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Guitar Heroes

Throughout the web of modern music one golden thread is always to be seen and heard; the electric guitar. The ‘guitar’ or something like it has been around for thousands of years but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the first electric guitar was invented and used by jazz and blues musicians. Then, in the 50s electric guitar music exploded thanks to the likes of B.B. King and Chuck Berry. And, in the 1960s, we got The Beatles and The Rolling Stones; the original ‘guitar bands’ and from where all popular music since (cf pop music) has sprung.

Music is an essential part of our culture and has, in each decade since the 1960s, always featured prominent electric guitar bands. Sometimes other genres will be at the forefront; think disco music of the 70s, electronic music of the early 80s, trance/techno of the 90s. But behind them all will be one instrument; the guitar. No matter how much music trends change, the guitar always has been and always will be there. It’s an instrument the most of us first associate with music, the instrument we all think we can play. Even bands that do not have guitars will have (probably) initially crafted their songs on one.

But how do you define a guitar band? How many guitars must a guitar band have to be a ‘guitar band?’; does it have to be more than 2? Probably. I’d say the starting point to be defined as a guitar band is for there to be a lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar and drums. But having fewer guitars or other instruments does not necessarily mean the band cannot be classed as a ‘guitar’ band (indie-punk trio Dream Wife, for example)

And does all this mean there is a distinct ‘guitar band’ sound? No. The Beatles and Metallica started out with the same instruments but their sounds are completely distinct and different. It’s not what you’ve got it’s how you use them.

This makes us very lucky because it means that ‘guitar bands’ can fit into many genres; punk (The Sex Pistols), grunge (Nirvana), garage (The Strokes), new wave (The Cure), Britpop (Oasis), and rock (Foo Fighters). Some of you may disagree with my classifications but you get my point.

One genre of music occupied by ‘guitar bands’ is what has been called ‘power pop or pop punk’. Unfortunately, for me, the first bands that spring to mind when I think of power pop are Busted and McFly, successful UK bands with songs like ‘That’s What I Go To School For’ and ‘Five Colours In Her Hair’ that appealed largely to the teenage audience (not sure what that says about me, come to think of it.) Although both mainstream, those bands, with their saccharine lyrics, only served to water down the genre previously filled by bands like Green Day and Blink-182.

But, Bad Moves, a perfectly balanced 4 piece from Washington DC have taken the unmistakable sound of power pop and given it a more, up to date and meaningful flavour. Formed in 2016, they are guitarist David Combs, bassist Emma Cleveland, guitarist Katie Park, and drummer Daoud Tyler-Ameen (they all contribute to the vocals) and have just released their first album. Thanks to bands like those I mentioned earlier power pop is sometimes regarded as a little cheesy but there is an intelligence and reflective maturity to this album which perfectly, not least in the lyrics of the 12 tracks.

As if to prove a point the opening track on Bad Moves new album ‘Tell No One’ (Don Giovanni Records) opens with one of the bass lines that make you sit up and listen. ‘Change Your Mind’ is 2 minutes 20 seconds of blistering guitar pop complete with feedback and an anthemic chorus.

One of the recurring themes of the album, building on its title is about how, starting from childhood, we carry regrets with us throughout our life when perhaps, if given the chance, we should talk about our fears and concerns when they arise. However, institutions like the police, religion, the media and even our own parents never give us the opportunity. The expectation put on us as children weighs heavy and inevitably leave us with self -esteem issues. The upbeat power pop guitars and vocals belie the darker edge of the lyrics in some of the songs. In ‘Out Of Reach’ for example they sing

‘Fearful child You'd lie awake at night In bleak envisioning, visioning A prophet’s end Through a heretic lens Nobody listening, listening’

It’s an unpleasant image, something that most people can relate to, yet they address it full on, with no apology (not that one is required of course). One of the positive aspects of the re-emergence of guitar bands is that they’re also using their music to say something, a concept that has been missing for a while (for another example, listen to the Idles track ‘Samaritans’ about the toxicity of masculinity).

For me, ‘Cool Generator’ is the stand out track of the album and the one most likely to get the gig goers going. It’s classic rousing power pop, with gleeful guitars and vocals and a simple bass line leading to one of those choruses which, somehow, you already know. But once again, despite the catchy melodies, the message in the lyrics is meaningful. The track reflects on how culture or ideas can be appropriated and commoditized often at the expense of the people who were originally responsible for it or generated it.

‘In the eyes of every cop, don’t it seem to say

“It’s criminal. It’s written in the code of your DNA.”

But the pillage and the take, it don’t ever stop

‘Cause that’s the way they generate, oh’

Bad Moves have not toured these shores but be sure to keep an eye out for them if they do. I’m sure their live set will be invigorating.

The beauty of music is that, as time passes, creative musicians and artists come up with yet another sound that grabs us by the throat (this constantly amazes me). But for me the sound of a ‘guitar’ band, especially live, is what makes the hairs on my neck stand up on end and dance. Whether it’s the opening bass line (check out ‘Molotov Alcopop’ by Cabbage) or the riff (‘The Man’ by Goat Girl), the sound of a full on guitar band does something to me. I defy you to keep your hands behind your back or down by your side and resist playing air guitar when this happens.

So, the musical landscape has always featured ‘guitar’ bands. Sometimes they have to make way for other genres (grime being one of the most recent) but every now and then they multiply and come to the forefront again.

In the last year or two we have witnessed a revival or re-emergence of guitar bands. They’ve always been there, of course, but at the moment we are spoilt for choice with more and more guitar bands coming to the fore in the national and international music scene. Some worthy of honourable mention here are (in no particular order) Black Honey, Idles, Dream Wife, the afore-mentioned Bad Moves, Drahla, and Middle Kids but there are plenty more. Although they’re essentially the same, they all sound different; compare Middle Kids’ ‘Edge Of Town’ with Drahla’s ‘Third Article’ for example. Both bands have female vocalists, both have guitars and drums but ‘Edge Of Town’ has a country music edge to it and Drahla’s a post-punk one.

I listened to both bands before I went to see them within a week of each other and to be honest, Drahla’s offerings floated my boat more (I like a bit of anger in my guitar music).

However, seen live, there was not much to separate them. Middle Kids, hailing from Sydney, had travelled over 10000 miles to play at ThinkTank (not just ThinkTank!). The usual line up comprises Hannah (vocals, guitar), Tim (guitar and married to Hannah) and Harry (drums). This is a classic guitar band set up but in truth Hannah is a classically trained pianist, Tim is a multi-instrumentalist and Harry the drummer is a former student of jazz music. Of course, this is no bad thing but part of me could not help wondering whether they formed Middle Kids because guitar bands is where it’s at.

And they’re very good at being a live guitar band too; I much preferred their live performance to the (in my view, over produced) album. Their well written songs sounded more real, with more energy and feeling which maybe comes with playing instruments on a stage in front of a crowd instead of separately through recording equipment.

Middle Kids’ proficiency as musicians means that their set is so tight it is virtually hermetically sealed but this doesn’t detract from the performance. They’ve even drafted in a mate called Cameron to play slide guitar, so they can give us even more of a guitar band experience. They’re oozing confidence (I suspect this may be partly due to their ‘Ozziness’ but it’s mainly down to the fact that they can PLAY.) They deliver songs mainly from their new album ‘Lost Friends’ (Lucky Number Music) including ‘Don’t Be Hiding,’ ‘Mistake’ and ‘Bought It’ which showcase their talent for writing rousing anthemic choruses. We’re also given a glimpse of Hannah’s musical roots when she downs her guitar to give us a couple of songs from the keyboard (she’s an extraordinary vocalist too - her voice is both gentle enough for a ballad and strong enough to cut through heavy guitar riffs).

The stand out songs though were the rousing ‘Edge of Town’ and the rocking ‘On My Knees’ - these brought both the band and the crowd jumping up and down which is all that any self respecting guitar band wants at the end of the day.

I must say I was surprised by the relatively small but obviously dedicated crowd that turned up given that Sir Elton John is a fan - I’m sure it’s only a matter of time that they’ll be playing to bigger audiences in the UK. For classically trained musicians they can rock.

Drahla at The Cluny a week later were altogether different. But before I get onto them I have to mention their touring partners, Sleep Eaters. I always make a point of trying to see support acts because, well, you just never know and in any case they deserve support themselves.

Sleep Eaters are a five piece from London and Essex. I immediately warmed to their gun-slinging attitude in the delivery of their songs - it was as though they just crashed through the doors of a Spaghetti Western saloon bar. Like Middle Kids, the band includes a slide guitarist - although I must confess I initially thought he was playing keyboards, playing the guitar as he was, rested on his knees. The ended their rip-roaring set with their current single, ‘Ghost On Fire.’ Reminiscent of the punk/rockabilly outfit from the 1980s, Screaming Blue Messiahs, these are ones to watch. I liked them so much, I bought the T-shirt.

Next up were Headclouds, a local 5 piece band, with their jangle pop and melodic vocals. Nice to listen to, their sound reminded me of the band Turin Brakes but they looked a little bit out of place sandwiched between two heavier sounding bands.

The headliners, Drahla, hail from Leeds, and are one of the up-and-coming guitar bands to be reckoned with. They’ve already received a lot of critical acclaim up and down the country as well as from the continent and they were returning to the area after a recent barn-storming gig at The Cumberland Arms. Initially booked to headline The Cluny 2, they found themselves playing in the main venue after the Spitfires gig was cancelled. For a three-piece guitar band, they pack an almighty punch. Luciel Brown, the lead singer and guitarist, has this unassuming way about her on stage but at the same time positively bristles with attitude. This is a good thing and it comes through in her guitar playing, dragging sounds from it you wouldn’t expect. The same goes for Rob Riggs, the bassist - the way he shredded the strings on it, I wouldn’t be surprised if his fingers were swathed in bandages the following morning. Mike Ainsley, on drums, also puts in a heavy shift keeping the songs motoring along.

Between them they produce a jerky, wiry, angular sound that’s been described as post punk. It is but it’s also more than that and they are quickly forging their own recognisable sound. Luciel’s vocals absolutely complements what they do with their guitars - the lyrics are sometimes spoken, sometimes chanted and sometimes sung but never shouty or shrill.

The music industry predicts big things for Drahla and I hope it’s right.

The last couple of weeks has confirmed to me what I’ve always really known; that watching a guitar band live is probably one of the best music spectacles there is. There’s no fancy set up involved, it’s basically plug and play and the sounds that can be produced range from the sublime to the outrageously satisfying ridiculous. To me the electric guitar still rules the soundwaves; I’ve seen it used like an axe, a visceral and true weapon and at other times like a comfort blanket or a childhood favourite toy.

We shouldn’t see the current re-emergence of guitar bands as some sort of boom and bust cycle to gorge on because they will always form part of the music culture. Instead, let’s wallow in what’s available to us instead - luckily for us, music is more accessible than ever.