FEATURE: Bands on the Run: Is Mainstream Music Becoming a Solo Market?



Bands on the Run:



Is Mainstream Music Becoming a Solo Market?


AS I continue my feature about the best albums of…


this year; I am noticing one thing: none of them is created by bands. Well, one of them is a duo but, in terms of numbers – and the finest records of this year – one hardly gets past the three-piece. Look at the critical consensus and there is the proliferation of solo artists on their minds. Kendrick Lamar, Lorde and Ed Sheeran (whether you like him or not); Laura Marling, Stormzy and Waxahatchee – throw in The Is the Kit and Kehlani for good measure! None of these acts needs another voice to get their songs out to the public. As a flip-side to the great albums of this year: some of the biggest disappointments have been from bands. London Grammar are, to be fair, a trio but have left many cold with their second album, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing. Same goes with Royal Blood (a duo) but I am finding those mediocre albums – as determined by critics – are not being produced by solo artists, by and large. Imagine Dragons’ Evolve and The Amazons’ eponymous album have not registered big reactions. TLC, Linkin Park and Maximo Park have created less-than-wonderful albums. Maybe it is a funny year but I am finding few bands/duos/trios creating year-defining records. The xx are, perhaps, the only band (a trio, technically) who have made any sort of statement this year. It is a singles-game in terms of the most promising albums. One can quibble with a few names here and there. Fleet Foxes’ Crack Up is by a band but I see the album as a solo vehicle for Robin Pecknold – he writes the songs and dominates throughout. Let me back up and bring in some examples. The reason I have put Amazons as my thumbnail/featured photo is because they represented the resurgence/hope in new guitar bands. When I heard their single, Little Something, I was so excited by the Reading band and what their debut album would contain. Aside from having a stunning and vivid front cover – check it out – and some excellent, memorable song titles – the substance of the songs was a little lacking. Too many tracks geared towards the festival crowds and the audiences they graced/still do – the sweating throngs on the 'toilet circuit'. Many would argue that is what a guitar band should be about but there is little variation in terms of the music, themes and sounds. In forging their own sound; The Amazons have slipped into the realms of the generic and forgettable.

IN THIS PHOTO: Royal Blood/PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Davies

The same could be said of Royal Blood. The Brighton duo had my positively wet – expunge that image if you can@ – when they announced (finally!) their sophomore album, How Did We Get So Dark? Following an eternal gap from their debut; the only thing that has changed in the years since is a few touches here and there – Pop backing vocals and some wider lyrical concerns. The sound has rigidly remained the same: pummelled percussion and meaty, loud-as-an-atom-bomb bass. It is as though the best Rock artists are writing music to blast the masses into next week. It is the rugged working-class and the honest, raw Rock – well, that is what we DO need. There is something too clinical and ‘safe’ about so many of this year’s band-made Rock records. For every promising newcomer like Cabbage – they divide opinion but seem more promising – there are mainstream artists who seem more intent on writing songs for the radio than genuinely trying to progress Rock and Indie music. The legendary artists/bands of the past endured and impressed because they did something genuinely fresh and exciting. Even if they had an established career; one noticed a step forward between albums – new sounds and ideas. Royal Blood, Maximo Park; Imagine Dragons, The Flaming Lips and the likes – they seem to have lost their original promise and purpose. Whether I can turn this semi-rant into a cogent and cohesive piece is to be seen but there is method and logic in the argument. How many mainstream band-created albums can you name that you are hooked by?! There might be one or two but I am betting most of your favourites (from this year) have been made by solo artists – maybe a duo at a push. Perhaps there is no real reason other than the fact the most promising bands are not at mainstream level. A great deal of the poll-makers are recommending solo artists as their tips for success – is this deterring bands and creating a fallacy?! In the past, it was assumed bands ruled the roost.

IN THIS PHOTO: Foo Fighters

Look at the festival bills and one assumes Foo Fighters, Muse and Radiohead are what the public wants. The trouble is, they are older acts and, aside from Radiohead, the others have not released a new album for a while. Foo Fighters have announced Concrete and Gold (terrible title) and, if Run is anything to go by, it might be okay – their last album was a struggle to get through to; it is a bit iffy. Muse released Drones in 2015 and that was not overly-well-received. Coldplay, another big festival act, are not swimming in classic albums: one has to look lower down the list of festival names to discover truly worthy bands. If Rock, or mainstream at least, is showing a regressive attitude; it appears the underground are showing more intrigue. I shall come to them but want to present the flip-side to my slagheap of criticism. I do not write this piece to shame and scold the so-called ‘best’ bands around. In fact, two of the most promising releases of the year are going to be from bands. If the digitally-produced simians of Gorillaz didn’t live up the hype surrounding their album, Humanz (too many Zs, Damo!) then Arcade Fire surely will! The Canadian band has released singles from their forthcoming album, Everything Now (out on 28th of this month). The title track has delirious, kooky panpipes; Electric Blue – the latest revelation – sports some of their strongest performances for years – Creature Comfort and Signs of Life are terrific tunes. They look set to top Reflektor – an album that, rarely for them, was not met with universal acclaim. Everything Now seems like it will be the veritable dog’s wotsits! Similarly, responding to a four-year gap after Like Clockwork…, Josh Homme’s acolytes have teased new slice-of-cool, The Way You Used to Do. Villains is out on 25th August but the first single from that record brings in sounds of Swing and crooning legends; gilded to a stone-cold Rock swagger – the results are exhilarating and turbo-charged. It is a snarling, canine slice of dance that promises much gold from the Californian band. I am already waxing my knees from all the dancing I am going to do when the album arrives.

It seems like Queens of the Stone Age are one of the bands who, despite the fact they have been in the game a couple of decades, are capable of consistency, innovation and malleability. THAT is what the likes of The Amazons, Royal Blood and Imagine Dragons could learn from. Queens’ could easily produce Rated R part two but, instead, bring in fresh influence and sounds. Not every band is blessed with the same skillset and natural-born command of Josh Homme but that is not to say we should see such a dearth of compelling band music. I have highlighted two bands who shall not disappoint: is that enough to counterbalance the raft of underwhelming, half-cooked releases? I would say not, but wonder if this is a malady reserved for the mainstream? Perhaps the sensation has bypassed the blood-brain barrier and gone straight to the top. It seems, given its comparable mass and variety; the bands of the underground are priming themselves for a revolt. I guess it is hard to discipline and organise the truly great unsigned material from that which is merely okay. The sheer volume and berth of the underground means there is a subjectiveness saying THAT is where the best bands will come from. In the same way, Rock is not dead – it does need a colonoscopy, to be fair – bands are not a spent force. Last year was more productive for the market and I guess things will pick up this year. I am glad solo artists are getting the lion-share of the attention but it makes me wonder why. In terms of newer acts; it is pretty equal between bands/solo artists/duos etc. In the mainstream, I feel there is a mass majority of solo artists/duos. I did not realise the tide had turned this way because, as recently as a few years ago, this was not the case. One would see a great band doing well which, in turn, would compel their peers to up their game – that would create a wave and knock-on-effect. Is the reason we are seeing fewer great band albums due to their being no true leader in the field?!

IN THIS PHOTO: Laura Marling/PHOTO CREDIT: Lauren Connelly

I have mentioned the likes of Radiohead and Foo Fighters but we need new blood to strike and compel the field to create truly wonderful music. I feel there is scepticism from the media that is biased towards solo artists. Again, this was not the case until recently. Has something happened to sour the waters or was there the feeling solo artists were not getting proper exposure?! Whatever the reason, I am concerned this year, like last, will be synonymous with terrific albums by solo artists. Last year’s best was, in my view, a mix of Hip-Hop and R&B classics – Beyoncé chief among them. This year, so far, Kendrick Lamar, Laura Marling and Lorde look set to fight for the gold medal. Maybe it is their style of music that is being favoured – bands unable to replicate what the people want. HAIM, another band tipped for a lot of acclaim, have not produced their best work this year – same goes alt-j (maligned by a lot of critics and listeners after witnessing their album, Relaxer). I genuinely think it is an issue reserved to the mainstream right now. I get to see the finest new bands develop and strike – not just here, but all around the world. How easy it will be for the crop’s cream to assimilate into the mainstream is hard to say but we definitely need to see a chance. I am hopeful we will see a bit of a turnaround for the fortunes of the mainstream band dollar. This year, especially, has been lukewarm at best. Whether future releases from Arcade Fire and Queens of the Stone Age will be joined by a litter of unexpected quality releases, has yet to be seen. What I DO know is it is the solo artists of music making the big impact on critics. Whatever the psychology, origin and solution: I am keen to see whether the second-half of 2017 is any different. I hope we are not seeing a prevarication of mainstream band wonder – where solo artists are stealing most of the affection. If this trend continues over the next few years; it will have a damaging effect on the mind-set of new bands hoping to make a success of their careers. THAT, more than anything else…

IN THIS PHOTO: Arcade Fire

WOULD be a huge tragedy.