that’s seen a band like RVG reach an audience is proof that there are so many important voices that deserve to heard. Having become a band that’s critically revered in Australia, and now internationally recognised, is testament to their talent, but also symbolic of the times that are changing within our cultural world.
What fills me with great hope is knowing that RVG are the kind of band teenage dreamers and social outcasts will turn to for years to come. While it may be a constant struggle trying to make sense of the world and your place in it, music this powerful makes it a little easier.
A Quality of Mercy
Released by Our Golden Friend, October 2017
Holly Pereira is a Melbourne-based music writer. She has been featured in publications such as Swampland, Beat Magazine and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Top photo credit: James Thomson.