You don’t have to be Kate Bush’s current accountant to know that pop music operates in cycles. For an industry that is so self-conscious about trends, the whole machine sputters and dies without a constant spirit of change in the air. British guitar music in particular has seen it all over the decades: it’s a regenerative furnace of new ideas that sporadically dares critics to declare it dead once more, before mutating into some vital new form.
The recent domination of post-punk revivalists like Black Country, New Road, Squid and Dry Cleaning has brought great artistic highs, but there is no time to stand still and admire your work when there are a thousand new voices clamouring to make the next great statement. Several of the standout names from the new breed appear to be eschewing the self-seriousness of the aforementioned groups, in favour of an embrace of influences from dance and electronic music. Could it be that, with the likes of The Umlauts, PVA, Talk Show and Malady all emerging together, we are starting to gain an inkling into what the next wave of guitar music sounds like?
“I think if you look back, change has always happened, with New Order being an obvious example,” says Harrison Swann, guitarist and vocalist with Talk Show, who are set to release their second EP, ‘Touch the Ground’, in September. The London quartet reach into the electronic toolbox sparingly, but they enjoy the sonic liberation that it affords and name The Chemical Brothers and Tricky as key references. “Right now, I think with the level of access to other art forms, it feels like [change] is at play again now, but on steroids.”
For The Umlauts, a restlessly inventive London-based group due to release ‘Another Fact’, their second EP, in October, defying genre classification is part of their raison d’être. They speak enthusiastically about the horizons that electronica opens up for their creativity: “Obviously, with synthesisers, you’ve got a really vast timbre of sounds that you can make and they can be modulated in really interesting ways,” says the band’s Oliver Offord. “They have a massive amount of freedom to them as an instrument.”
Breaking free from the guitar/bass/drums constraints of traditional rock music is one thing, but taking a lead from other forms of music at a songwriting level is quite another. This, too, appears to be animating this new wave of bands, including Courting, the Liverpool quartet led by Sean Murphy-O’Neill, who are preparing to release their debut album – ironically titled ‘Guitar Music’ – in September. “How we approach song structure, it’s more looking at that PC Music- style pop stuff,” says Murphy-O’Neill. “If we’re listening to SOPHIE, we’re thinking, ‘How can we do a song in the format of being a guitar band that works in the same way as that one does?’”
London trio PVA have been operating in these waters for long enough now that they could almost be considered leaders of this nascent scene. “When we started playing in March 2018,” says the band’s Josh Baxter, who is also a sound engineer at Brixton’s legendary Windmill venue, which has long been the epicentre of the modern post-punk scene. “There were a few bands – Lazarus Kane, Lynks, Working Men’s Club – starting to appear that I thought were pulling from similar places and since then, I think even more bands have started exploring a much wider range of influences,” he continues. “For me, it was about taking the fun elements of seeing a DJ, the repetition and the weight of that, and combining it with the theatre and intimacy of a live band. I guess other people had similar feelings, too.”
The obvious consequence of when a particular style of music tips the balance and becomes too widely imitated is that its initial sparks of inspiration are washed away into a sea of homogeneity. For many of these young bands, their tolerance for indie rock has become limited at best. “Most of the popular bands that I can think of today are really boring,” says Murphy-O’Neill. “And I think that’s a shame. If you think of really popular rappers, they’re experimental and weird, whereas the most popular bands are really straight to the point.”
It is a sentiment shared by the members of London four-piece Malady, whose own flirtations with electronic music draw them into the same nocturnal soundscape as the likes of King Krule and Yves Tumor. “I think a lot of guitar music has got stale,” says vocalist and guitarist Percy Junior Cobbinah. The band’s first single ‘London, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down’, an obvious nod to LCD Soundsystem‘s James Murphy, a pioneer of blending of rock and dance cultures. “If you’ve got a song about London, you can’t not bring in the sounds you hear when you’re out and about,” says Cobbinah. “You have to be a product of your environment, and open your eyes to what’s around you.”
A clear focus on the present unites these bands, rather than an obsession with the past. “We’ve had post-punk music for the past twenty years, sometimes you go to shows and it’s like, ‘Alright, this is the same as I’ve already heard, says Malady bassist Khaleem Mitchell-Patterson. His bandmate Charlie Clark concurs: “If I listen to guitar music, it’ll be a very pioneering band in their era, but I find a lot of stuff now to be too much of a nod to it, so it doesn’t hold the same weight.”
There is also the risk of overlooking the reality that most music fans in the streaming era have far greater diversity in their listening habits than their counterparts in previous generations, and consequently may expect new artists to reflect the ‘everything all at once’ nature of their own experience. It is certainly a theory that rings true for Josh Greacen, one half of Somerset duo Sad Night Dynamite, whose own approach to embracing electronic music has always been second nature.
“Having streaming services meant we were listening to all kinds of music, so growing up, guitar music didn’t feel dominant at all,” he says. “In fact, it always felt old to us. The variety of music has never been so accessible, which is for sure having an impact on artists now.”
Breaking out of the guitar bubble also brings new frontiers to bands’ live shows. PVA’s shows at the Windmill have been known to summon more of the spirit of acid house than of The Fall, something their vocalist and guitarist Ella Harris credits to the divergence of their instrumentation. “It would have been quite hard to fill a room with sound with just drums and guitars,” she says, “In the way that having samplers, synths, 303s and backing drum tracks give you. It’s almost like you have a whole backing band when you start to use those things, it adds a lot of dimension to live shows.”
Making use of the additional technology can have a beneficial impact on live arrangements too, as attested by Malady drummer Ashley Noel-Hirst: “I only have four limbs, so incorporating electronics, it allows for there to be a lot more rhythmic stuff going on. We can have a bigger sound for how many people we are, versus if we were just purely playing with our instruments.”
Besides, argues Josh Greacen, just think of the practical considerations. “Neither Archie [Blagden, the other half of Sad Night Dynamite] nor I was very good at the guitar, so playing midi keyboard and learning how to use the computer as an instrument felt like the obvious thing to do. When you don’t have tons of money to buy expensive amps and compressors and mics, too, it’s just easier to fire up a sound in your DAW [Digital Audio Workstation].”
It is encouraging to to hear about this cluster of bands’ collective determination to find new ways of surprising audiences. As Courting’s Sean Murphy-O’Neill puts it: “Taking from other genres and not being purist about rock music is is the only way that rock can still be interesting. If we ever hit a bit of a wall, all we can do is combine stuff and make weird and new hybrids. And sometimes, that really works.”