Bands We Miss: Sierra

Sierra, a small but truly special band in the history of Australian heavy music. 

Around the start of the decade, a sound began originating from the rural landscapes of Mount Gambier. It was a chaotic melodic hardcore racket, an emotionally brutal sound that resonated throughout all-age venues, youth centres, town halls across South Australia and Victoria. This beautiful noise was Sierra, a small-time but talented Australian band that was destined for so much more than what they actually received.

With the members coming together from other local bands and with a metalcore inclined demo, ‘Open Eyes Determined Minds‘, Sierra was, for a short time early on, just another Aussie heavy band doing the local rounds. Yet their undiscovered situation wouldn’t last long at all.

With their self-titled EP arriving in February 2013, people began to really take notice, myself included. That five-track EP was (and still is) an insanely raw and unshakingly cathartic release; one that battled with one’s own inner turmoil of self-doubt, maladjustment with a material-focused society, and the ever-looming shadow of mental illness. The band sought to combat each of these issues with soul-searching positivity and an aggressive, driving melodic hardcore sound across five songs. Sonically akin to the likes of HundredthVices, pre-‘Mend, Move On‘ era Trophy Eyes, and Counterparts, tracks like hardcore opener ‘Overcome‘ and the soaring, anthemic ‘Chase‘ became instant standouts.

Elsewhere, the philosophically-focused ‘Selfless‘ as well as the EP’s heaviest track, ‘Restitution‘, were solid cuts in their own right. However, the real fan-favourite was the slower, dynamic and rather dramatic ‘Imagery‘; a wonderfully melancholic, crescendoing track that gave bands like DefeaterBeing As An Ocean, and the aforementioned Counterparts a real run for their money. Seeing this song live was always an incredibly raw experience.

Later that same year in October, Sierra put out their killer 2013 single, ‘Decadence’. The song immediately showed off a much tighter, much cleaner production. Not only that, but it also displayed a far heavier and darker direction tonally and lyrical than the often hopeful, silver-lining nature of their self-titled release and it’s rough-around-the-edges sonics.

With punchier, louder drums, tighter instrumentation all-around and heavier growls leading frontman Brett Kennedy’s vocal charge, ‘Decadence‘ was an insanely heavy song in terms of its self-loathing lyrics (“Driven by the best of intentions/Destined to always come up short/I’m coming up short/I come up short“), as well as its actual instrumentals too. However, ‘Decadence‘ was but a litmus test to see whether the band could take this newer sound further with their next release.

Sierra; looking half happy & half depressed on the set of the 'Bittersweet Youth' clip.

Sierra; half happy, half depressed.

Come September 5th, 2014, Sierra’s masterpiece arrived: the ‘Reality Redefined’ EP. Back in 2014, I gave said EP a perfect score in my review at the time (please don’t bother it, it’s not very good) and I fully stand by that rating now three years later. It is, without a doubt, one of my favourite Australian heavy music releases to date. And that won’t be changing anytime soon.

Produced and recorded once again by their good friend, Stevie Knight (from The Dead Love) over at Electric Suns Studio and mastered by his partner in crime Dave Petrovic, ‘Reality Redefined‘ was a step up on all accounts. In terms of production quality, songwriting intensity, dynamic impact, emotional and lyrical intent, instrumental skill, anger and passion levels, and song memorability – everything about Sierra was pushed to 10 and beyond!

I actually met Knight at a Chasing Ghosts show earlier this year and I mentioned his work on this EP. Knight responded how intense and hard this EP was to fully nail down due to its tone, vision, and overall sonics and that it was a tough process. Likewise, the band said in a statement at the time of the EP’s release that: “The recording process was unlike any other we have undertaken – there was a real sense of open-mindedness from everyone – and a desire to keep a true sound in the studio with little manipulation“. And that really shows on the final product.

Originally cut down from a larger number of nine songs, ‘Reality Redefined‘ was five brilliant tracks of darkened, melodically-tinged hardcore that takes you by the throat and the heart. These five tracks defined a truly stunning EP, one that saw Sierra express their innermost depths with a bleak mirror that also brought to light their umbrage with the modern world at the same time.

The EP’s punchy, incendiary opener ‘Bittersweet Youth‘ exists at the same intensive pace for most of its runtime, calling out the issues of the external world (“we are the youth/the impressionable“) and the conflicts of the internal realms (“Lately I’ve realised it’s okay to not be okay“). On the other hand, ‘Suburban Fame‘ right afterwards takes on a slower, sombre, more restrained tempo and mood, building up to a violent fever pitch by the time the outro lands two or so minutes later. That song’s final chorus might just be the greatest section of music that Sierra ever recorded, bar one or two other exceptions, and I don’t say that lightly.

Hideaway Revolution‘, which felt like a long-lost B-side to their self-titled EP in terms of structure, pacing, tone and melody, was also the closest thing this band ever came to having a catchy song; the kind that any overseeing record label would’ve pushed hard as the lead single. Contrasting all of that was ‘Memoirs‘, a shifting, almost-post-rock crusher that lamented close personal losses. It’s a funeral dirge for the dead and the regrets that are now left behind in the hearts and minds of the living, all backed up by these incredibly pained screams, an atmosphere drenched in loss, spine-tingling tremolo guitars, crashing drums, and even subtle uses of congas and maracas as well.

Then, out of their small list of material and criminally short lifespan as a musical entity, closer ‘The Great Charade‘ is by far my favourite Sierra song and is arguably one of their best songs – period. It’s a blood-pumping alternative/hardcore piece and one that’s as miserable and as gloomy as they could ever hope to come. It’s not pretty but the most real of moments and thoughts rarely ever are. This song was the most authentic, most perfect song to conclude that EP; the very last track of the very last thing that Sierra would ever apply their namesake too. And my god, those final repeating cries of “goodbye” couldn’t have bookened the band’s finest release any better.

However, just two days later from this EP’S release, as I was driving down to Melbourne to see Whitechapel and Devildriver’s show at 170 Russell (it was a good gig, thanks for asking), my brother texted me, informing me that Sierra had announced they’d be calling it quits. He even joked that I must have said something to piss off the band when I spoke with the always-lovely Brett Kennedy not even two weeks prior for KYS, the cheeky little fucker. But yes, within 48 hours of ‘Reality Redefined‘ dropping, the ever-growing band had issued this sudden statement regarding their coming disbandment:

Our personal journeys through life are too ambitious to confine to Sierra any longer.

Please embrace this positive realisation of ours, and continue to enjoy and share what we’ve created collectively.

We send love to all who made this band – together we dreamed.

Farewell details coming soon for early 2015.”

In retrospect, the writing may have actually been on the wall for Sierra. As you’ll see with the following section pulled from my interview with the band’s frontman just weeks before that final announcement came:

“Me: [in regards to them having toured with Being As An Ocean and In Hearts Wake] does the band aspire to be a band like Being As An Ocean, with having massive touring schedules and what not?

Brett: “Probably not. If that was to happen that would be unreal! But I feel that a few us have found our life partners and we’re making decisions in our lives that permanently tie us into location and jobs. We never thought we would get to this point. We’re kinda on the cusp of having to sacrifice more to go ahead, to get bigger. It’s a bittersweet time in a sense that it’s amazing that we’ve reached this point but it’s hard to know what to do next. Music, obviously, has brought us a lot of things in the three and a half years we’ve been a band, but at the same time we all have a lot of aspirations in life, whether that be in a family sense, or in a career sense. We’re in a real juggle phase in terms of what comes next.”

I suppose that when it came right down to it, and as Sierra stood on the cusp of either making further sacrifices to make the band bigger or to choose their careers, family and life-partners instead, the latter won out. And I do not begrudge the band for taking that path. Not at all. But I would be utterly lying to you all if I said that I wasn’t at all gutted by this break-up news. I would also be lying to you if I said that the very idea of Sierra reforming now, even for just one show, didn’t make me incredibly excited.

Sierra; all looking happy.

Sierra; all looking quite happy.

Of course, apart from just writing really solid songs, the other thing that made Sierra standout from their peers was their energetic AF live shows. Yet it wasn’t just a live show per say, it was more of a passionate display of love, heart and community – from band and punter alike. Seeing these guys perform live was something that I always looked forward to. Whether it was their support slot under Vices and Hundredth in 2013 at Wrangler Studios; that early 2014 Glorified!/Saviour/Make Them Suffer/Buried In Verona Push Over Festival replacement bill they opened up for; or their support slot under BAAO and In Hearts Wake in mid-2014. They were all great, intensive, sweaty sets that still stick in my mind to this day.

So. About a month or so after this breakup announcement arrived, their final shows were locked in for the following year. Soon enough, February 2015 rolled around and the band performed two final shows; one in their hometown of Mount Gambier with the second (and subsequently final) set on February 28th happening at Ringwood’s OLP – a show that I’ll never forget.

With a damned good local line up of Set The ScorePridelandsElegist, pre-‘Black Label‘ era Ocean GroveSierra and headliners Storm The Sky (who were still deep in their shitty metalcore days), the venue was packed for Sierra as emotions ran high as the band, for the last time, ripped through ‘Imagery’, ‘Suburban Haze’, ‘Bittersweet Youth’, ‘Decadence’, ‘Overcome‘, ‘Chase’, ‘Hideaway Revolution‘, ‘Restitution‘ and ‘Memoirs‘ if my memory serves me correctly. It was an amazing set; a cramped room filled with strangers friends, boiling emotions and raging passion and great music. Which you’ll see in the below videos from that fated final Melbourne set.

Also, be sure to look out for the boofhead dude in the Sierra shirt with the long, curly hair. Because that’s 19-year-old me enjoying Sierra’s live show for the last time, just trying not to cry. Shit, even watching these videos now makes me a little bit teary for what could have been.

To this day, I still have one of Sierra’s rare, PMA/’region positivity’ dip-dyed T-shirts that they released not long before they broke up; a now slightly smallish and in some places torn-up memento from a band that I loved so fucking dearly. There were few Australian bands that I got as excited about as I did with Sierra. Hell, that’s still even the case now in 2017. While there are so many great Australian bands that I also love, Sierra was and are perhaps still the true top dogs in my heart’s hierarchy.

Sierra was the stuff of greatness, except they never really received the level of praise and reverence they so clearly deserved before they ended by their own hands. And while the band indeed ended things on their own terms so that the member’s lives outside of music could take greater hold and develop further and wider, I do wish things had continued beyond ‘Reality Redefined‘ and February 2015 for them. Then again… maybe things would’ve ended up very differently and maybe smeared what made the band so bloody good to begin with. Who know?

But at least the comfort of their music and the great memories they left behind are still with me and the many others who remember a small-time band from Mount Gambier who left one hell of a mark on those of us paying close attention.

Rediscover Sierra below.

Header PC: Andy Le Busque (Wrangler Studios, 23/11/2013). 

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