One of the words most ruined by the internet is “epic,” which went from describing massive works of art like Beowulf to GIFs of people falling off their skateboards. In music, the word is similarly misused, attached to bands who offer bombast but don’t actually provide substance while they pummel their listeners with noise that ultimately becomes meaningless.
Salt Lake City’s SubRosa distinguish themselves by being legitimately epic. Their songs resemble those ancient tales that the word once described, with weighty, allegorical stories, eerie landscapes, and powerful climaxes. Their latest album, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, continues to establish them as one of the most original and compelling bands in rock music today — a group that can sound as huge as anyone, but also isn’t afraid to be quiet when the time calls for it.
It’s easy to focus on the massiveness of SubRosa, who can create an avalanche of sound with layers of doomy guitars and their trademark pair of otherworldly electric violins, a combination that makes them sound like no one else. With songs that stretch past the 10 minute mark (with a couple going for 15), they work on a scale that few bands can equal. But what most impresses me about them on this album is their commitment to the littler things: the melodies and harmonies, and the quieter portions that help make their larger sound more impactful.
The opening track, “Despair is a Siren,” starts with one of these quiet folk-influenced parts, and it’s the most overtly pretty portion of music the band has created yet. Like most Subrosa songs, it has distinct loud and quiet sections (almost like there are two different bands playing), and the way both styles are accentuated by the other shows how powerful a simple use of dynamics can be. When the band does go into metal mode after a couple minutes of softness, it feels earned, because they took the time to build to that crescendo and made it matter. The band makes these shifts feel organic in large part due to Rebecca Vernon, who sings convincingly in a full range of styles, from roaring and growling to practically a lullaby, sometimes in the span of a single song.
Vernon’s voice is part of the band’s primary contrast, which is the feminine vocals from her and the two violin players, Rebecca Pendleton and Kim Pack, with the band’s crushing guitars. Their presence is how the band subverts traditional metal, a genre often defined by its masculinity, and infuses it with emotion and beauty instead of being a one-dimensional blast of noise. At times, the band feels like a progression from shoegaze groups like My Bloody Valentine, who combined more indie rock influenced guitar noise with lighter vocals to make music that was simultaneously chaotic and beautiful.
Over the last few years, SubRosa have refined their sound, emphasizing these contrasts in their music, and For This We Fought the Battle of Ages sees them pushing themselves to new highs and new lows. It’s their most towering, monumental achievement yet — as well as their most intimate — and it’s one of the best rock albums of 2016.
As the mastermind behind Dum Dum Girls, Kristin Welchez (at the time known as DeeDee) perfected the art of making the old seem new again. From album to album, the band traveled through time, morphing their sound around influences from different decades while still sounding like the same group. They peaked with 2014’s Too True, which went back to the 80s with a Siouxsie and the Banshees meets C86 aesthetic and was one of my favorite albums from that year.
Artists are often pressured to make music that is confessional, where they reveal their darkest fears and sing about horrible things that have happened to them. But in Dum Dum Girls, Kristin made a point of remaining anonymous — the band always had a focused style with the members dressing alike, and she rarely sang overtly personal lyrics. Now she has left Dum Dum Girls behind, but chosen to remain behind a veil of anonymity with the persona Kristin Kontrol, a name that I doubt is a coincidence. After years of being in Dum Dum Girls, Kristin has expressed frustration with how she felt boxed-in by the group and the preconceptions people had about it. With X-Communicate, she retakes control of her musical identity and the result is the closest she has come to an individual statement.
Kristin’s personality comes through more in the construction of her songs than her lyrics. Something I noticed about the last Dum Dum Girls album was how much I appreciated a band that could just craft simple pop songs that sounded good without relying on goofy instrumentation or other gimmickry. This is a gift Kristin has that has translated to X-Communicate, and it comes from her deep knowledge of pop music and what her idols have done before her to make it great.
And while Dum Dum Girls could sometimes be justifiably knocked for being too into nostalgia, X-Communicate feels more like a current pop statement. Similar to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, it is borrowing from the past to make music that feels fresher than what is actually trendy right now. It also has the same feeling of an artist breaking free from how they have been perceived and starting a new musical life for themselves through pop music.
For most of her career, Kristin has had one foot in pop and the other foot in “indie.” The biggest difference on X-Communicate is that it is pure pop, which allows her more room to showcase her vocals compared to some of the more minimalist music she made in the past. The songs also have a lot more rhythm than her previous music did, with prominent bass and danceable beats, and guitar takes a backseat to keyboards and synthesizers as she channels pop from the 80s.
The fifth track, “Skin Shed,” most obviously states the album’s theme of reinvention, and near the end Kristin name-drops Nina Simone and Stevie Nicks. X-Communicate is a worthy tribute to those artists and others that Kristin idolized, and is also proof that she can stand on her own as a solo artist.
Nobody wants their art to be called boring. Artists say it in interviews all the time: “You know, you can love or hate my music, as long as you have a reaction to it and care about it. That’s what I’m really looking for.” Given how disastrous it is to be called boring, maybe the riskiest thing an artist can do is make something that invites the criticism head-on by eschewing excitement and novelty for subtlety and craft.
On her fourth album, The Bride, Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, takes that risk. It’s a concept album about a bride whose husband-to-be dies in a car accident on the way to a wedding, so she embarks on a honeymoon alone — not exactly something that is going to put asses in the seats, so to speak. Musically, the album is a similarly tough sell. Khan avoids the large-scale histrionics that might be expected of such a concept, instead focusing on quiet, contemplative songs that rarely offer the listener the satisfaction of a catchy chorus or a feel-good lyric.
And yet, The Bride is certainly not boring, at least to me, because Khan commits so fully to the concept, inhabiting her character and story and exploring its various themes — mostly heartbreak, with some bonus thoughts about the institution of marriage and how it affects women — with unusual depth for an album. Like a lot of “difficult” albums, it’s one that rewards the right listener, who has the patience to engage with it on Khan’s terms.
The Bride‘s greatest strength is Khan’s voice, which carries an album that is stacked with slow, melancholy songs that could be disengaging in the hands of a less talented vocalist. And more than just singing, Khan is also acting as the protagonist of this fictional story. That she pulls off this double-act is a testament to her talent, and it’s how The Bride works despite stacking the deck against itself with its inaccessible concept.
As for the story, it’s about what I expect from a concept album. It doesn’t have novel-level detail or development because it’s an album and that’s impossible, and it sometimes gets a bit repetitive with the “why me” and “where did my lover go” type lyrics. At the same time, it provides a through line that ties all of the songs together, and there is actual growth in Khan’s character over the course of the album, as she goes from excitement for her wedding, to heartbreak, to a kind of uplift and resolve at the end as she vows to love again.
For most of her career, like a lot of solo women artists, Khan has been burdened by comparisons to PJ Harvey, Kate Bush and Björk — singular artists who are impossible to truly replicate. On The Bride, she puts herself into that tier of innovative music storytellers, but does it in her own way with a work that feels very individual. It’s an album that is refreshing in its quiet boldness and its refusal to do the expected.
PJ Harvey is a genius musician whose songs often provide keen insight into human nature, but she isn’t a journalist. She tries to be one on her new album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, which focuses on modern politics and her experiences traveling to Washington D.C., Kosovo, and Afghanistan. In the process, she proves that even the most gifted, well-intentioned and insightful artists aren’t immune to the lapses in judgment that happen when you stumble out of your comfort zone.
Part of Let England Shake‘s greatness was that it pulled off a delicate balancing act: Harvey was using stories she wasn’t a witness to and interpreting history to make observations about modern society, which can be a heavy feat to try to pull off in a series of short songs and comes at the risk of the artist not knowing what they’re talking about. It worked because there was the personal connection Harvey had to England, and because it was telling stories from the more distant past that weren’t fresh in most people’s minds and were thus more ripe for interpretation.
The Hope Six Demolition Project struggles because it is focused on the present, which makes the issues more controversial and well-known. When Harvey describes an area of Washington D.C. as “a shithole” with drug-using “zombies” in “The Community of Hope,” she is talking about a place where people currently live — and many of them aren’t too happy about the portrayal. Harvey toured the area with a reporter, and in his description of the encounter, she comes across as an outsider who floated in, jotted down some notes, and confirmed her pre-existing conclusion about the area without actually talking to any of its residents. Much of this album has that similar cursory feel, like it is only scratching the surface of its themes without having all the information or nuance. She is like a reporter who didn’t do all of her homework before submitting a story.
It sounds silly to talk about these sorts of journalistic standards in music, as if I would expect Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers to thoroughly research the effects of “Californication” before playing a song about it. But Harvey has established a different standard for herself, and if an artist of her caliber is going to try something of this scope, my expectations are going to be high. And it is Harvey herself who is missing from this album: without the personal connection to the subject matter, like she had on Let England Shake, the lyrics are just the kind of political commentary that everyone who is on the internet is tired of hearing about. The perspectives she is offering aren’t fresh or thought-provoking, and the focus on distant observations about foreign cities make her seem like an intruder into other people’s stories.
This criticism probably makes the album sound like a disaster, but it’s fine musically and most artists would be happy to ever make something that sounds like this. After a couple albums of ghostly songs that used her higher register, Harvey sings more forcefully on this album and brings back some of the noise and chaos of her early albums in the form of honking saxophone parts and some distorted guitar. However, the sound also doesn’t feel all that new for Harvey, since it’s a lot of parts and ideas she’s used in her previous music, as opposed to one of her customary skin-sheddings like on White Chalk. Combined with the lyrics (which admittedly are hard to separate from the music for me), it is part of why this album is flat and uninspired for her standards.
The Hope Six Demolition Project will likely go down as one of my least favorite PJ Harvey albums, but it is a fascinating project that makes me think a lot about the limitations of music. In the span of 3-5 minutes, musicians can do incredible things and make us feel inspired, sad, or amazed. But in terms of portraying complex political issues and communities, subjects that demand a certain amount of nuance and space, maybe it isn’t possible to accomplish what Harvey is trying to do here. Certainly, if she can’t do it, I’m skeptical that anyone else can.
Five years after Let England Shake — which some reputable music bloggers consider to be one of the best albums of recent memory — PJ Harvey is back with a new song, “The Wheel,” from her upcoming album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. While Harvey is known for dramatically changing her sound and persona from album to album, this song feels like it’s on the same path that Let England Shake was, as it maintains the folk-inspired music and lyrics drawing on war and conflict. However, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be a rehash of that album, and the song feels like the the logical next step from it.
On “The Wheel,” Harvey is broadening some of the themes from Let England Shake, turning her focus to more global politics rather than only her homeland and also touching on more contemporary subject matter instead of drawing entirely from the more distant past. But the main theme — the cyclical nature of war and terrible things done in its name — is fittingly still here, illustrated by the metaphor of the titular “revolving wheel” that keeps spinning as children disappear. The video shows Harvey in Kosovo, which she visited while working on the album, but the lyrics themselves don’t specify the conflict she is referring to.
Harvey is known for not repeating herself on her albums, which is why it’s ironic that “The Wheel” is book-ended by two very noticeable repetitions. First, there’s the intro, a burst of chaotic noise with handclaps and a recurring saxophone part that lasts over 1:20 in the unedited version. Then there’s the outro, where Harvey repeats the phrase “and watch them fade out” over 20 times, which lasts 1:25 and is reminiscent of one of her most famous songs.
I’ve become obsessed with the outro in particular. In the context of the song, it is referring to the 28,000 missing children, but it’s easy to start thinking of other meanings it could have as she keeps repeating the phrase. And the fact that she says “and watch them fade out” so many times, over and over, speaks volumes in and of itself — just like the wheel keeps turning, we keep watching children fade out, and Harvey keeps singing it, shifting between a sense of accusation and resignation. In the world of art about war, “watch them fade out” is a worthy successor to a similar refrain: “so it goes.”
I mentioned Nervous Trend in my earlier swipe at Savages, but wanted to give them their own post because I think this anonymous group from Australia (with a singer from Chicago) might be the best rock band in the world. That isn’t some kind of writerly hyperbole that is only meant to capture attention — I actually believe it. Their latest release, “Shattered,” accomplishes more in two songs and six minutes than most rock bands do in a lifetime.
One of my many complaints about music lately is bands who adopt the attitude and style of punk, but don’t actually back it up with any substance. Nervous Trend actually have something to say, and “Shattered” pulses with an urgency that demands attention and lyrics that sharply combine the personal and political. The title track lasers in on how women are frequently seen as not being “whole beings,” using a brilliant analogy of being shattered into pieces: “Which pieces of me do you want today?” singer Jen Mace asks. “Do you see a virgin? Do you see a whore? Do you see a plaything? Do you see a savior?”
The second track, “Decency,” is a scathing criticism of hypocrisy from those who claim to be decent (also known as “the virtue squad”), but spend their time limiting the rights of women. Mace ends the E.P. with her most impassioned vocal delivery, almost reaching a scream: “This is not your proselytizing. This is my life. This choice lies with me. Fuck your decency.”
None of this is groundbreaking material in the world of feminist-leaning punk, and part of why I’ve been less invested in punk lately is that these sort of lyrics can feel like going after low-hanging fruit for easy cred points. This is exacerbated by bands that intentionally sound sloppy because it’s “punk,” giving the impression that they care more about the message than the music. Nervous Trend care deeply about both, and the pointed lyrics are matched by the music itself, which is tight and roars with purpose while being inspired equally by goth and punk rock. Mace also has one of those voices that cuts through everything around it, and she throws herself completely into these songs while sounding melodic rather than shrill.
I’ve often felt like a grumbly baby about rock music lately, but hearing this band reminds me that, when it’s done with this level of skill and commitment, pretty much nothing is better. Nervous Trend have made themselves hard to find with no social media or Spotify, but their music speaks for itself, and those who find it will be moved.
When I attended community college a few years ago, I decided to challenge myself by taking difficult courses that would expand my knowledge base and prepare me not just for attending a four-year institution, but also for the real world that lied ahead. That was how I spent Tuesday and Thursday afternoons taking a class called “The History of Rock and Roll,” which was taught by a U of M grad student who walked us through a chronological history of music with intricate PowerPoint presentations while challenging us with impossibly difficult essay questions like “describe some of the differences between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.”
I won’t lie: sometimes, the class was so difficult that I thought about giving up. As the subject matter got more complex, eventually reaching mind-boggling subjects like “grunge,” it was tempting to walk out of the classroom, drop out of school, and look for janitorial work. But I stuck with it, and with enough hard work and dedication was able to earn an “A” in the course — something that remains one of my most impressive adult achievements.
What stood about the course, besides the difficulty, was how it turned something as exciting and life-affirming as rock and roll into another boring classroom topic that was rooted in objectivity. The course’s curriculum inherently made authoritative judgments over which bands were worth including and which would be left out of the history it was teaching us. The class stuck to the classic, practically official rock and roll canon — also seen in places like The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — tracing a linear line from artists like The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to more contemporary music that was influenced by them.
One of my longtime insecurities as someone who writes and talks about music is that most of these canonized artists have never done much for me. This ranges from liking their songs, but not feeling any emotional connection to the music (The Beatles, Led Zeppelin) to outright disliking artists that are considered legendary and hugely important (The Rolling Stones — ugh). In all cases, I recognize the band’s influence and how they helped innovate rock, but even the most detailed and fascinating of PowerPoint presentations couldn’t make them feel as important to me as they seem to be to everyone else.
Not loving these bands has always made me feel alienated and sometimes even stupid. If I can’t like these artists that are universally considered to be incredible, maybe I don’t understand music. So I’ve spent a lot of mental energy reflecting on the canon and why it has never worked for me like it does for everyone else. My biggest issues are that the canon has two major biases: it is heavily skewed towards men, especially “rock gods,” and it is also biased towards older artists who came first, because obviously nobody in the last 20 years has innovated music. If you like listening to music that was made by women after 1980, the canon isn’t going to have much for you, and I can’t get behind a history that excludes so many artists.
Music does have a history, but the canon tells it incorrectly. It focuses on a single path that goes in a straight line, when a true, honest history of rock and roll is made up of different branches and curves off that path. One of my favorite things to do as a listener is find a specific genre or style of music, and try to piece the history of it together myself by connecting the dots between various bands. This way, the music tells the story rather than a professor or a bunch of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters, and it stays true to what I enjoy about it, which is the process of discovery and the subjectivity.
The best example of this different way of viewing music’s history was from a random blog I stumbled upon online when I was searching out female-fronted punk music. A very devoted, possibly crazy person compiled a series of 12 CD-Rs that served as a reference of female punk from 1977-1989, and gave them to some friends, one of whom uploaded them online. I listened to it and was astonished at how comprehensive it was — it combined relatively well-known artists like Blondie with some of the most obscure bands imaginable, like German groups that released one song on a cassette in 1981 and gave it to three of their friends. What made it so enjoyable wasn’t just that I liked the music, but that the series was mixing artists of all levels of popularity and obscurity together and forming an entire story of a certain niche of music — one that is completely ignored by the traditional canon.
While the canon is based on exclusivity and favors artists who are popular and “important,” this collection made no judgments and included seemingly every female-fronted punk band that made a song in the time frame. A powerful feeling I got from it was that no band is more important than any other, and everyone who makes music is in their own way contributing to its history. Even a band that released literally one song was remembered and viewed as important in this context.
Rather than making certain music sacred or unimpeachable and clinging to bland objectivity, I prefer that collection’s more subjective and inclusive take on history that focuses on the music rather than what people have written about it. Obviously, a class can only discuss so many bands and a museum can only have so much space, but that’s why a History of Rock and Roll course and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are ineffective. The real history of music is sprawling and defined just as much by outsiders as the most popular artists of all time, and to reduce it to such a small number of popular artists is antithetical to what makes music great.