A Blunt Open Letter To Rock Purists

6am. Monday morning. Tweets are popping up on my timeline about the VMAs. I dismiss them because it is too early in the morning for me to care about pop music.

8am. I’ve just sat down at my laptop to take a quick scroll through Twitter to find out about the VMA results.

Twenty One Pilots should not have won the VMA because it is clearly for ROCK music videos.”

Right. Let’s sit down and discuss why the narrow and rigid classification of music based on purist genre constructions are redundant and a really bad fucking idea.

Rock is an umbrella genre. Referring to a band as only being a rock band is about  as helpful and descriptive as just saying you’re eating a piece of fruit when you’re in-fact eating a grapefruit. Sure, Wikipedia may pride itself on having broad introduction paragraphs that loosely state the nature of the band you’ve just looked up, but at least Wikipedia then has the decency to have a sidebar in which all the genres to which the band is associated are listed.

Let’s cut to the chase. This is not going to be a polite article. This is most likely not going to be a gorgeously written article rife with exotic adjectives and intricate metaphors. This is going to be blunt and to the point. This is about the musical elitism that runs rife in the rock community and the kind of elitism that results in bands being ostracised for being a) popular and b) bringing something new to the industry that isn’t necessarily rooted in rock influences but is diverse and unique enough for it to be labelled as  an alternative artist.

Alternative is one of those musical terms that no-one truly seems to understand and it is often slapped onto artists that can’t be placed into precise genre – not that rock counts as a precise genre. 90% of the time, the artists in question have some connection to the rock genre and the broader alternative subculture. These acts, like Marilyn Manson, are usually welcomed into the fold of rock music but are denied the ability to become too popular. If an artist becomes popular then they’ve lost their alternative edge and become a mainstream artist. That is never allowed to happen. The rock community is obliged to abandon all  non-guitar based acts artists as soon as they become popular, because this would then mean that they are dabbling in pop music – a sin punishable by banishment.

However, you do get the acts that begin firmly entrenched in the alternative community and are considered to be the community’s hidden gem. This is what occurred with Twenty One Pilots – knowledge of them prior to “Stressed Out” gave you access to special Illuminati-like groups in which you were praised for knowing edgy emotional rap as opposed to “gangster rap trash”. If you were to mention Twenty One Pilots to them now they would probably glare at you and mutter an incoherent statement about how their earlier work was better and that anyone that listens to their new music is just a “fake fan” that is feeding off the hype.

The issue here is that the rock community seems to have taken it upon itself to develop some mental screening process to classify bands according to some narrow interpretation of the term “rock music”. The narrow interpretation is that it must be guitar music with a certain degree of melody and aggression, but not too much else it’s classified as metal. This narrow interpretation is great for one’s personal use, but in the greater scheme of things – it just doesn’t work as it would mean that award shows can only give away Rock awards to these purist rock bands. This is a problematic, because let’s be honest – there are not many pure rock bands out there. All the modern rock bands that have become popular in the past decade are all from the various subgenres contained under that broad and ever-so frustrating umbrella of rock music.

For instance, The Black Keys and The Arctic Monkeys were nominated for a VMA for Best Rock Video in 2014. Both of these acts are considered to be indie bands, yet they were nominated for a rock award simply because they are loosely associated with the genre. However, there is a further reason to this. The runners of these award shows, like the Grammys and the VMAs, are very much aware of the fluid nature of the rock genre. It has always been a genre that is persistently evolving to introduce new styles and sub-genres and more often than not the various award shows tend to reflect the metamorphosis the genre had undergone in that particular year.

It is for this reason that adhering to a rigid classification of the genre is an utterly terrible idea as it would merely promote stagnation within the broader alternative music community. It would deny the genre the ability to be dynamic and fluid in how it is constructed. This fluidity is one of the primary reasons why rock music has stayed so persistently relevant and so vigorously consumed by the youth of today. Rock music still remains the genre with the highest grossing album sales despite the term “rock is dead” flying around the industry like a vulture around a corpse.

Yes. There are a lot of artists associated with the rock community that could not be regarded as rock acts even if you extend the interpretation of rock to cover all of its subgenres, but should that really bother the rock community? We often pride ourselves on being a diverse and supposedly welcoming and tolerant community, or at least we do when we shit all over pop fanbases. If this is true, then why do we insist on dismissing the hard work and success of an act that is associated with one of our many subgenres? Perhaps there is a deep-seeded fear that any degree of success will result in alternative act converting to the world of alt-pop and we’ll no longer be able to lay claim to being associate with it. Either way, we need to accept that Twenty One Pilots worked hard to get here and we should be proud of their achievements and stop trying to perpetuate a rigid classification of rock music. This can only result in the genre developing across static, uncreative lines.

 

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Cage the Elephant – Tell Me I’m Pretty

As a fan of Cage the Elephant for a couple of years, I’ve discovered that most people have one of three reactions to their sound. People either comment that the song sounds familiar (especially if it’s “Shake me Down” or “Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked”), they ask who the band is as they find the song appealing  or they comment on the fact that despite their familiar sound, they’ve never heard of the band. My favourite fact about Cage the Elephant is that the lead singer, Matt Shultz, likes to stand on the crowd when performing at live shows, and has become somewhat famous for that. However, despite being around since 2006, Cage the Elephant has still not reached the level of recognition that they deserve, especially in the South African scene. Continue reading ALBUM REVIEW: Cage the Elephant – Tell Me I’m Pretty

ALBUM REVIEW: The Plastics – In Threes

The Plastics have been the darlings of the indie rock scene ever since they released Pyramids in 2012. Their sophomore album managed to spawn a series of singles that were constantly dominating the charts of major radio stations such as 5FM and also earned them a lot of popularity on campus radios. The timing of Pyramids was absolutely perfect as it placed the band at the forefront of the explosion of popularity that indie music was about to receive on a global level.

In a year, indie was the go-to genre for most “trendy” music consumers. It was consumer trend that became very popular in South Africa with it now being the genre of choice for many start-up bands. The Plastics caught the successful end of this wave and rode it all the way to the top which inevitably led to them touring in Prague, being able to record at Studio 301 in Sydney, opening for One Night in Cape Town, and now they’re currently on a tour to launch their third studio album In Threes in the United Kingdom.

It is an uncanny amount of success for a South African indie band especially since the indie genre has become such a saturated and uncreative genre in South Africa. This is where In Threes plays a big role in showing you exactly why The Plastics are as successful as they are today. You see, Pyramids was released prior to indie rock being popular. This was still when Shortstraw was a barely known name and The Desmond and the Tutus were considered to be a weird and eccentric band.  It was still a fledging and niche scene back then and played well into the catchy and up-tempo nature of Pyramids peppered by moments of psychedelic pop eccentricities.  However, it has now expanded to a point where the creative potential of the scene is limited, and it is something that The Plastics have been aware of since last year when they released “All I Really Want” – a song which saw them toeing the line between indie rock and uptempo psychedelic music. It was a brash hybrid of the sluggish rhythm of Arctic Monkeys, the shimmering synths of modern indie pop and the haziness of psych rock.  Although, this was still a song that saw them clinging to their indie rock roots.

The release of In Threes sees them stepping away from the sound that they created in Pyramids because every good [non-pop] band knows that recreating an album is a sure-fire to anger their fans. They rather create an album that maintains the uptempo charismatic personality of Pyramids and places it against a soundscape consisting of modern synths, glittering psychedelic soundscapes, off-tempo drum beats, and intricate guitar work. The opening of their album sees the inclusion of “Alona” – a song that has become a staple of their live set this year. It is one of the most prominent examples of how much The Plastics have changed in the past three years. It truly embraces the psychedelic indie pop label that they have assigned to themselves with its grooving bass riffs, shimmering synths and hazy guitar licks. It is a song that is promptly supported by “Sun Scream” – a song that starts with the opening guitar tones of Calvin Harris’s “Summer”, but then the song disintegrates into dreamy indie-pop leaving the listener with the impression that this should be playlisted on BCC Radio 1 and performed live at Coachella and Glastonbury.

It is evident from In Threes that The Plastics have undergone a lot of change since the release of Pyramids. The band may have begun as the darling child of the indie rock scene, but that is no longer the case as other bands, such as Al Bairre, have been the passed the torch. Instead, The Plastics have ascended to much loftier heights and to a point where they are truly allowed to show off their talent. It is a direction with which I hope they continue.

9/10

EP REVIEW: Gangs of Ballet – Form &Function Part One

The departure of a band member is a massive blow to the morale of any band. All bands have different ways of coping with the departure – even if the departure was on good terms. Some will take some time off to regroup and plan for the future. Others decide to press on without the respective band member and usually replace that member. Few bands decide that the way forward is to change their style of music to accommodate the fact that there is now one less band member. It is this particular path that Gangs of Ballet has chosen since the departure of their bass player, Hardus De Beer.

The departure of De Beer barely even put a dent in the momentum that Gangs of Ballet had been rapidly accumulating since the release of their debut album yes/no/grey. It is a momentum that has propelled them into the national spotlight. They introduced themselves as a humble alt-pop group with a penchant for soaring piano melodies, subtle synthetic influences and delicate acoustic elements. This is a façade that Gangs of Ballet has decided to abandon with the release of Form & Function Part 1. Form & Function sees Gangs of Ballet completely reinventing themselves as they choose to pursue that is much more rooted in alternative rock than in the alt-pop that was found on yes/no/grey.

The evolution comes as a bit of shock, because South African bands are not known for musical evolution and innovation. They tend to be rather complacent and stick to their old ways simply because they know their old ways work. You get a few bands like aKING, Shortstraw and Al Bairre that see the value in branching out and trying new styles of music, but for the most part – the local music scene is a stubborn creature that is stuck in its ways. Form & Function abandons the pretence that Gangs of Ballet is an alt-pop group as it opens with the haunting “Ageless” – a song that draws heavily on influences from Arctic Monkeys and sees Gangs of Ballet bristling with dark indie rock energy.

Form &  Function may open as an EP bristling with gritty electric guitars, razor-sharp synth lines and rhythmic drum patterns, but that is not the case. There are moments when Gangs of Ballet branch into synth-pop stardom. This is the case with “Blurry” which sees them delivering a song that is almost begging to be remixed to include massive progressive house drops. It stands in stark juxtaposition to “Ageless”, but serves as means of creating the spectrum that Form & Function covers. It is a spectrum that showcases a band continuing to prove why they are one of the biggest names in the South African music scene. Gangs of Ballet has two more EP releases on their way as part of the Form & Function series, and if they are anything like Part One then we better brace ourselves.

8/10

 

The Impressionable Influence Of Indie Rock On A Teenage Girl

What can be said for the definition of music taste? Is it about that one particular lyric or chord that resonates within the familiar? Or, is it simply a choreographed expression of all those feelings you couldn’t put into words? For me, indie rock caught my attention like no other genre could, and refused to let go.

As a teenager, I was not taken by the songs that frequented the radio. My interest in music lay elsewhere, possibly in a quest for uniqueness and identity, sometimes difficult to find in an all-girls school. Seeking inspiration for good music, I trawled the pages of British radio websites. Their charts and playlists had enough indie labels to foster my interest while creating a child-like obsession with British indie rock. Eventually, I grew enough to change my Eurocentric perception to include other nationalities. It was at this turning point that indie rock became my passion.

As my list of favourite bands grew, attending T-in-the-Park became my ultimate goal. Forget what the festival is like now. In those days, it was a showcase of all the bands I loved and needed to see. Live music and fans are synonymous, and as the ultimate form of appreciation, this generally transcends all genres. In between all the concerts and live performances, I learnt how some bands do let you down. After watching Oasis live, my love for anything Noel or Liam Gallagher dwindled. In that teenage self-obsessed outlook, I felt personally slighted by them for their lacklustre and disinterested performance. I learnt a hard lesson that day. Bands can disappoint.

As a fan of indie rock in a small, insular school in Johannesburg, I lacked classmates with the same musical interest. My taste in music was removed from what was popular or current, but luckily my brother was just as interested. We could talk for ages about new albums and bands while everyone else failed to understand, like a secret club with a language that only we could speak. We giggled over the lyrics of The Fratellis, discussed the meaning behind Ben Gibbard’s sad lines, and sang along to all things Alex Turner. Indie rock was our outlet.

As they always say, in university you meet your people. I encountered like-minded people with their own influences and tastes, who helped me discover, accept or disregard all that I found. In one particular English class, our lecturer compared Sylvia Plath’s postmodernism to that of the Arcade Fire’s sound. At that point, the correlation between music and poetry became simplified, as I realised the importance of genre. Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’ album had always been a symbol of middle-class suffering, but it took that lecturer’s insight for me to realise that it was entirely relatable to what I was studying. That was the moment I realised that music and poetry were interchangeable, and English was the cornerstone to merging the two.

As a teenager, I found comfort in a slightly non-conformist genre as a form of expression, yet my obsession with staying true to it sometimes hindered me from branching out. As a teenager, I would have refused to listen to anything else, in an act of fiercely loyal defiance to my indie rock idols. But like the times, the genre has changed and so have I, as new interpretations of indie rock are constantly explored and expanded, as the genre evolves. There are always new bands and artists emerging on the scene; drawing inspiration from those before them, creating their own fans, while challenging and adding to the definition of indie rock.

ALBUM REVIEW: English Graffiti – The Vaccines

“We want our new album to sound terrible in ten years.”

An interesting viewpoint taken by the English indie-rock band, The Vaccines, on their third studio album, English Graffiti. The Vaccines, who have opened up for the likes of The Rolling Stones, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Arctic Monkeys, seem to have to have gone with the trend seemingly favoured by most bands releasing new material in 2015 – and begun to deviate slowly from their original sound.

Lead singer Justin Young has stated he wants English Graffiti to be “genre defining” another interesting statement from the band, given the fact that the album seems to leap all over the map in terms of musical content. From head-banging rock tracks right down to whimsy, piano-laced ballads – and everything in between.

The entire album seems to revolve around the central theme of love in all its forms. This is something new for The Vaccines given that their previous work was as all over the map with lyrical content as English Graffiti is with sonic content. Despite that, however, there still remains a slight central sonic theme: catchy rhythms captured by bouncy guitar riffs and frantic drums.

“Handsome”, the opening track and lead single is a little too much on the senses all at once. A wildly honest introduction into the new project and a little bit of a slap in the face for some, it sets a strange opening tone for the album and leaves you almost too nervous to proceed.

“Dream Lover” has a dystopian-like five-note guitar riff not unlike something straight out of a futuristic action film. You can almost see the black-clad men striding in slow motion from the smoking debris of whatever it is they have just conquered. And then there is “Minimal Affections”, a four-minute electro-pop piece simply rolling in synths and relatively calmer waters.

At other times, the whole album slows down with Beatles-like, sixties-styled tracks. “All Afternoon In Love”, a floaty piano ballad brimming with echoing vocals, is strongly reminiscent of Lennon; and “Want You So Bad” has all the little Beatles-esque touches you need, well-blended with eighties rock ‘n roll – and punctuated by some random hair-raising moments.

The songs can tend to bleed into one another if you aren’t paying much attention, the guitar work of each track all being very similar. This is not necessarily a bad thing however, and lends itself to the overall flow of the album.

“Undercover” winds everything down again to bring English Graffiti to a gentle close. A simple two minute instrumental piece unusually bereft of any vocals, which leads you gently by the hand into the timely silence following the final notes.

Rating: 7/10

Early Hours Release New Single “Changehood”

We’ve all heard the phrase “coming of age”. It usually applies to films or literature, but often it can apply to music. Early Hours’s new single “Changehood” is a coming of age song. It pays homage to turning 18, and the freedom that comes with being labelled as a “young adult”. However, even musically the song reflects the concept of “coming of age” in more way than one.

One could praise it for its slick production quality, and nonchalant indie rock attitude, but there is an air of awkwardness to the song. It struggles to push itself past the point of being just another indie pop song that sounds a lot like Arctic Monkeys. While the Arctic Monkeys sound is great, there are moments when that seems to be the only thing that embodies the sound of the song and the poetic brilliance of Jake Bennet’s lyrics and the ability of guitar virtuoso Adam Rothschild is lost due to a forced attempt to replicate a particular sound that is rapidly losing its credibility on the South African music scene as more and more bands attempt to replicate it. Early Hours has something that could make them brilliant, and they are a talented group of young musicians, but “Changehood” does little to reflect this talent.

Texas Radio – I Wanna Get High (With You)

Texas Radio have been stomping about in the Cape Town music scene for the past year, and have seemed to make Dizzy’s their home. In addition to that, they have just released their new single “I Wanna Get High (With You)”.
Continue reading Texas Radio – I Wanna Get High (With You)