SOCIAL CRITICISM IN INDEPENDENT MUSIC: POST PUNK AND NEOLIBERALISM TURN FORTY
“Second just below first, in a landscape gunnin’ for obedience”
There’s class A new music releases everywhere you look right now across the five genres covered in our New Post Punk Dark Wave Cold Wave Shoegaze Post Rock Playlist on Spotify. Indeed, such is the quality on offer, in the time between now and when this playlist was born almost two years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find a time where we’ve shared 30 better. Not only is the quality of the music high, but the critical examination of the current state of society goes deep with every track making some statement large or small about the absence of ethics and integrity in world that’s embraced neoliberal values and corporate power. Corporate elites, with their neoliberal values may be ascendant in the mainstream world they ultimately created and sustain. But as powerful as these elites be, for as long as they exist and more, cultural expressions of criticism and resistance such as these will always serve to point out the folly of their existence and remind us all that these insanely wealthy people will never escape their ultimately empty and culturally bereft lives.
Neoliberalism, insidious for its ability to do maximum damage to the social fabric of society and remain terminology speaking largely invisible is a form of unbridled capitalism that sees “competition as the defining characteristic of human relations and recasts inequality as virtuous and a reward for utility and a generator of wealth”. Any government (in a representative democracy, that’s actually us), union (again, us) or collective involvement aimed at leveling the playing field is quickly targeted and either prevented or eliminated by use of mainstream media or manufactured crises, Since its capture of economic life, neoliberalism has become the cornerstone of mainstream society, a vacuous ideology that measures human worth according to status conferred and goods accumulated. This idea in itself is completely repulsive and anathema to DIY and independent music communities. Smart individuals in collective communities who not only resist its falsehoods but continue to, despite it, organically advance the human experience for those fortunate or determined enough to access it.
Neoliberalism’s birth pretty much coincided with that of post punk, and the independent DIY music culture that spawned the “indie” record label. And ever since, along with the dark wave and cold wave genres it spawned, it has invariably railed, either in angst and or detached disgust, at the lack of meaning and pointless aggrandisement at the core of the neoliberal project. Shoegaze sought to avert its eyes, distort and stretch reality all the while tuneful and melodic seeking to inspire hope, its softer side represented through dream pop. In its never ending search for purity, of all the genres Shoegaze artists are the least likely to offer their creations to streaming services, continuing to actively limit financial avenues they believe to be exploitative. The emotive and atmospheric crescendo driven Post Rock of the late 1990s delivered its criticism in both sonic blasts and cryptic critiques delivered via field samples, abstract cover art and cold and mechanised titles. It’s vocal silence often its biggest weapon.
The priceless intangibles valued by an independent and by nature open and creative culture – selfless sacrifice, intellectual inquiry, emotional exploration and inclusive community are thankfully completely foreign and without value to neoliberalism because it can neither measure, price or commodify them. It is equally unable to understand or recognise artistic creations born of altruistic endeavour. The base result then of neoliberalism’s exulted existence (represented musically by the major labels) is not clever co-option or cultural dominance but a strange frenzied form of cultural torpor ultimately lacking any lasting worth. Cultural works funneled through economic ideology devoid of emotional intellect and an ethical centre and full of incoherent contradiction and rank hypocrisy is bound to be pedestrian fare. As it is here, that’s fertile ground for socially critical lyricism.
It’s fitting then that at every turn in neoliberalism’s four decade old attempt to co-opt cultural movements it can’t understand, post-punk, dark wave and cold wave as well as shoegaze and post rock, themselves critical, creative and modernist responses to cultural malaise have been ever-present. Currently, and this hasn’t always been the case, all are good health and as these tracks indicate now serve simultaneously as social critics offering hope that one day there will be an end to a competitive ideology and dominant culture that stifles opportunity and ultimately endangers humanity.
Independent art’s intangibles are all over the first four tracks – all of a post rock bent. Idiosyncratic Missouri producer and multi-instrumentalist Whettman Chelmets delivers a trepidatious dronal assault through a fusion of genres that include both shoegaze and post rock. Austin via El Paso quartet Zealand The North capture the organic essence of human connection on their new single while the closing track from Cardiff outfit Aaronson’s debut four track EP is named after a literary masterpiece of humanist by Russian-American novelist and poet Vladimir Nabokov. Then there’s an impressive cut from the soundtrack to the high art Italian crime series ZEROZEROZERO, curated by none other than Glasgow post rock pioneers Mogwai.
There’s a dose of darkness via the sonic density created by Miami darkwave act Astari Nite’s and an eminently danceable bout of the bleak from DSM-V, the new project belonging to Marc Dwyer of Buzz Kull and Burning Rose/Pelvis Records owner Morgan Wright. The plaintive introspective dream pop gem is from They/Live, the retrowave project belonging to Los Angeles artist Whitney Mower.
The spoken word assaults are from London based Irish artist Sinead O’Brien and the Leeds based I LIKE TRAINS. Squarely in their sights is the establishment’s fixation on making its workforce perpetually anxious and subject to undefined notions of “continuous improvement” and “managing change” that take no cues from reality. Such a state can only lead to the inevitable suspension of truth. Portland trio The Woolen Men have delivered their defiant matter of fact new single and there’s more observant social commentary from New York post punk/garage trio Groupie,
Toronto no-wavers New Fries deliver an unsettling cryptic critique of machine learning, South Midlands duo Sleaford Mods deliver a broadside against the the ghastly drive to rate and measure every human endeavour, another corporate fetish that exacerbates division and creates false entitlement. Dublin outfit Fontaines D.C. remind us that resistance means avoiding throwing the baby out with the bath water. English post punk veterans Wire reprise an unreleased track written 20 years ago that channels the bleak fatalism. German industrial experimentalists Einstürzende Neubauten remind us through the title track from their first album in 12 years, Alles in Allem, that meaning can only be made from the abstract struggle inherent in resolving contradiction
Bdrmm, the Hull based shoegaze outfit led by Ryan Smith unveiled the 2nd single to their forthcoming debut Bedroom, dreamy emotive shoegaze from First Nations and Canadian artist Daniel Monkman aka Zoon and impeccably imperfect lo-fi sludgy shoegaze from Holyhead, grungy post punk from Californian artist Nick Reinhart’s new project Disheveled Cuss, a genre defier from Glasgow’s Garlands and a double treat from prolific Japanese born American Yoodoo Park who in addition to an unexpected post punk treat from GRMLN now has unveiled the shoegaze side project Dark Times In Los Angeles.
There’s some super savvy absurdity coming courtesy from Washington DC’s Sneaks who opens the coldwave inpsired section of the playlist joined by Melbourne artist Nathalia Bruno aka DRIFT. Oakland trio Houses of Heaven and industrial inflections from Glasgow’s The Ninth Wave. The remaining new music comes in the form of synth focused post punk and dream pop from Brooklyn’s Nation of Language and grounded guitar based shoegaze and post punk from fellow Brooklynites Not Fit with the complexity of North Carolina’s hardcore infused post punk outfit Fantømex. closing out an incredibly powerful playlist that in more ways than one reminds how lucky we are to live in an era where each one of these genres stars align.
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And for a look back on what the year in the genres of Post Punk Dark Wave Cold Wave Shoegaze and Post Rock has conjured up thus far, turn your attention to this playlists companion piece, Tracks of 2020 Series: Post Punk Darkwave Coldwave Shoegaze and Post Rock here. There you’ll find all 300+ tracks featured here thus far this year.