Laptop Rebels – Why 2014’s Electronic Music Was More Punk Than Punk

Punk [noun]
Music that eschews perceived excesses of mainstream rock. Often fast, hard-edged music, typically with short songs, stripped-down instrumentation and political anti-establishment lyrics. Punk embraces a DIY ethic with many bands self-producing recordings and distributing them through informal channels.

There were some stunning guitar-based punk rock releases this year from the likes of Against Me, The Lawrence Arms and Brawlers. With short, sharp songs, perceptive lyrics and intense live performances throughout, the spirit of ‘traditional’ punk is alive and well in such bands. But the term gets more and more safe every year with the likes of tweenpoppers 5 Seconds Of Summer appearing in alternative rock press, the proliferation of misogyny in pop punk lyrics and t-shirt designs, or even emo faves Real Friends’ continuing refusal to grow up (I loved the EP but the album – and their Twitter feed – is plagued by unnecessary woe-is-me clichés).

But then I realised that punk 2014 isn’t necessarily in the hands of washed up dinosaurs such as Green Day or the three chord regurgitations of airbrushed boy bands with tattoos. In fact, the DIY ethos and ‘anyone can do it’ attitude is alive and well in bedrooms and basements around the world, populated by kids making electronic music with little more than some cracked software and a wifi connection. Even with the most basic set up it’s possible to make a record, release yourself it via Bandcamp, and promote it on social media and blogs (such as this fine publication you’re currently reading), all without shutting down your computer or needing to put a penny in the hands of the so called music industry. And what could be more punk than that?

Anyone can participate in this new punk revolution, as you’d be pushed to find a college or school without some element of music technology education available. And the age-old prejudices of gender, race and sexuality that guitar-punk claims to fight against need not apply. Whether black or white, male or female, straight, gay or trans, you’re an anonymous SoundCloud URL just like everyone else.

In the way that singers used to leave rock bands and go it alone with an acoustic guitar it wasn’t too long ago that Sonny Moore left post-hardcore heroes From First To Last to make electronic music on little more than a laptop and some readily available software, consequently redefining a genre alongside the likes of Excision and Noisia. Without getting into the trolls’ favourite debate about what is and what isn’t dubstep/brostep/whatever (no Skrillex didn’t invent it, yes other people also used distorted bass wobbles way before he did, we get it) he essentially took heavy metal riffs and transferred them to ear shattering synth noises. Finally releasing his debut album this year, with a mix of bass-centric styles aside from his early work, he’s become the poster boy for the laptop generation. The sound he pioneered has been appropriated, gentrified and made safe for public consumption through the vacuum of radio EDM (a term as soulless as it is meaningless) in the same way that mainstream pop punk filtered out the serious bits of its predecessor to leave a throwaway shell – it might look the same on the outside but it’s empty on the inside!

Some of my own favourite ‘punk’ releases this year have come from electronic artists such as Heartsrevolution, a fantastic producer and vocalist duo (plus live drummer) whose mission it is to put the heart back into music. 2014 saw the release of the Ride And Die album. Renowned for touring in unorthodox ways such as their trademark homemade ice cream truck, lead singer Leyla ‘Lo’ Safai out-punked her rock band contemporaries with a scathing attack on manufactured pop and celebrity-obsessed culture in the likes of ‘Kill Your Radio’ and ‘Brillianteen’. With a good helping of riot grrrl empowerment and political lyrics alongside a musical mix of New York garage rock, French house, and J-pop melodies the result is a revolution that is both affecting and accessible.

Another defining and defying record of the year came from house producer Drew Daniel and his The Soft Pink Truth project. Following on from his fantastic hardcore punk covers album Do You Want New Wave (Or Do You Want The Soft Pink Truth), his third full-length under this pseudonym takes the even less likely subject matter of black metal and reforms it, via some truly ridiculous 90’s rave samples, into an experimental dance music context. Drew, who also performs with his boyfriend in electronic duo Matmos, is a lifelong fan of punk and metal and made Why Do The Heathen Rage as both a salute to the genre and a baiting challenge to its regrettable reputation for homophobia and violence. Irreverent about the past, pushing new boundaries of music and noise, and promoting equality and acceptance along the way, this is everything punk should be in 2014.

Embracing the DIY, doing whatever the hell you want, and inspiring others to do the same. This Christmas, the future trailblazers of punk won’t be asking for a Squier strat and a fuzzbox, but a PC World bargain and a copy of Ableton. I guess they were right all along, the Dell really does have all the best tunes.

Review: Angels and Airwaves – The Dream Walker

Angels and Airwaves - The Dream Walker reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - British punk, rock and alternative blog

From the start, there was always something about Angels and Airwaves that didn’t sit right with me. It wasn’t anything to do with who was in the band – after all, AVA has always featured a veritable superhuman lineup, right from day one. It wasn’t really Tom Delonge’s self-righteous attitude on earlier albums. We all think we’ve stumbled upon the best thing since sliced bread at some point in our lives, it’s just that most of us don’t proclaim it loudly in the music press. It wasn’t even the weird space theme, because I bloody love space.

No, I think what put me off Angels and Airwaves was that none of it ever felt focused. Every song seemed too long, too floaty with no real point to it. And if Delonge wanted to do that, then he was very much allowed to, and everyone just let him get on with it. Whether you’re a Blink-182 fan or not, you can’t deny that they’ve always been very to the point. However, with The Dream Walker, they’ve turned a huge corner. Now, AVA’s the baby of Delonge and the extremely talented Ilan Rubin, who you might have seen on tour with Nine Inch Nails earlier this year. All of the potential that AVA have carried and never quite reached all this time just reached fever-pitch.

The truth is, The Dream Walker isn’t even that cohesive. Of course, you’ve got those big space rock tunes, but then you’ve got songs that wouldn’t be amiss on a Tears For Fears record, weirdly funky disco numbers, and downbeat, almost goth tracks. And then there are tracks that, if you took away the electronics, sound like they’d be part of the new Blink-182 album, like ‘Mercenaries’. The important thing is that everything has so much more bite to it. The guitar tones have always worked in an AVA record, but in this one, Delonge’s found the perfect balance between atmosphere and aggression. That’s no doubt got something to do with Rubin, and his presence on this record can’t be denied. It’s sharper, tighter, with a more industrial tone in places – the fantastic ‘Paralysed’ is a great example of this.

Delonge’s permitted to wander at places, but never to the point where it gets tiresome. There are no six-minute epics on here. Take ‘Tremors’, my favourite track on the record. With its heavy synths, jangly guitars, big woahs and 80s rhythms, it perfectly sums up everything that this record is and pinpoints exactly where AVA have been reaching all along. It all finishes off with the beguiling ‘Anomaly’, which indeed lives up to its namesake. In it, you get the true feeling of this ‘dream walker’, as this acoustic ballad with weird, syncopated beats sings you out. It’s pretty. Pretty in the way that you probably didn’t expect.

And then, there’s the story. Apparently, all of this record ties in with a central character called Poet Anderson and there’s even a short film to go with it. I didn’t even notice. But then, I didn’t need to. The mark of a great concept album is that you don’t even care about the concept, but if you want to dig, then it’s all there. It’s not a heavy-going story, like Coheed and Cambria or Armor For Sleep might be, but the voice that’s telling is warm and familiar, and it’s worth sticking along for the ride.

It might be near blasphemy to say it, but The Dream Walker feels more like home than Blink-182’s Neighbourhoods ever did. Even if they’re two different beasts that one should never compare. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, but this is Delonge’s biggest triumph in years. And I truly hope that it will be remembered.

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4 out of 5 high fives!

Robyn’s Top 10 Records of 2014

Another year is over, and what a bloody great one it’s been for music. This year has seen records that I know will stand the test of time. Records that are innovative, playful, punk-as-fuck and just plain catchy. Normally, this list is comprised of just albums – I tend to find I sink my teeth into those much more readily – but this year, I’ve had to alter my expectations and a few EPs can be found here too. Here’s my snapshot of 2014 – grab a cuppa and get stuck in.

Caves - Leaving reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - British punk, indie and alternative zine

Leaving is Bristolian punk rock at its finest. Brutally honest, charmingly melodic and just damn good. The perfect antidote to blustery winter days, Leaving is truly quite wonderful, and the kind of record that finds itself clinging on hard to your stereo. As it’s an EP, it’s not that long, and inevitably ends up leaving you craving more. It also happens to be the finest record that Caves have done to date – check out our review for more.

Brody Dalle - Diploid Love reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - British punk, rock and alternative blog

A glorious return from the queen of punk, Diploid Love is a far more mature record than any of Brody’s previous outings. Main single ‘Meet the Foetus/Oh the Joy’, featuring Shirley Manson, is probably good enough to enter this list itself, but there’s plenty of fantastic moments threaded throughout. Even the bizarre Casio keyboard. There’s a definite QOTSA influence cropping up in the guitar tones, but that just serves to make Diploid Love even sharper and cleverer. We headed down to the Birmingham show earlier this year and had our minds blown.

New Found Glory - Resurrection reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - British pop-punk, rock and alternative blog

NFG’s eighth record, and their first without founding member Steve Klein, is an absolute banger. A fantastic return to form, this record proves exactly why pop-punk isn’t dead. I’ve been a huge NFG fan for years, but it’s not all been plain sailing. However, Resurrection harks back to those early days, with songs reminiscent of the incredible Sticks and Stones, but with a much older and wiser feel. It’s still all about girls and staying posi, but it’s damn catchy. It also makes it impossible to forget who really invented the pop-punk beatdown.

The Lawrence Arms - Metropole reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - British punk, rock and alternative blog

Have The Lawrence Arms ever brought out a bad record? The answer, is of course, ‘no’. Another solid entry to the discography, Metropole has a more down-to-earth feel than some of the band’s earlier records, but it still has that same great storytelling capacity that The Lawrence Arms are famed for. It’s also crazy that this is the first full album since Oh! Calcutta! in 2006, but it was more than worth the wait, if only for ‘Drunk Tweets’ alone.

Issues reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - British metal, rock and alternative blog

Imagine if Justin Timberlake and Architects got together and jammed. Got that ridiculous notion in your head? You know, if that ever happened, you’d probably end up with the debut album from Issues. IT’S METALCORE MIXED WITH R&B. The how and why are so far past being relevant right now, you just need to know that it exists and that it’s brilliant. Tyler Carter’s vocals are sublime, the songwriting is surprisingly intricate, and truth be told, I’ve never had so much fun listening to a metal record.

Bangers - Mysterious Ways reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - West Midlands punk, rock and alternative blog

Bangers had the mental idea that they were going to write and record a whole bunch of songs in 48 hours, then put whatever they came up with onto a tape. And you know what? It turned out more than okay. Mysterious Ways is classic Bangers, through and through, but it’s also a lot more spontaneous, as one might expect, and it ends up being a whole lot of fun. If you missed out on purchasing this, just try and find a YouTube upload of ‘Mosquito’ somewhere. Totally worth it.

Say Anything - Hebrews reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - UK punk, rock and alternative zine

Hebrews is bizarre. Not content with the usual guitar-bending, synth-melding pop-rock bonanza that usually forms a Say Anything record, Max Bemis decided to enlist a string orchestra and went analogue, baby. Even so, half of the riffs on here (coming from violins) are still some of the punkest sounding things I’ve heard in a long time. Also, in true Say Anything style, Max pulls in all of his buddies to guest star, with some pretty surprising results. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but Hebrews is one of the most mind-blowing records of the year.

Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - UK rock, indie and alternative zine

Andrew McMahon’s first ‘solo’ album proper is one of the most beautiful pop records you’ll hear this decade. After deciding that it was time to move on from Jack’s Mannequin, Andrew decided to travel from studio to studio, practice space to practice space, and came up with ten incredible tracks. Each song has its own personality and identity in a way that most major pop artists struggle to achieve, and the record as a whole is a perfect example of highly emotionally intelligent songwriting. We were lucky enough to interview him earlier this year, and that’s possibly the coolest thing I’ve done with this zine.

Cayetana - Nervous Like Me reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - UK punk, alternative and indie zine

Nervous Like Me totally knocked me for six. I’ve been following Cayetana since their first demo was released and they got picked up by Tiny Engines, but I didn’t expect an album that was so clever, so raw and yet so polished, and ultimately, so incredible. The Philly trio have become masters of melody in just a short time, having formed in 2011 while hardly ever having touched an instrument in their lives. We gave this 5 out of 5 earlier in the year, and wouldn’t hesitate to give that score all over again.

Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - British punk, rock and alternative blog

Bold. Brave. Beautiful. That’s what Transgender Dysphoria Blues is. There probably wasn’t any other way an Against Me! record could have gone, after Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender, but the result was a cathartic, vitriolic and ultimately enthralling record. Laura’s always been one of the best songwriters in the business, and the sheer variance of sound and style on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, while still sounding like a coherent whole, is testament to that. Everything sounds so good. Even if you can only really sing along to the line ‘you’ve got no cunt in your strut’ in the car on your own. Is it the best Against Me! record? To be honest, I’m going to hazard a yes – no other Against Me! record has ever felt this free, and it’s glorious.

Review: Wank For Peace – Fail Forward

Wank For Peace - Fail Forward reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - British punk, hardcore and rock blog

It’s getting closer to Christmas, so perhaps it’s apt that we’re bringing you something you could easily love or hate. Even the name of this band is liable to conjure up either feelings of humour and admiration, or a strong and lasting distaste. What is this band you ask? Wank For Peace. Childish, or amusing? Is the music going to good ol’ punk, or a lazy arrogant effort by people who think they’re more funny than they are? Don’t worry, we asked ourselves all of these questions as well, but if you like a bit of edgy punk, we think you’ll like this! Even if you don’t fancy a bit of hardcore punk, just be grateful, it’s not like we’re just giving you socks for Christmas, is it?!

Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Wank For Peace, they’re not a band I had stumbled across either, but it seems they have become a household name on the European punk scene. The French quintet have used 2014 to burst out of the Euro-DIY punk community, bringing with them their new LP Fail Forward. Its 13 tracks never stray too far from the murky waters that separate good rustic DIY punk and what I usually call ‘shit masquerading as punk-rock’. For the first couple of listens I couldn’t decide whether I had found a new favourite, a hot-bed of hardcore, melodic punk rock, or whether I was taking more time to listen and review the record than had been put in to making it. So maybe the ambiguous feelings that stir when presented with their name is appropriate, but after a few more listens I can happily (and tentatively?) say that Fail Forward’s punk-laced and anger-fueled mayhem shouldn’t be simply dismissed!

Sure, you can find all of the clichés you might expect on a hardcore punk album, with backup chants galore and lyrics full of self-loathing. The drum pattern doesn’t change all that much throughout the whole album and the lead vocals do remind me of the rants and ravings of a chain-smoking drunk, but even while I’m typing this I know I’m being a little unfair … Opening track ‘Friends First’ crashes into life with screams out of insanity and hollow, grinding guitars. The distorted power chords shattering against the rocky, crunching vocals. It’s fast and sharp, like a dagger between the ribs, just as punk should be. ‘Heavy Shoulders’ showcases a nice bit of melodic punk, with catchy pop-punkish guitar riffs, but keeps the harsh edge, and ‘How High Can You Fall’ plays on angsty teenage feelings of desperation, which certainly works well with the vocals which are searing and rasping in equal parts. It just goes to show that sounding like a pissed off, drunk, chain-smoker can actually work well – I’m not even being sarcastic.

‘Was That What You Expected Kid’ is a track you would expect after hearing ‘Heavy Shoulders’, keeping some of the melodic features alive in the album with an anthemic chorus, while remaining a potent force of guitars smashing and shredding, the drums clattering and vocals cutting you to the bone. ‘Choices/Feedback’ and ‘Mea Culpa’ are the shortest and most obviously full-blooded punk songs on the album, and both sound like they’re racing to the end as quickly as they possibly can. They certainly have the potential for being great live songs by a band that loves to tour and tear shit up. ‘Five Steps To Nothing’ also strikes me as a force to behold in a Wank For Peace gig, with some awesome guitar parts and the ever-present trashy, hardcore growls.

So what does all of this say about Wank For Peace and Fail Forward? While it doesn’t do anything special to pull in new fans (it’s not unlike any of the hardcore punk you might hear elsewhere), it’s got to be worth a listen if this genre is the one for you. They don’t sound like they’re just copying other bands and despite the mixed feelings after the first few listens, they do sound like they’ve put a lot of effort into punching and kicking the album into shape, but it’s not going to blow your mind. Their live shows on the other hand, they might be something to behold …

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3.5 out of 5 high fives!

Notes from the Keybed – This Month In Synths [November/December 2014]

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Merry Synthmas, y’all!

It’s the countdown to Christmas and you’ll all be writing your lists for the big man in red, I’m sure. Stuck for ideas? Well, aside from Moog branded mugs and Roland 808 socks, there are some fantastic records on the horizon to fill a hole in your stocking or plug your own holes whilst the family murders another rendition of Deck The Halls…

Kicking off December comes a (sort of) brand new EP from personal favourites, Issues! I say only sort of brand new as it primarily consists of stripped-back versions of the biggest tunes from their self-titled album, as well as a couple of oldies such as the fantastic ‘Hooligans’. The RnB-core boys were responsible for one of my records of the year, combining ripping synths with pop hooks and metulz chugs. Whilst Diamond Dreams is set to be a more sedate affair, there are still plenty of jazzy keyboards, chilled electronic beats and, of course, those songs that won us all over at the start of the year.

Speaking of records of the year, topping my list alongside Issues would be Heartsrevolution’s electro punk odyssey Ride Or Die, Death From Above 1979’s long-awaited return on The Physical World, the quite frankly mental debut from Emperor Yes on An Island Called Earth, and Get Cape Wear Cape Fly’s delightful swan song London Royal. All of these would make perfect presents for synth-hungry music fans.

Next year is already shaping up to be a good one for music, with a new album from synth pop pioneers Ok Go! Lead single ‘I Won’t Let You Down’ packs in some tasty disco strings alongside the quartet’s penchant for catchy choruses and retro guitar and synth sounds. In typical Ok Go style, there is also an utterly bizarre video that is well worth watching. Expect single wheeled scooter dancing, a troupe of Japanese girls twirling umbrellas, and some unbelievable choreography. Standard ‘band playing in a room’ videos have never been their modus operandi but this one goes even further with a HTML5-based interactive version… as long as you’re using Chrome. Hungry Ghosts is available on download sites here in the UK from February but you can get it now if you’re over in the US.

Another early contender for 2015’s record of the year will certainly be the new offering from rave-rock crossover kings Enter Shikari. Singles from The Mindsweep are already suggesting a continuation of 2012’s monumental album A Flash Flood Of Colour, with the radio-friendly chorus in ‘The Last Garrison’ sitting alongside the bass-heavy tribal rhythms of ‘Anaesthetist’ and ambient intro into surprise hardcore beatdown on ‘Never Let Go Of The Microscope’! It’s set to be another mix of intelligent songwriting and boundary-breaking soundscapes from the genre-hopping foursome.

We said a lot of goodbyes to some established synth bands in 2014, it was clearly the year that new rave finally gave up the ghost (sob). Klaxons returned with their pleasant, if a bit bland, third album before playing a final run of shows, grindie kids Hadouken went on indefinite hiatus, and even hip-hop heroes Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip went their separate ways following a triumphant farewell tour. In addition, we lost noisy electro duo Crystal Castles, with frontwoman Alice Glass departing with the tantalising promise of a solo career for her and a separate continuation from producer Ethan Kath.

With so many great acts throwing in the towel it seemed a perfect time to salute a much missed Keytar Hero, Pete Cafarella from Shy Child. Technically, the synth and drums duo are still a going concern, but having not heard anything from them since 2010, any hopes of a new album have fast dwindled. However at the height of electro indie, Shy Child stood proudly aside from their competitors fronted by the keytar-totting Cafarella’s dancey riffs and New York drawl. Although he hung up the keytar in 2010 to concentrate on being a ‘serious band’ with regular horizontal ‘boards he remains a true hero of the instrument and an influence to shy nerdy synthesists across the globe. Stand up and step out y’all!

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