When Rock goes Electro

October 13, 2009

In music news this week, British indie quartet Editors have just dropped their third LP, In This Light and on This Evening. Over the years, the band has continuously drawn criticism for being too similar to seminal post-punk outfit Joy Division. Well, on this album they’ve tackled these criticisms head on, and turned down the road that so many indie bands seem to go down- by ditching the rock and turning electro. But why is it that bands feel they must give up playing real instruments and experiment so early on? And is it a career-ender, or can it be a positive thing? This post looks at some case studies, both good and bad, to find out…

In theory, bands progressing and experimenting with their sound is a good thing. Looking at an artist’s back catalogue and realising that it’s difficult to differentiate between each album is pretty much a cardinal sin. But it remains to be seen whether all these indie-rock bands are branching out to electronic instruments because it’s a natural career path, or if they are simply experimenting for the sake of experimenting. First up, it’s necessary to look at one of the most lauded bands in recent history: Radiohead.

Case Study 1

Band: Radiohead

Album: Kid A

Number: 4

Released: October 2000

Verdict: Success, of course.

To say that this trend began with Radiohead’s fourth LP at the turn of the millenium would be naive, but it can’t be denied that they helped it push it along a little bit. After the release of OK Computer, still one of the greatest rock albums of the 1990’s, the music world was waiting with baited breath for the follow up. But Radiohead did what Radiohead do best, and surprised everyone by releasing a sparse electronic album entirely different from its predecessor. The opening chords on Everything in its Right Place paved the way for an album that was imaginative, eccentric and sometimes just downright strange. Initially it divided fans and critics, but despite the original disagreement it still stands as one of the greatest albums of the decade. Just a few months later the band surprised everyone again by releasing another album titled Amnesiac, proving that it wasn’t just a once off move. And Radiohead have just kept getting better since.

Case Study 2

Band: Bloc Party

Album: Intimacy

Number: 3

Released: August 2008

Verdict: Questionable

When Bloc Party released their debut LP Silent Alarm in 2004, indie kids everywhere rejoiced at a frenetic, rhythmic and dark but somehow incredibly danceable album. Many critics praised it as proof of just how good British bands can be, and it ended up winning a number of awards. Their second album though didn’t quite stack up to everyone’s expectations, and by the third album Intimacy rolled along, they had ditched their finely-tuned brand of indie-rock completely, and replaced it with a more electronic, dance sound. While Intimacy is possibly their strongest album lyrically, and that central-theme of loss running through the album certainly gives it coherence, there just seemed to be something missing. The urgency of the first album just wasn’t there. Whether Bloc Party return to their roots or continue with this genre remains to be seen.

Case Study 3

Artist: Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Album: It’s Blitz

Number: 3

Released: April 2009

Verdict: A success, mostly.

They say everything that is old is new again. And with the amount of bands at the moment harking back to the dance-synth days of the 80’s, that adage has never been more true. The YYYs third album saw a complete turn around from their raw, garage rock origins. Full of danceable beats, synths and more electronica than you can poke a stick at, the album divided fans but mostly pleased critics, and gained a lot more mainstream airplay. If you consider It’s Blitz as an album on its own without considering the YYY’s history, it’s pretty damn good. But it’s just missing that edge that was so wonderful in their first couple of releases. Then again, Karen O can really do no wrong in my books.

Case Study 4

Band: Editors

Album: In This Light and on This Evening

Number: 3

Released: October 2009

Verdict: Unfortunate

Poor Editors. Right from the beginning they’ve been slammed as being a carbon copy of Joy Division. And with the moody, atmospheric themes and lead singer Tom Smith’s deep voice, it’s definitely understandable. But if you judge their first album The Back Room purely on its music and forget about it’s influences, it’s actually a really good indie-rock album. While the second LP An End has a Start faltered a bit in its haste to please the commercial masses, the stadium-sized rock suited the band well. But this third album sounds like it’s come straight out of a bad 80’s disco. First single Papillon has so much synth it could be mistaken for Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams are Made of These. An even bigger shame though is that there’s actually some decent tracks on the album. The title-track opener, with Smith’s baritone vocals, is gorgeous. But it just seem like they tried too hard in their transition to electronica. If you can get your hands on bonus EP Cuttings II, it’s much rawer, and much more rewarding.

Certainly, only four bands moving into the realms of electronic/dance music in their sophomore releases- even if it’s not a third (or fourth) album- doesn’t necessarily prove the theory. But it doesn’t take much looking to see that there’s plenty more. Is it just because music is inherently cyclical and we’re all going back to the 80’s? Or is this truly a natural progression? Radiohead amongst others have proved that when you can do it right, the results can be very, very rewarding. But it’s the dozens of copy-cat bands doing the same thing just because it’s the ‘in-thing’ that is disappointing. Hopefully Editors can regain some of their credibility with their next release. Or maybe they’ll surprise everyone and actually do something original. Like a hip-hop album. Now wouldn’t that be interesting!

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