It’s been a bizarre year. While Parliament, social media and the country-at-large have been tussling with Brexit and elections, the musical landscape has somewhat reflected that turmoil via a fragmented po-pourri of emotions, feelings and heightened surreality.
One of the few bands to outlast the indie guitar band explosion of the mid-2000s, Field Music’s un-selfconscious, anti-fashion stance has seen them compared to the likes of Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren, Scritti Politti, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and XTC. They may not have achieved much in the way of commercial success, but for the last 15 years they have been pouring their hearts and souls into Field Music, as well as a number of side projects including Peter’s You Tell Me band – also featuring Admiral Fallow’s Sarah Hayes - and David’s School of Language project, whose third album, 45, was released last summer, a satirical take on the 45th Presidency, Donald Trump.
Cacophonous feedback informed the beginning, the guitarist and singer Theo Polyzoides bent over forwards next to his amp, before the band struck out on a stridently noisy punk rock beat, Theo hopping on to his amp, back facing the cameras, before jumping off and reaching the mic in time to yelp the words to ‘Speakerface’. This was my introduction to King Nun, filmed in lo-fi, recorded live, but released as an accompanying video. It was electrifying. I loved it from the first seconds.
Who said guitar music is dying? Haven’t we heard this before? Yes, a million times and counting. When synth pop and the new romanticism hit the airwaves back in the early 80s, when dance music took the UK by storm at the turn of the 90s, when Britpop fizzled out in the late 90s and when the mid-noughties four-string revival hit the veritable brick wall. We’ve heard it time and time again. There are no new pastures, no exciting bands, the well is almost dry, and we’re all going to have to deal with the purgatory of computer driven music, soulless auto-tuned r’n’b and probably much worse. And yet, like the Phoenix from the flames, it refuses to die, instead re-inventing itself into new and exciting forms.
The Isle of Wight, it’s in a bit of a time warp, is it not? I ask Douglas Richards, who along with his older brother Jamie, and Chris Newnham, founded Plastic Mermaids earlier on this decade, with bassist Tom Farren, and drummer Chris Jones eventually completing the line up. “Yeah, definitely a little bit. There’s definitely some warped sides to it. There’s a lot of chavs, and then there’s a lot old people, and a lot of Brexit voters. And generally, anyone I went to school with who had half a brain, left the Isle of Wight,” he laughs. “Some people decide to come back, when they have kids and stuff. But, there’s also quite a creative community. I think there’s quite a few hippies from the 70s festival who ended up just staying in Ventnor (on the South Coast of the island) and breeding. There is a lot of really good music here, but not masses of people to go to gigs. It’s a slightly strange dynamic.”
The times they are a-changing, sang the Duluth bard, more than half a century ago. But even that visionary would have struggled to foresee a rock’n’roll world being turned upside down by passionate young men, singing about male vulnerability with a seething intensity that can be both exciting and unsettling to watch and hear. The Murder Capital are one such bunch, the band visually coming across like nattily dressed gangsters whilst they theatrically weave around each other, singing about suicide, romance, fear, impotence, mental health, and weakness, but set against a sometimes violent musical maelstrom. As singer James McGovern says about the brooding and propulsive ‘Feeling Fades’, the first song they released as a fully formed studio recording, “I like brutalism because it’s not trying to be beautiful.” Indeed, their beautifully brutal music brilliantly encapsulates their pent-up emotions, before being released in a torrent of controlled chaos and turmoil, with McGovern repeating the refrain “the now elapsed ‘round you and me, and it kept us all together.” Joy Division, The Pixies, The Birthday Party, The Sound, Savages, Idles, and Shame all come to mind, post-punk old and new, adding new and interesting layers and angles to this most dexterous of genres. A certain genre has proven itself to be a saviour of music, one that allows the political, to mingle with notions of art and the avante garde. The profound social changes we are currently going through are being encapsulated by this Dublin five-piece’s heart-on-sleeve music, along with fellow Dubliners Fontaines D.C., with whom they shared a practice space, and Girl Band.
Formed around the chemistry of siblings and dual songwriters Jack and Lily Wolter, Brighton based Penelope Isles are a classic four piece of guitars, drums and bass, with some keys thrown in to the mix. Debut album Until the Tide Creeps In is an album informed by shared experience. Raised on the Isle of Man, Jack moved away to study art at university at 19, when Lily was 13.
As an early mentor of Jesca Hoop, Tom Waits described her music as, "like a four-sided coin. She is an old soul, like a black pearl, a good witch or a red moon. Her music is like going swimming in a lake at night".
The Australian singer songwriter Stella Donnelly has juts released her debut album Beware of the Dogs, following a number of singles and EPs, including the much talked about Thrush Metal! Part of a fantastic and growing Australian scene that includes the likes of Courtney Barnett and Cub Sport, Donnelly’s straight-to-the-point music is full of humour alongside tough topics such as racism and abuse. Here she talks to Jeff Hemmings about the album, her Great Escape shows last year, Australian politics and being half-Welsh
You hear of a lot of Brighton bands making good, but there is an even stronger strand of performers, who loosely cover the soul and urban genres, and are making huge strides. Most famously there is Rag’n’Bone Man, but Grace Carter is quickly making her mark, too.
Moving down from Newcastle around the turn of the decade, Demob Happy have slowly but surely stamped their mark, with two glorious progressive grunge-pop albums, Soda Dream and Holy Doom, under their belts. More recently they’ve been out supporting the likes of Jack White, Frank Turner & The Rattlesnakes, and Nothing But Thieves, expanding their fanbase both here in Europe, and in the US. Hungry for more, they’ve just released a new single ‘Less Is More’, with an album expected later in the year.