Published October 25, 2018 in Warp & Woof
Who Killed the Anger?
Noise and Experimental Rock, 1980s – 2010s
Punk Rock began in the 1970s as an attempt to strip away the artifice and commercial compromises of art in popular music. It was seen by bands on both sides of the Atlantic — like The Clash, New York Dolls, and Ramones — as a path back to the basics of rock-and-roll. It gave expression to working-class alienation and anger as well. Class struggle, adolescent rage, and defiance of social norms all became subjects of the lyrics. The music resurrected blues guitar, strong bass lines, and simple, but pronounced, drums. It was a return to blues roots, but with a modern social message.
Then, the anger became fatiguing to its audience. It needed a boost. Perhaps the original fans “grew up” and a new audience was yet to emerge. But, the genre evolved rather than died. In what is often called “Post-Punk,” groups like The Fall, Joy Division, and Pere Ubu picked certain punk themes to explore, while eschewing others. Nihilism in some cases replaced anger. But, the proliferation of sounds and styles in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s exceeded the ability to find genre names for them. It seemed like every band was its own genre – New Wave became No Wave, Punk became Gothic, etc.
One thing remained unchanged; bands needed a recording label. There was now, fortunately, more competition in this area than in the days of AM radio. ”Indie” labels began to proliferate, and “college radio” (on FM) became the new trendsetter, reaching a much wider audience by the eighties than AM. It was the age of cassette, and widespread dubbing. As business models and technology changed, so did the music.
The emergence of heavy metaland noise rock had been pioneered all the way back in the late 1960s by the Velvet Underground. Their second album, White Light/White Heat (1968) was arguably the first example of both these genres. In the late 1980s, indie Seattle label Sub Pop signed two local groups – Nirvana and Soundgarden – and promoted a new style. It was called “grunge,” based on the stage appearance of the bands. A market for “fusion styles” of rock, combining metal, grunge, and post-punk followed. The genre known as noise rock by some reviewers was epitomized by New York band Sonic Youth.
Some, including this reviewer, find Sonic Youth the most compelling, and complete, of all the rock bands of the era. They finally disbanded in 2011 after a traumatic breakup of their two founders, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.
Perhaps their best album is their third studio release, Daydream Nation (1988). It explores their roots, from Lou Reed’s experimental Metal Machine Music,and The Velvet Underground, to heavy metal’s Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead. In a collection of very electronic, very cacophonous, tracks they develop their format of melodious, almost pop-sounding, beginning, then a descent into chaos in the middle, and a reprise of the initial tune in the final chords. Their lyrics borrow standard punk themes.
An excellent example of this is the seven-and-a-half-minute track “Total Trash.” The lyrics are not especially meaningful but fit well into the overall architecture of the piece. It starts with a pleasant, almost easy-listening tune (reminiscent of sixties “surf music”) and repeats that theme for nearly three minutes, as the generally mindless lyrics are sung by Moore and Gordon – “It’s total trash.” At the three-minute mark in the track, something happens. The melody disappears, drowned out by electronic feedback, with only a faint undercurrent of drums. Even that semblance of order transmutes by four minutes into an entirely different, much faster, beat. It’s all feedback and distortion – noise – until six minutes, when the surf music returns, intact from the opening chords. But in less than a minute the chorus repeats, then fades out into more electronic noise. This is SY’s key signature.
Many tracks on the album follow the same formula – familiar sounding melody and lyrics, electronic dissonance, return to melody. It was the essence of noise rock. Daydream Nationwas added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2005, having received rave reviews by Rolling Stone and other critics when first released.
Some variations on this format are found in The Wonder, which starts out with high electronic anxiety, proceeds through a frenetically fast beat, making you think a better title might be the Silicon Valley mantra, “move fast and break things,” This song simply runs out of energy at the end, after a short interlude of panicked feedback before slowing the tempo into the fadeout. “I’m just walking around, your city is a wonder town” is the chorus.
Borrowing more heavily from punk and metal, Silver Rocket also starts with a familiar tune, harder and rougher than some others, cacophony in the middle, then initial theme resurrected by the end – chorus on this one, “You got it. Yeah, ride the silver rocket. Can’t stop it. Burnin’ hole in your pocket.”
Through their career, Moore and Gordon were looking for new indie labels. They started with SST, abandoned them for Enigma Records with Daydream Nation, then once that album catapulted them to international fame, they sought to try major labels. Yet, they never signed with any. Ultimately, they created their own label, SYR. Distribution was now largely via the Internet, so this made sense. They could do it on their own!
Overall, SY manages to take experimental electronic rock from the age of the Velvets and Lou Reed, adds heavy metal, like Motorhead, and creates a very new experience.
But, we heard little more like this until about 2011, when “alternative rock” ceased to be an identifiable genre – and genres in general became unimportant. Part two of the question, “Who Killed the Anger?” focuses on new developments in marketing music, and two contemporary bands worth noting: AWOL Nation and Australia’s Deaf Wish. The anger has returned!