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Guitar music: Don’t be fooled, Rock & Roll is far from dead

Guitar music is something that has seen adoration for generations, with new waves of acts endlessly spilling through the door over the years. The 60s saw The Beatles and The Rolling Stones dominate, the 70s was the time of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, in the 80s it was The Smiths and The Cure, the 90s was Britpop heaven for Oasis and Blur, while the 00s saw an indie rock revolution in the form of The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys. One thing these eras all have in common is that they had chief flag bearers to be proud of, bands that defined the sound of their time. So what about now?

Music listeners can be awfully reactionary. They hear popstars like Ariana Grande or rappers like Drake top the charts and assume guitar music is dead; it’s been this way for longer than you can imagine. The simple fact of the matter is that they’re so wrong it hurts, we are so blessed to be around this era of fresh guitar bands breathing new life into an industry and specific music style that did, I concede, appear to be running out of ideas.

There always has been and always will be bands out there for us to hear, enjoy and celebrate; they might be staring you right in the face but you haven’t noticed yet. Being stuck in your ways of the “good old days” is fine, don’t get me wrong I love delving into the sounds of 90s Radiohead or the late 70s movements of Joy Division and The Clash; but in order for us to continue seeing an evolution of “band music” we must support the modern day acts.

The flavour of the month right now and perhaps one of the defining sounds of this era is the idea of punk rebellion. Ever since their plunge into the commercial music world in 2017, Bristol-based punk band IDLES have had their finger firmly on the pulse of modern society; addressing current issues and condemning those of higher authority. It’s the kind of anti-establishment musical behaviour we’ve seen before with the 70s punk movement, but this time we are looking at methodical chaos. The likes of IDLES, Fontaines D.C., Shame and Parquet Courts are lyrically conscious and daring, but use the aggression of punk instrumentals to cut through the fourth wall. To put it bluntly, if these bands emerged in the original punk movement alongside the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks, they would be megastars; but these days they are just patted on the back for a jolly good message.

Our biggest problem as consumers of music is that we complain about the lack of “big name bands” yet don’t support them enough to make them big names? Take Foals for instance, they are in the form of their lives right now, but have been at the top of their game ever since their debut album Antidotes in 2008. They have a grand total of ZERO number one albums, despite being in the run-in towards their SIXTH release. Their music is hardly difficult to digest, it’s varied rock music that can be as soothing as it is raucous at times; banger after banger rules their discography and quite frankly they deserve more praise.

That’s not to say bands need to be formulaic to be successful. A prime example is the work of black midi, one of the outright strangest bands I’ve ever heard, but their utterly mesmerising style becomes almost impossible to ignore. Some of the most legendary guitar music ever stemmed from pure unadulterated madness, just look at King Crimson and Frank Zappa; icons who offered a unique touch that is very much welcomed in the scene. Profound imaginations and ethereal ideas often make for the best sounding music so bands like the aforementioned black midi as well as alt-J and Glass Animals amongst others, will have a lasting platform.

The bands that survive and prosper are the ones who aren’t naïve. By that I of course mean being able to be flexible and experimental. Trying new things out is an absolute must if guitar music is to remain a relevancy in an increasingly digital music industry. When I think of bands and variation, only one name comes to mind: King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. They have released FOURTEEN albums in just seven years, which in itself is remarkable; but add to that the fact that each album adopts a different genre and sonic focus, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a band.

Linking in with this, I believe it’s important for bands to embrace the more modern sounds and integrate them into their own music if they see fit. A maestro of this motive is Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, someone who has dominated the world of synth-pop alongside psychedelic-rock; he is as comfortable with a guitar in his hand as he is behind an arpeggiator. This, in my mind, is the short-term direction guitar music needs to go in if we are to see it return to the promised land of commercial glory.

There are bands who shatter the glass ceiling, you just need to look at the success of The 1975 over the past few years for instance. They went from a quirky pop-rock group to a socially aware powerhouse, headlining festivals and arenas all over the world; with Matty Healy being labelled as the voice of a generation (despite not being quite to everyone’s taste). I’m aware that glitz and glamour aren’t the hallmarks of a great band, but fame and legacy can only truly be recognised in years to come if you had a big enough platform to broadcast your art.

Essentially though, we must not place the weight of expectation on our emerging bands. A common trick of music fans and journalists alike (myself included), is to instantly compare a new band to a band of old; something which does nothing but daunt people about the future prospects of the band in question. A band like The Amazons come along and the first thing we do is say “are the the next *insert band here*?” It must be flattering but you’d imagine a band don’t want to be the ‘next Foo Fighters’ when they could be the first of themselves.

It is far from a man’s game too. Much like the infamy of Blondie in the 70s and 80s, we are seeing a whole host of female fronted acts shred guitars and shatter perceptions. Wolf Alice proved their brilliance with a deserved Mercury Prize win in 2018, Kero Kero Bonito remain one of the most polarising groups of the decade while HAIM continue to dazzle with panache and style through the use of groovy guitar licks. Rock music has no gender limitations, a lesson that many need to invariably learn in order to help keep the ball rolling in the right direction.

The lines of support can be so very blurred, I’m not for one second saying we should stop everything and listen exclusively to bands and aim to abolish every genre going, because realistically some of the best and most important artists on the planet venture far away from traditional guitar sounds. There’s a reason Thom Yorke went lo-fi and electronic on his solo stuff, because it’s captivating and limitless with possibilities. There’s a reason Kendrick Lamar wins Pulitzer Prizes and headlines Coachella, it’s because rap music can be the purest form of poetry we have, it is a far more accessible platform for storytelling than rock music. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t be so quick to bunch guitar music together and write it off just because Lil Nas X went to the top of the charts, or because Billie Eilish is the name on everyone’s lips; embrace change in the music industry, don’t condemn it.

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