No one can ever accuse Cog of doing things the easy way. Never catering to formula or template, eschewing the safe or conventional in their songwriting, the powerhouse Bondi trio have at heart always been a truly progressive band, one driven by sheer will, a tenacious belief in themselves, and an uncompromising musicality. But from day one, it’s been one long hard slog for this band. “There’s been so many times in the history of Cog where it felt like a struggle,” says frontman and guitarist, Flynn Gower. “Like some ongoing shitfight.”
With their startling 2005 debut The New Normal and its clutch of ready-made anthems, Cog crafted an album that single-handedly projected them to the top of their genre and set the benchmark for all alternative heavy rock acts in Australia to come. Original and epic, The New Normal remains nothing short of a seminal Australian rock record. Today, Cog are as inimitable as they are influential. It was a conscious decision therefore, says Flynn, not to follow up their first album with a New Normal Part 11. “It had been three years since we first wrote that album, and not only had things changed in our lives, but we wanted to explore new musical territory,” he says. “Life needed to move forward.”
One would think then, after the incredible success of The New Normal, it’d be a no-brainer that Cog would once again choose to record their follow-up with acclaimed producer Sylvia Massy in California, Weed. After all, it seemed a perfect way to cement what was already a strong relationship, a known quantity, and a proven environment for pulling out their best. How wrong they’d be. Cog’s perpetual shitfight was not over yet…
What was meant to take four months, took ten. “Our situation became compromised,” conveys Flynn candidly. “The whole thing got very intense towards the end. It became a full-blown marathon, some kind of endurance exercise. It took a lot out of everyone, but in the end we got there…” Indeed, they did. There are two ways to look at the new Cog album: One, that the band spent ten long hard expensive months overseas away from friends, family and fans alike; or, although the band crawled through a world of shit, they’ve emerged clutching a diamond in their hands. That diamond is 2008’s Sharing Space. As drummer Lucius Borich rightly points out – “You can’t really put a timeframe on creating art,” he says. “Sometimes you have to go through all the shit and struggle in order to come up with the goods musically. Otherwise it’s not going to have any validity or longevity.”
Truer words could not be spoken. If The New Normal was Cog’s opening salvo, an album that put their name on the map, then Sharing Space is their masterpiece. “For my money, it’s an album that is going to be a lot more accessible to people’s ears,” comments Flynn’s brother and bass player Luke Gower. “But instrumentally, there’s a whole lot more keyboards, synths, pianos, violins going on and whole lot more backing vocals and harmonies tucked in there as well.”
Bookended as it is by two ten minute epics, No Other Way and Problem Reaction Solution, Cog have once again thrown down the gauntlet to the listener with Sharing Space. Both tracks are as ambitious as they are nonlinear, and define the uncompromising and progressive musicality of the band. “From the first song, I wanted people to think ‘ok, I can either roll up a big joint or go make a cup o’ tea,” quips Lucius. “‘Either way, I’m about to experience something’.” Lyrically, all three members see Sharing Space as a step up from the last album. “Even though I think a lot of people may have jumped to a certain conclusion about what Cog was about, The New Normal’s lyrics were a lot more impressionistic or abstract,” says Flynn. “This time we really tried to nail things more, and try to be clearer.”
He’s not wrong. Throughout Sharing Space, Cog bring the revolution as much they do the riffs. With its signature guitarline and immediate hook, Are You Interested? rams home the bitter truth that personal privacy is now an extinct ideal. That fear is the tool employed by both government and corporate business to control and exploit populations. That paranoia is justified. That what was once the realm of conspiracy theory is now reality. “We’re just saying it the way we see it,” states Lucius. “Sometimes you have to be literal and get to the guts of it, rather than be all airy-fairy and obtuse. It’s better to get to the bottom line.”
It’s a compelling theme - Flynn Gower’s melismatic vocal acrobatics signal the urgent stomp of The Movie’s Over, a track where disillusionment collides with revelation; the utopian optimism of first single What If suggests the infinite possibilities in a solution; while Swamp, with its looping anarchic mantra and leviathan groove, builds and builds in intensity, before swelling into soaring melody and golden release.
It’s not all politics, though – the anguished Bird Of Feather is the Cog vocalist’s heart-rending paean to his three-year-old daughter Sequoia from afar. Ten months is a long, long time to be separated from the ones you love. Too long. Even more so, when it’s a little three-year-old girl who just wants her Daddy back home. You can almost hear the catch in Flynn’s throat as he sings. But for all his raw pain at their separation, when the chorus comes, it comes like a rock thrown through a stained-glass window, spilling light glorious. Such is the power of Cog’s music.
While singer is grateful to be home at last with a brand new album under his belt, the same old feeling of being torn between career or family, music or children, art or love, still cuts him to the quick. “That’s the heart of the song there – that conundrum, that question that faces all of us,” he says soberly. “Everyone is having to work harder and longer, and in most cases both parents, just to get by. It’s a consequence of the global predicament that everyone sees less of each other.” Would he do it again? Would he be away that long again? “No,” Flynn replies with a quiet vehemence. “No way.” And what of little Sequoia – does she know Daddy penned Bird Of Feather for her? “Yeah, she knows it, mate,” Flynn says proudly. “She sings all the words. She knows it like the back of her little hand.”
The title track Sharing Space, with its slow-burn atmospherics, multilayered harmonies and dense tapestry of instrumentation signifies a new sonic standard for the band. Which made sense doubly then, says Lucius, that the song became the album’s eventual title. “Living and hanging around some of the people we befriended in Weed, instead of saying ‘see you later’ or ‘good to see you’, the phrase they would use instead was ‘it’s been great sharing space with you.’ To me, those simple words made the experience seem a lot more important, and I took it back to the band and said ‘let’s call this song Sharing Space.’”
Luke Gower’s sinuous, arterial bassline heralds the bittersweet kiss-off of Say Your Last Goodbye, while the gentle acoustic brushstrokes of How Long – a song whose soulful chorus-line ended up epitomising the very question Cog continually asked of themselves whilst in their long self-imposed exile – reveal a completely different side and dynamic to the band. The seditious parable of The Town Of Lincoln leads into what is arguably the album’s definitive track: Bitter Pills. A grand song of subtle beauty, Bitter Pills boasts some of Flynn’s most powerful lyrics yet – existential and poetic, they unfold through a lush cavalcade of overlapping synth-lines and warm acoustic guitars, the song’s sentiment resonating long after listening has ceased.
Closing the album, Four Walls explores a precarious balance of the claustrophobic and the agoraphobic, before Sharing Space comes full circle with the powerhouse epic of Problem Reaction Solution.
Sometimes, triumph requires adversity. The best art born of the worst suffering. Sharing Space is testament to Cog’s conviction and the passion of their artistic vision, and once again, this band has risen above the odds and come up trumps. As an album, it is everything their fans have come to expect and love from the band – the mighty progressions, the muscular mantras, the virtuosity of the drums, and the undeniable intelligence and originality to their song-writing. “We’ve tried to create a freedom in Cog’s sound where we’re not limited by what instruments or style we use,” summarises Lucius. “I feel that it’s a real genuine heart-on-our-sleeves musical statement. We’ve really tried to explore as many possibilities in what music has to offer. It’s the best thing we’ve ever done.”
So, does he reckon Cog fans are going to dig Sharing Space? “I’d be very surprised if they don’t!” laughs the drummer, confidently. “At the end of the day, we just want this album to be one of those that sit in people’s CD player or iPods and become part of the soundtrack to their life.”
Amen to that. For this punter, it already has.
Written by Nick Snelling