Where have all the good bands gone? It’s a question we should ask ourselves everyday. As complacency and convenience become the front running principles of daily life, the focus in music has clearly shifted from being a force of change to matters of practicality and ways to earn our keep. Everything has become so simple and menial; obtaining the latest music is done from the comfort of our own home, discovery is as easy as stumbling on to some trendy website and the process of thought has seemingly become obsolete (who needs to think when we can pay others to do it for us?). It is a uniform policy that stretches throughout our modern culture; it has all become commodity, gossip, hype and passing fancy.
Remaining within the bounds of music, it seems that in this day and age any ignoramus with a guitar has access to tools that will help him or her on their path to fame and fortune. Anyone who can raise their hand and say “I’m going to start a record label” has the resources to be the next label flag bearer of a musical sub genre and any asshole with basic HTML knowledge can proclaim their new website to be “the #1 source for discovering new music”. In truth, these advances are not to blame for the downfall of quality; they merely act to blind perceptions of achievement and popularity. We, as in the majority of us, are to blame for the complete mess we find the general state of music in. It is because we have sat back and said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll buy that crap” that hordes of fledgling artists continue to break ground for truly insipid and uninspiring. In terms of punk, this once drastically outcast subculture has become the inside lining of pop’s biggest joke; helmed by its proprietors of shaggy hair, tight t-shirts, hoochy-coochy melodies and the insulting fascination with broken hearts and teary eyed tales.
From the outside looking in, it is as if the music has distorted itself for the purpose of looking good on magazine covers, getting MTV2 rotation and a spot on the Warped Tour. It is this sightless perspective of success that has indelibly turned raw bitterness into saccharine humanization. And as those who follow this blueprint continue their excursion into mediocrity, there are few that teeter on the balance; seemingly undecided on whether to explore the hazardous path into social revolution or slide into distinct indifference.
S.T.U.N. are such a band; carefully molding their brew of rangy guitar modes with the alleyways of punk’s past in hopes to bring forward a new musical and social upheaval that has been absent since the early 90’s. While their discordant helpings of The Clash and Blitz do much to add to that sense of rebellion, there are clear moments of confusion and misguidance. It is easy to slap the tag “Get Your Mind Back” to your CD case (as S.T.U.N. do), but it is how the band influences you to do so that will ultimately make the statement.
Keen to display a brazen aura of energy, Evolution of Energy is a non-stop trek into voices of rebellion; albeit in a very broad sense, as S.T.U.N. tackles the subject on all fronts. However, their nonchalant approach often leaves a sense of partial progress; a call to arms that lacks edge. In “Watch the Rebellion Grow”, they drive the message of unity (“You need us / we need you / if we’re ever going to break through”) and a statement of uprising (“Watch the rebellion grow / We won’t give in / Until the new visions begin / Let’s get the boys and the girls together”), but it leaves the listener unsure as to what exactly they are rebelling against (perhaps they are rebelling against “everything”). One can say they strive to fight the system (“Movement”) and conquer the reigns of apathy (“Here Comes the Underground”), but they seemingly lack the conviction of their calls with their general lyrical methodology.
It doesn’t help that they veer into moments of bland melodics (the very Proclaimers sounding “Annihilation of the Generations”) and stunted misdirection (the tedious rock flared “We Will Come to You”); it reinforces the idea that even in uprising, modern musical traps are of no escape. The assumption is however, that S.T.U.N. will progress after Evolution of Energy; they certainly have the solid foundation and musical veracity to bridge their reach to the masses. And at all cost, they must avoid the utter stupidity that eventually consumed other notable major label “radicals” like Rage Against the Machine.
It would be foolish to think that S.T.U.N. are THE predecessors of the torch once carried by iconic figures of years gone by, but perhaps with the evolution of the music industry, true energy has to evolve as well – ultimately resulting in a new face for hope and urgency. Where have all the good bands gone? They’re out there, somewhere. And they’ll remain there until we refuse to listen to the garbage – until we tell the shitty bands to reap the very waste they propagate. And in their convoluted way, S.T.U.N. have, at the very least, captured moments of that ever elusive spirit, the active outlook that can make music a truly great thing.
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.