You either die as indie hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the witness of a new revival. So, yes, I lived the British indie rock wave of the Mid-00s like a such a pretentious hero and I watched it fall by the end of this century’s first decade and heading into irrelevance and shallow mainstream oblivion. When these mainly British bands like The Libertines, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Maximo Park popped up around the time I turned 20, critics and fans went wild and turned these guys into triumphant heroes of a new generation. Some of those indie guitar bands later turned into even bigger heavyweights and groups like The Killers, Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys and maybe even The Strokes became huge festival headliners. And they were just the peak of the movement – you easily forget about the countless other groups that popped around the time – The Rakes, The Futureheads, Art Brut, Operator Please, Klaxons, Razorlight … gosh, this list could go on and on and if you’re now hooked up to dive a bit deeper please know that NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION got an entire 15-hours playlist for that era on our Spotify.
Often labelled as one of the last universal music hypes the rise of the New Indie Music Wave happened at a turning point of our society. The analogue music industry of the 20th century slowly morphed into a digital world, live shows got more important and the traditional music media was also in decline. It was the final moment when NME, Rolling Stone & Co. were able to unite a majority of people behind them, worked as gatekeepers and were able to lift a band on the next level. And for a while it was good, I remember. Especially the time between 2004 and 2006 felt like you’ve been part of a secret elite club when you attended that one cool indie rock disco night that happened in the closest bigger city near you. That was obviously the time before tracks like Mr. Brightside, Banquet and I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor were suddenly all over the place and most of these bands lost their fire around the time of their third full-length. Suddenly everything was indie, pop and mainstream merged and guitar music became predictable and saturated again. The wave had crashed and it was inevitable.
Sometimes certain anniversaries hit you hard (like The Strokes’ Is This It turning 20 this year) and I realize how old I’ve gotten and how much time has passed. Is it really five years since the last Bloc Party album? And when was the last actually good Bloc Party album? What happened to the Kaiser Chiefs? Maximo Park just dropped their seventh LP? Really? Today’s world looks a lot different; the lines between indie and mainstream have fully blurred, the media landscape changed drastically and although a new hype like Billie Eilish, Phoebe Bridgers or Girl In Red might happen eventually every now and then, it’s not lead by music media anymore but the people and social media itself. And some people might not even take notice of those hypes. I have no idea what the K-pop bubble is up to these days? If you’ve been following certain artists right from the beginning it doesn’t really feel like a hype anyway. And I think the age of the traditional hype is over anyway, something I already realized when Shame dropped their first album three years ago.
Although countless people have already declared ‘the end of bands’ many years ago along with ‘the death of rock music’, that sort of music is still here. Shame are a good example here and so are IDLES and Fontaines D.C. – and don’t forget the countless female-fronted endeavours of songwriters like Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Lucy Dacus, Big Thief, Beabadoobee or Japanese Breakfast who keep the indie music tradition alive with a much needed female perspective. In recent times however there’s an exciting new wave of guitar bands hailing from the UK once again which head for a totally different path – groups like Black Midi, Sorry, Squid, Dry Cleaning or Black Country, New Road continue the tradition of the British guitar band sound but place it in the hear and now. They take elements from the past but add enough twists to free their art from history’s shadow. Some might call that “neo indie rock”, jazz-infected math-rock, a new form of post-rock or whatever – I call it exciting and I’m happy to still be interested enough in new music to actually witness this new generation as we speak. Still, as a ‘survivor’ of the previous wave I can’t help but to search for comparisons.
Anxiety against the algorithms
The bands I just mentioned all are still very much male-dominated, so that feels similar (and is yet up for discussion) and they share this feeling of urgency I remember from the older groups. Squid’s freshly released debut album Bright Green Field got that nervous flickering guitar sound of early Foals, The Rakes and there’s an urgency in the vocal performance that might remind you of early Pete Doherty although singer Ollie Judge is screaming way more. An intense vocal performance also dominates the music of Black Country, New Road who we previously showcased on NBHAP as one of the best new bands of the year. Those guys, however add a few folk- and klezmer-infected elements to the equation. They share a love for extended song lengths. It’s totally normal for a song to pass the 5-minute mark because this new generation of bands isn’t really interested in getting a radio smash hit which might be the main difference compared to the previous generation. Yes, there are funky basslines and catchy riffs in there but they aren’t used to please traditional song structures or Spotify algorithms. These bands want the audience to loose themselves in the music, see all the twists that happen within these songs as natural consequence towards a certain level of ecstasy. Above all, this music is about the physical experience, the actual live performance and the hypnotic effect of a good old rock show. Big Thief also perfected that raw emotional effect in their live shows and also on their albums. A band like Black Midi – who are about to release their second album later this month – take this aspect to the extreme as they tend to improvise a lot at their own shows. It’s ironically sad that all these groups release the records in the middle of the pandemic. One can only assume how big the relieving effect would be once they are allowed to enter a stage again. There’s a longing for that realness, it appears.
I sense familiar sounds and patters from the Mid-00s in here as well and Sorry are really playing with it. But whenever you think you might know what comes next these groups deliver a twist, a sudden scream or something slightly disturbing to mess with your listening expectations. On Dry Cleaning’s really great debut New Long Leg you constantly wait for singer Florence Shaw to burst out into a melody but her spoken words part remains consciously underwhelming which is even more underlined via the everyday life observations in her lyrics. It’s not supposed to be a pleasant experience, it’s a harsh extension of life’s reality in the beginning of the 2020’s. The aftermath of the Brexit, the decline of political culture, late-capitalistic horror and the impending climate collapse create a totally different premise than the one twenty years ago.
The dream of big rock and roll stardom isn’t one to follow anymore, the tale of social advancement is a lie for most of us anyway, so why even bother?
Even this year’s second Shame album sounded a whole lot different than their debut, more urgent, darker and less interested in simple crowd-pleasing (compared to what IDLES are up to these days). For me, this new branch of guitar bands represents the sound of frustration, desolation, depression and modern life confusion in a fascinating musical way. Instead of squeezing it into a conventional song structure, they decide to let all these emotions break lose, like a musical stream of consciousness. By doing that they offer an outlet for all that, a hypnotizing musical maelstrom in which the audience is happily invited to loose themselves.
Familiar sounds, fresh ideas
There has been a certain level of despair and desolation within the lyrics of the Mid 00s indie wave as well but it was often disguised in a catchy hook and conventional structures. Of course, bands like Black Midi and Black Country, New Road aren’t entirely reinventing things here. There’s a bit Mars Volta sensible here, early Foals and parts of TV On The Radio as well. The 00s scene wasn’t just about the fancy stuff you might remember from a student disco basement party back then, bands like Radiohead were also releasing groundbreaking stuff and so were Grizzly Bear, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or Deerhunter. But while those bands often drifted into progressive and psychedelic rock territory these new groups focus on raw energy, roughness and a certain punk-infected noisiness. And maybe it needed exactly such a relentless kickstarter to free the genre from its own lethargy. Some of these bands are more political than others, obviously but by now I think a certain level of political awareness is present within this new generation anyway so maybe that part is a bit overrated.
As much as I enjoy these new groups and wish them a furious live show comeback once it’s possible I can’t help but to reflect on my own generation and the overall character of that movement back in the 00s. And although it spawned plenty of all-time classic anthems and hundreds of memories it was also very self-involved, often superficial and a lot about style and showing-off, traditional old-fashioned rock and roll clichés if you want. These new bands like to play with the imagery a lot more, they also take the level of abstraction and disinterest in commercial patterns into their representation. The whole internet culture plays a part here as well. It’s less about the band itself but about the music, the vibe. It’s partly even less about the lyrics as well considering some of them appear to be very cryptic but also very unglamorous. The music and the experience of it are the focus, a sheer physical event as an antidote to the digital polished world of the internet. You barely find posh Instagram profiles here. Alright, I might be reading a bit too much into this but I’d like to think of this as a much needed real alternative to a music industry that now started to think how to compose music specifically for Tik Tok. It gives me hope that there are still kids out there who oppose the whole industry, question structures and music in general and want to make something different. It what keeps the art alive and middle-aged music lovers like me interested in this crazy thing called popular culture.