Published November 8, 2018 in Warp & Woof
Who Killed the Anger?
Noise/Experimental Rock in the Digital Era
I didn’t realize, until doing some research, that today’s popular music streaming services are at least partially owned by the traditional major record labels – Sony, Universal, Warner. While Internet streaming can, theoretically, be a path for “DIY music,” the exposure of the services to placement of bands signed with major labels is inescapable. There are also “artist aggregators,” like CDBaby and TuneCore, who will charge artists an annual subscription fee, or per-track fee, to handle digital distribution – becoming, in effect, streaming labels.
Apparently, digital music streaming, now the primary means of distribution for new bands, has altered the history of rock music. True, indie labels and DIY all have some access to the streaming services, but not all access is equal. Changing fashions are still dictated by major labels. Today’s biggest pop music trends are hip-hop and EDM (electronic dance music). How does anything that used to be called “alternative” or “experimental” get played?
It will likely be a major label that determines whose music gets promoted. Indie labels try to compete, but the market segmentation of audiences that existed for AM/FM terrestrial radio has largely disappeared, replaced by Sirius/XM and Pandora who have services based on genre “channels”. But Spotify, Apple and Amazon (the biggest streaming services) do not. Hence, the majors promoting artists by name once again have all the market clout.
Alternative rock has now become a meaningless category. Perhaps all “genres” have disappeared, leading some critics to claim that rock, itself, is dead.
Yet, new bands keep coming. They all have been inspired by some previous artist. Their motivation can be creative just as much as commercial. Two very different bands, both legitimately rock-oriented, both artistic, have sprung up in this new digital distribution environment. AWOLNATION (they prefer all caps) and Deaf Wish have chosen to pursue separate styles, while tracing their lineage from former rock genres that an aging aficionado like me can appreciate. They are both edgy, if not truly angry. Aaron Bruno’s AWOLNATION mixes Bruce Springsteen’s “industrial” rock ballad sound with a predominately EDM beat, and Australia’s Deaf Wish emerges directly from noise and metal, from Sonic Youth/Velvet Underground roots.
Bruno signed early with Red Bull Records, an indie label, and released his first AWOLNATION album, Megalithic Symphony, in 2011 (a megalith is a very large rock). One single from the album, Sail, went platinum. It gave the band early visibility (along with their label). It has since been licensed for TV commercials, and some dramatic TV series episodes. It’s a straight-up rock ballad, “Blame it on my ADD baby” is the chorus – apparently a personal reference for Bruno. But, the tone is clearly one of struggle, whether from ADD, or some unnamed cause. “Maybe I should kill myself” appears in one line. Heavy bass, driving beat, all electronic – good for slow dancing, with a labored tempo. Yes, it’s angry. “Maybe I’m a different breed.”
Three other tracks on that first album illustrate the group’s range. Reviewers attribute the “group” to being basically Aaron Bruno “and friends.” It is firmly in the EDM tradition — all production, little solo artistry. Burn It Down and Soul Wars use drums as the foundation for the beat, simple rhyming lyrics, rapper style in Burn It Down, punk style in Soul Wars. Both songs have very fast tempos, hard to imagine them as dance music, but perhaps that’s because I don’t know what dances look like anymore!
Burn It Down’s first verse starts:
“If you’re feeling like I feel then run your life like it’s a dance floor/And if you need a little heat in your face, that’s what I’m here for”
and second verse:
“If you’re feeling like I feel throw your fist through the ceiling/Some people call it crazy well I call it healing”
“So burn it down, burn it down.”
This is EDM as it’s meant to be! Soul Wars uses a similar drum-based format for the rapid-fire beat, but substitutes a whiter vocal style, reminiscent of old-time rock-and-roll, like Jerry Lee Lewis. In fact, it’s probably inspired by Bruce Springsteen. The chorus, “I’m on fire,” is a famous Springsteen song title, which AWOLNATION covered for the sound track of the 2015 film, Fifty Shades of Grey.
Finally, Jump on My Shouldersexplores a secondary AWOLNATION theme, Christian allegory. It may have been a commercial gamble, as Mumford and Sons, and Robert Plant’s Band of Joy made their appearances at about the same time, but it is present on AWOLNATION’s third album, Here Come the Runts, as well.
The song begins:
“There’s a mad man looking at you/And he wants to take your soul./There’s a mad man with a mad plan/And he’s dancing at your door. Oh/What to do, oh …”
“There’s a mad man with a mad plan/And he waits for us to stumble.”
Soon we hear the chorus:
“Oh, but our eyes are open/Yeah, they’re really open/(Five, four, three, two, one)/I say we rob from the rich/And blow down the door./On to the next/To dance with the poor./Jump on my shoulders./You can jump on my shoulders.”
Not angry music here, but joyful — a real change.
Here Come the Runts, AWOLNATION’s latest album, was released last February. It opens with the title track, a theatrical zombie march of runts, martial in tone – you can visualize them coming over a hilltop on the horizon, in formation. It’s an invasion of runts! But, in the end, “Okay I am a runt/Baby you are a runt/Baby we are the runts” – indeed! It makes a great electronic pump for the rest of the album.
Three short tracks illustrate the experimental nature of the album, compared to their earlier work, and to most of what we hear in the mainstream pop choices. Sound Witness System is a very short rap number (2:22), with electronic finish, almost a sound check, but unquestionably qualified as avant garde in my book. Cannonball and Tall Tall Tale are conventional punk and heavy metal tracks, respectively. Cannonball reminds me of The Ramones, but with an “E” for explicit lyrics (hence, listen at your own risk). Yes, obscenity is anger, and is still avant-garde in pop music. Tall Tall Tale grabs the heavy metal baton, even featuring a synthesizer in a few bewitching chords. These tracks make AWOLNATION’s third studio album far more adventurous than the relatively cautious, mainstream Megalithic Symphony. Is this where they’re going? I hope so!
They can do “pretty,” too. A wonderful slow dance number, perhaps another Springsteen inspired creation, also appears on this album. I consider Seven Sticks of Dynamiteto be possibly their finest piece ever. Listen:
“Who wants to dance who wants to slow dance”
“Lipstick like dynamite, seven sticks of dynamite”
“Fuse the morning, fuse the night/Give me seven sticks of dynamite.”
A brilliant song, suspenseful, mysterious, sweet, catchy tune, but ending with an amped up electronic flourish. If this represents a new genre of rock music, I’m in!
From their home in Melbourne, Australia, Deaf Wish has come into the streaming community by signing with alternative music icon, Sub Pop– still an indie label, technically, but much bigger than Red Bull Records. This band traces its style directly back to Sonic Youth and noise rock. They take heavy metal and gift it with cacophonous noise in place of a simple punk-style beat.
And, the lyrics are very angry. Sub Pop may have been reminded of Nirvana when they signed Deaf Wish.
Two tracks from Lithium Zion, their fifth studio album (second with Sub Pop) are Easyand FFS. Both are characterized by monotone electronic feedback for the rhythm line, nihilistic lyrics sung by Jensen Tjhung in the former song, Sarah Hardiman the latter. The duo, much like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, have a darker outlook on life, depressed and angry (like Kurt Cobain?). Their first Sub Pop album, Pain, was even more brutal – as heard in Dead Air — here, Hardiman mouths the only vocalization of the entire 6-minute track at its opening:
”In my heart there is blood, in my heart there is only blood.”
The remainder is all electronic feedback – noise, in the best SY tradition, or perhaps Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. The band entered the world strictly as a new noise group, with their 2014 single, St. Vincent’s. They were consciously in the mold of Sonic Youth which had disbanded three years earlier.
It’s good to know that somebody still finds this kind of music worthy of production. And, it’s good to know that a label as established as Sub Pop is willing to take a chance on them.
When I first conceived the pages for Warp & Woof, in early 2017, I defined the “Beats” page as an exploration of the music I liked, which I asserted in my original Welcomepiece had ceased to be created at least ten years earlier. I was wrong. I have since discovered both AWOLNATION and Deaf Wish. There is great “alternative” and “experimental” rock still being produced. It is not even that hard to find!