British Guitar Music: What's Next?

date: 08/19/2014 category: features
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British Guitar Music: What's Next?
Barely a day goes by where some music magazine, blog or figure of musical standing says something along the lines of British guitar music being dead. The first issue I take with this is that it's a somewhat broad umbrella encapsulating everything from black metal to flamenco, but the second and bigger one is that it couldn't be further from the truth. If we assume that what people mean by "guitar music" is something resembling a 4-piece indie band, I can assure you that it is alive and well. 

To start with, let's look at what happens when you go to any unsigned band night. Every band you see will be based around guitars. Yes, the odd band might have a keyboard player, but by and large guitars still rule the roost on the pub circuit.

So how did bands get to this stage? Well, let's say you're in your late teens/early 20s and want to form a band. The "guitar music is dead" brigade are usually trumpeting British bands of yesteryear, such as the Arctic Monkeys, The Libertines etc. But as we know, music is always moving in cycles, ebbing and flowing. The last wave of British indie was trying to shake off the overblown, lethargic sound of the late britpop era, a movement that was anathema to the muddy "slacker" sound of grunge. 

What this means is that the newest generation of kids starting to pick up guitars and form bands just take the former leaders of the indie scene for granted. And rightly so - the Arctic Monkeys are swiftly becoming dinosaurs, Pete Doherty exists only in the tabloids, The Cribs briefly hit their stride when Johnny Marr joined them but have now become mediocre again, Bloc Party are playing nu-metal and the Kaiser Chiefs' Ricky Wilson is now on "The Voice" encouraging the next vapid chart-topping karaoke singer. Obviously, treading old ground is a cardinal sin in the indie world and now the "old ground" includes the first few Arctic Monkeys albums. Just like 10 years ago you wouldn't have formed a band and tried to emulate "Be Here Now," new bands are forming a movement of their own. And I don't know what you'd call it, but it's seriously noisy and I like it. 

I suppose it's been coming for a while. Some of the elder statesmen of loud and dense rock music, My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr, have recently released albums and played gigs that show that several decades on they haven't lost their edge. Swans, a cult East Village noise-punk band who existed between the early '80s and late '90s and made music that was as brutally slow as it was slowly brutal, recently reformed - in the last couple of years, they have released 4 and a half hours of incredible, crushingly intense music and are already previewing even better material on tour. 

And British bands who make your ears ring have been gaining increasing cult followings for some time now, from the sludgy, grinding sound of acid-punk bands like Archie Bronson Outfit and Bo Ningen to the confrontational and ear-piercing post-punk of Savages. When I saw the latter play to an absolutely packed tent at End Of The Road last year, I realised that they were the real deal. Four girls in their mid-twenties rewiring everyone's musical brain - as larger-than-life frontwoman Jehnny Beth gripped the huge crowd in the palm of her hand, guitarist Gemma Thompson split the sky in two with blasts of feedback and white-noise distortion and the rhythm section played with the speed and precision of a jackhammer, I can guarantee that no-one there would rather have been watching a jangly indie band with regional accents and expensive haircuts. This is the same Savages who last year reached the yardstick of drifting into mainstream perception by being nominated for the Mercury Prize. They didn't win, but the good bands never do... Their recent single "F--kers" is a very un-punk ten minutes long, mostly instrumental, based around one chord and relentless repetition - it draws you into a trance so you can listen to it over and over again, and it remains the best thing I've heard so far this year. 

Drenge may be the darlings of both the NME and departing Labour Party MPs, but underneath that they're actually a very good band, boasting the only two qualities a band truly needs - volume and conviction. And bear in mind they're a two-piece, reinvigorating punk's "less is more" attitude and applying it to the minimalist blues-rock of The White Stripes and The Black Keys. Ignore the hype and pay attention to the determination of the hollering of the vocals, or the way their guitar riffs could level buildings. 

Leeds-based Eagulls are another case in point. Here we have five people just like you or me, who have ignored the idea that you need to be young to have genuine anger in your music. Yes, you are full of angst when you're 18 and form a punk band. But, ten years later, when you're going nowhere in life, broke and stuck in a dead-end job, you need to let that anger out somehow. The way to do that, of course, is to howl some seriously bleak lyrics over a psychedelic storm of guitar noise and relentlessly metronomic rhythms.

Like Drenge, Dublin's Girl Band have been making waves in the more hype-oriented corners of the music press. Following in the finest traditions of The Jesus and Mary Chain and Husker Du, Girl Band (who are actually all guys) take pop songs and bury them under a palpable wall of noise and chaos. Recent single "Lawman" is incredible - its drum intro could have been lifted straight from any number of Motown hits, but it's not long before it is joined by a guitar that sounds like an idling bin lorry and what seems to be a Dalek committing suicide. The song frequently parts for blasts of white noise and glitching drum machines. The B-side "Heckle the Frames" accelerates the tempo to light-speed and is an utterly manic slice of post-hardcore. 

Another band making waves are Evil Blizzard, whose lineup features a singing drummer and four bassists, all of whom wear masks that are distorted versions of human faces and produce genuinely unsettling music that sounds exactly halfway between Hawkwind and the Butthole Surfers. Can you imagine anyone at all paying attention to a band like that 5 years ago?

And the thing is, these bands aren't from Shoreditch or Manchester. Evil Blizzard are from Preston, Drenge are from a small town in Derbyshire and Eagulls came together from featureless provincial towns surrounding Leeds. They don't have Camden Market or Portobello Road, just endless identical high streets stuffed with estate agents and kebab shops, and have ended up resolutely uncool. And for the class-fixated English media, these downtrodden working-class bands from the provinces producing music that is noisy, claustrophobic, resolutely uncommercial, and at times downright ugly could easily become the next big thing. If guitar music is dead, then its ghost has unfinished business.
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