Twitter was awash with mockery last week, after Adam Levine, the singer of the American group Maroon 5, was interviewed on Apple Music and told Zane Lowe: ‘It’s funny, when the first Maroon 5 album came out there were still other bands. I feel like there aren’t any bands any more, you know?’ Out came the outraged, citing their favourite bands with fanbases numbering in the dozens. What about the fertile deep sludge scene based around Pimple Nose Records of Butt Wipe, Montana, eh? Then there were the K-Pop stans, demanding BTS — a seven-piece vocal group who, had they been formed in England in the 1990s, would clearly have been a boyband — be recognised as functionally equivalent to the Rolling Stones (there’s no moral judgment there, BTS stans. Just the fact that, to be a band, you have to play some instruments).
Taken in context, though, Levine’s comments were perfectly reasonable. Bands now exist on the periphery. In Levine’s world —the absolute middle of the road; the very heart of the mainstream — new bands have disappeared. When recording industry revenues began declining with the advent of digital music, the major labels began signing solo acts instead — they’re so much cheaper to launch — and never bothered to return to bands when the Spotify money started streaming back in.
All of which leaves us in a place where Black Country, New Road, the most acclaimed new band of 2021, are so far from the mainstream that they could catch a flight to it, and still need to rent a car for a six-hour drive at the other end. This London septet — with sax and violin prominent in the mix — combine various strands of English experimental rock (there are echoes of the Canterbury scene, Van Der Graaf Generator, the Fall) into something that, if not new, is without a direct competitor at the moment.
Isaac Wood’s voice is likely to be the stumbling block for many listeners. He doesn’t sing; he intones, with a desperately arch quaver in his voice. On their livestream, that gave his lyrics a sense of confused gravitas I’m not quite sure they yet merit. He’s an interesting writer with a gift for arresting imagery — ‘I met her accidentally/ It was at the Cambridge Science Fair/ And she was so impressed I could make so many things catch on fire,’ began ‘Science Fair’ — but I’m not convinced there’s depth beneath the imagery just yet.
There was something truly thrilling in there when the ramshackle and the disciplined combined, falling into place like jigsaw-puzzle pieces whose shapes fit perfectly but have mismatching pictures on them. The conclusion of ‘Basketball Shoes’, as the band ramped up and up and up, joined by a choir scattered around the seating of the QEH, was a glorious moment. Truthfully, though, the livestream is not their milieu. Listen to their debut album on headphones or, when the world reopens, try to catch them in a small room if you can. You need to be enveloped by this kind of thing. It depends on suspension of disbelief, and a cat mewling for your attention breaks the spell.
Another of this year’s best received albums has been Isles, by the Northern Irish duo Bicep, whose selling point is that they make dance music that people who used to rave in 1995 can listen to at home with a nice Merlot, instead of coming home saucer-eyed and drenched with sweat at five in the morning. The retro vibe extended — perhaps unintentionally — to the visuals. When we weren’t watching Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar fiddle with electronics in a blank white room, we were watching the kind of colour and picture manipulation that would once have been preceded by Michael Rodd saying: ‘Tonight on Tomorrow’s World, how computers will change the way we look at the world.’
Bicep were bloggers before they became artists, famed for their exquisite taste, and this was an exquisitely tasteful show —sounds layered beautifully and manipulated precisely. The way they combined the different elements was delicious. Where rock limits itself to a small sonic palette, electronic music can employ any noise imaginable. Finding a blend of sounds that complement each other is harder than it sounds. It must be like having every ingredient in the world at your disposal, and having to use ten of them to create something delicious without ever ending up with chilli, strawberries and ribeye on the same plate. Obviously, huge swathes must have been preprogrammed, but how they fiddled with the sound live altered the music enough to make it a compellingly different experience from putting on the albums and watching your screensaver. It was dance music for those of us whose knees will no longer stand anything more rigorous on a weekend night than walking upstairs to bed, and wonderful for it.