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Review: Live from the Lab

Science and music usually shouldn’t mix. But when done right you might just get an emulsion.

Photography: Sam Randle

I am extremely cynical about science-themed musical performances. There’s something about AsapSCIENCE-type songs that take me back to late high school or first year in a shockingly unsentimental fashion. I can’t help but cringe. That Live from the Lab (LFTL) stayed well clear of these dark memories is a testament to its vision and execution.

For those unfamiliar, LFTL started back in 2020 as a collaboration between FBi Radio and the Nanosonic Stories Team – an interdisciplinary team based at the University of Sydney. The project connects researchers with local artists for a 90-minute consultation to produce a song inspired by the themes of, and motivations behind, the science. Because artists aren’t required to compose music to the tune of scientific specificity, they have a lot of creative freedom in their approach. This year there were four scheduled performances after one cancellation due to COVID-19.

So how did this year’s performance play out?

The night opened with singer-songwriter Luke Davis. Throughout the first set, we were treated to an impressive vocal range, energetic strumming, and many quips. Going first is always hard but Luke Davis bore the responsibility well, throwing CDs haphazardly to those brave enough to hit the dancefloor first, declaring, “I’m in a lab coat, this is allowed!” Having just completed our shift teaching in the chem labs, my fellow compatriots noted that his PPE was improperly fitted but still done better than that of some of our students.

Up next was Western Sydney-based R&B singer Gemma Navarrete. In my assessment, 90% of the night’s dancers were enticed by this set. With luscious sub-bass, familiar lo-fi crackle, 808 beats, and engaging lyrical flow, it was easy to see why. In her discussion with researchers working on vision restoration, Navarrete developed the appropriately R&B-titled track ‘Visible to Me.’ Her performance took me from the tables taking notes for this review onto the DF. What else can I say?

Photography: Sam Randle

Of all four acts, Romaeo showcased the most variety but did the least for me personally. I enjoyed the experimentalism of her work and the attention to detail in the lighting department. Songs like ‘Good to Look At’ were frenetic with aggressive strobing and discordant vocals. It felt like she embraced punk sensibilities without adopting the punk sound. In contrast, ‘mourning’ made me want to get a drink and look at the melting ice whilst contemplating my most regrettable life decisions (but in a good way). The standout song was the science-inspired song “Nausea.” Romaeo described it as being “about depression” and “dancey but not dancey”. Inspired by research on the placebo and nocebo effects, the song chronicled the experience of having depression and convincing yourself you feel like shit based on rumination rather than reality. Clever, methinks.

Finally was Mega Fäuna, an “all female three person sized 5 piece from Sydney”. They delivered everything I want from an Aussie rock band: a celebration of this country’s beautiful landscapes, restrained use of our (garish, but) unique accent and a strong sense of affection for the everyday. Everything about the act was tight; upon seeing the band walk on stage I couldn’t help but exclaim to my companions that they “look like a band”, gesturing to their outfits. The ambient sounds of insects punctuated each song, drawing their auditory aesthetic together, and their composition allowed for each band member to shine at different points. If you hadn’t already been won over, then the science-inspired one was sure to do it. Done in collaboration with entomologist Tanya Latty and dedicated in memoriam to their friend Ricky, the song was upbeat and playful rather than sombre – just like their “nature boy” friend Ricky.

While we didn’t get to see Baby Beef perform due to COVID, they treated us to a quirky psychedelic neuroscience-inspired music video backed by post-punk songwriting. Honestly, if that’s where music and science collide, I’m about it.

 I guess I’ll just have to wait for LFTL 2023 to see more. If you enjoy a great variety of live music presented in the space of three hours then perhaps I’ll see you there too.