Review: Zen Panda at Rhino Room's Ratbags Launch

Words by Lucy Regter
Photos by Wade Whitington 

The re-location of Rhino Room from its renowned Frome Road building to a new home on Pirie Street was an unsettling experience for anyone who held the venue close to their hearts. Christening the new location with a purple rhino slicked onto the outside walls, Rhino Room hasn’t hesitated in picking up where they left off. Last Friday saw Rhino launch Ratbags; a new band/DJ night set to run every second Friday of the month, and it was one hell of a party.

You might know psych-rock locals Zen Panda from past gigs with West Thebarton Brothel Party, The Belligerents, The Jungle Giants and good pals The Montreals for their EP launch at Fat Controller late last year. They also have that song about cute hand touches in bowls of nuts. Having just welcomed their sixth member Ailish Ling to the family, these guys have been gearing up to release their upcoming EP. The final single from the EP, 'Ego', was dropped a couple weeks back, with the official single launch hosted at Ratbags.

To help out, indie-pop legends The Montreals warmed up the night with their signature sunshine-rock, a sound sitting somewhere between The Wombats and The Jungle Giants. The guys have had a stellar six months touring the East Coast with the release of their debut EP Indigo Club, making a name for themselves as one of the most up-and-coming indie bands out of Australia.

This charming four-piece know what works, and they execute it well. When they’re on stage, bearing grins and a buzzing with energy, it translates instantly into the crowd. Their hometown fans sing loyally to every word, creating a familiar vibe between the band and the crowd. A consistent standout from the band's performance was the natural harmony between Stefan’s quivering wails and Angus’ pop-punk style vocals. “We’ll fall in lust, but I won’t give honesty a word, / get me out of here, no one seems to notice,” alternate the boys, detailing moments of relationship missteps. Before a raucous cover of The Catfish and the Bottlemen’s 'Kathleen', we wrapped up the set with crowd favourite, 'Lo-Fi'.

With far less stairs involved and a much wider, open-space design for the band room, Rhino’s new venue was shaping up nicely. Unlike Frome Road, the ceilings soared and despite the crowds, it was an organised chaos between sets.

Packing the stage with six members and a colourful array of instruments, Zen Panda navigated into the second half of the night with anticipation and fluency. Now more than ever, they’ve found their sound and fine-tuned the dynamics of the band to a point where when you watch their set, it’s the fully-developed Zen Panda experience. The slow burning, sensitive number “Prior Arrangement” demonstrated this straight off the bat, with a deep tapestry of echoing guitars that were both consuming and carefully timed.

Amidst the wall of sound emanating from the stage, front-man/vocalist Sam Lavers conducted the spiraling instrumentals with shut-eyed intensity and fiery dance moves. Newest single “Ego” gave hints of a convulsing, swampy psych-rock approach not dissimilar to that of King Gizzard, reflecting a heavier style for the band. Moments like this were the most intense, captivating performances from the six piece, lost in a spiral of guitars and eruptive percussion from the ever-impressive Oliver Ryan.

We were teased with new material, potentially from the new EP, that had the crowd dancing with the person next to them and enjoying wherever the swell of guitars and pulsing tambourine would take them. Finishing with a signature extended jam-out, the energy generated between the stage and the crowd was a collective moment of bliss. If you haven’t already immersed yourself in the swirling, brightly-lit world of experimental rock that is Zen Panda, now is definitely the time.

Download Zen Panda's latest single from their Triple J Unearthed page and keep track of future Ratbag events on their Facebook page.