Queer, straight, cis, trans, and every nuance on the spectrum: tonight, Sydney’s cozy Manning Bar was a flurry of punks in every flavour, giddy as shit for the long-awaited return of Gainesville rifflords Against Me! Their 2016 album - the bright, brash, scuzzy and scuzzily honest Shape Shift With Me - begs for the stage. It's an album dotted with loud and luscious guitar lines, throat-ripping singalongs and breakneck hooks that outright demand rabid headbanging, and so it's somewhat surprising that, eight months after release, the quartet's Australian tour is only their second headline run in its support. Though of course, such freshness means an equal spread of energy between the band and the crowd.
Almost sadistically, that energy felt further constricted by the strained, uneasy bends of local post-punks Mere Women. To the left of their platform stood guitarist Flynn Mckinnirey, testily rocking from side to side with every coarse and numbing riff that bled from his weather-worn axe. Trisch Roberts met his callous buzzing with a calm repose on bass, gently plucking out a mash of throbbing chords while vocalist/keyboardist Amy Wilson whirled in a polarising smoothie of tense hums and panicked yells. Though their crowd was placid, it wasn't at the hand of disinterest: Mere Women are the kind of band that one can only really stand back and soak in every soul-rattling element of, utterly stunned. Mission accomplished - hopefully it won't take them eight months to tour their forthcoming record, Big Skies.
There's a reason Camp Cope are seemingly inescapable at the moment: the outspoken Melbourne trio ride on pliable, yet intensely potent guitar parts; revel in unyielding waves of crippling introspection and, through all the hype, wear their hearts nailed firmly to their sleeves. Anxious between songs but fierce in them, frontwoman Georgia Maq had the crowd in her command. She snapped between mellow strumming and a frantic shred, her voice a galvanic swarm of millennial defeat and feminist angst veiled under clean, Oasis-channeling Telecaster strums and doughy, driving bass tones (courtesy of the magnetic Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich). Cuts from their self-titled sleeper hit seared, "Trepidation" with its pained relatability and "Jet Fuel" with its powerful message, but it was a new tune - a breathless riot grrrl anthem littered with biting drums and scathing lyrical quips - that left us all jittering in awe.
Sidenote: In order to ensure the safety of their fans, Camp Cope set up a text hotline that punters could reach if they felt unsafe in the crowd, at which instruction security could intervene. In a punk scene that's often marred by reports of sexual assault and shitty behaviour in general, we have to give the band props for leading such an important initiative.
27 songs in two hours is no small feat for any band - let alone 27 riotous punk bangers draped in frenzied riffs and face-melting drum solos - but Against Me! slammed through it like a stray dog through dinner. The foursome seemed keen to wear us out early, too: they kicked off on a loud note with call-and-response anthem "True Trans Soul Rebel", circle pit classics "Walking Is Still Honest" and "Pints Of Guinness..." not far behind. Shape Shift cuts were oddly few and far, but where peppered in, they made an unquestionable impact: "333" is easily Against Me!'s most ferocious feel-good jam, and it showed when frontwoman Laura Jane Grace was damn near eclipsed by the singalong. Unsurprisingly, the same cataclysmic acclaim could be expected when any cut from Transgender Dysphoria Blues rolled up.
But amongst all the massive go-to hits and juicy deep cuts (see: "Rapid Decompression"), the night found an emotional peak in a heartwarming duet between Grace and Maq (who was doing a terrible job at hiding her fangirl status), who together an acoustic cover of The Replacements' "Androgynous" with goosebump-inducing devotion. Grace also held most of the night's biggest guitar moments under lock and key, shredding out to her heart's content on a sweat-stained Rickenbacker that pulled the goriest, grungiest semi-hollow tones this side of the Harbour Bridge. On country-punk corker "Haunted, Haunting, Haunts", she and lead guitarist James Bowman buddied up to belt out a blistering chasm of layered six-string fury. The two carried an ineludible chemistry, but even with all eyes on Grace, Bowman's own riffery was tight; as coarse as it comes for gnawing all-out punk hooks, but with a tasty melodic edge to cut through the acidity.
As a unit, Against Me! played phenomenally well off each other - Grace isn't lying when she says in interviews that this is the best iteration of the band to date. And whether you were there to pillage your vocal chords, rip the sickest circle pit or soak yourself in riffs - whether you're a bonafide punk, true trans soul rebel or both - there was something for everyone. Against Me! shows are about community, camaraderie, and embracing how incredibly diverse this scene of ours is - where people of all codes and configurations can lose their shit to some good tunes without fear of being judged. Tonight's show was no different, and goddamn, how we hope there are more of them Down Under soon.