Alternative Rock and Its Many Faces

Reading Time: 8 minutes

By Tang Lanyun (23S05A)

Alternative rock isn’t so much a genre as it is an attitude. Emerging from the underground punk scene of the 70s, alt-rock lacks a defining sound; rather, it is characterised by its independent ethos and scepticism toward the mainstream. 

Though its acts rarely experience the whirlwind fame of their commercial contemporaries, over the years a few have managed to attain cult status, whose albums endure in music’s collective memory.

Doolittle, The Pixies 

Wanna grow, up to be, be a debaser, howls Pixies frontman Black Francis on Doolittle’s frenzied, fanatical opening track Debaser. A thrilling mesh of music and at times pure, joyous noise, the album launched then-indie darlings the Pixies to college-radio fame when it first hit the airwaves in 1989.

On first listen, it’s not difficult to see why. On Doolittle, the band is at their most diverse: songs veer from the explosive scream of Tame, to the punk frenzy of Crackity Jones, to the more laid-back pop of Here Comes Your Man. The songs are short and compellingly listenable, combining the sounds of surf and punk within a shimmering pop exterior. 

The original lineup of the Pixies. (Image credits: Discogs)
Left to right: Black Francis, Kim Deal, Dave Lovering, Joey Santiago

It was also on this album that the Pixies perfected their formula—quiet verses followed by a loud, unbridled chorus—which later came to be imitated by pre-eminent bands like Nirvana and Radiohead.

In terms of balance, though, no other band has managed to do it quite like them. Doolittle is dominated by a pleasantly sparse, unsaturated sound. Kim Deal’s basslines weave in and out of focus; Joey Santiago’s jangling guitar draws just enough attention to Black Francis’ voice without overwhelming it. And what a voice it is; on its own quite unremarkable, but it’s what he does with it, bending it from a sardonic whisper to a battered howl, that gives the album its unique intensity.

It’s this intensity that carries through to the lyrical subject matter of the album. Black Francis sings of twisted bible stories and snarling seduction, all rooted in a bloody, B-movie horror sensibility. 

The images he conjures up are similarly unnerving: eyeballs sliced open, cars sinking into the vast depths of the ocean. Yet what deepens the eeriness is Kim Deal’s harmonising: a lustrous echo on the end of certain lines that gives them a hollow, otherworldly feeling.

At its core, Doolittle is an album that revels in its own strangeness and absurdity. On Monkey Gone to Heaven, Black Francis’ diatribe, “If the devil is six/Then God is seven!” is spoken with feverish certainty, yet thoroughly resistant to interpretation. On Wave Of Mutilation, the band sweeps through a tale of drowned businessmen riding the El Niño with a sense of joyous, fantastic indifference. 

I first heard Doolittle in its entirety on a flight to Japan last December, after three years of no travel. For the first time I re-learnt what the clouds looked like from above, and the way the tide rolled across a sun-dappled sea. Somewhere suspended above reality the world felt wide open, full of a strange and enticing feeling of newness. Listening to the Pixies always takes me back to this feeling.

loveless, My Bloody Valentine

In the 20 or so years after its release, loveless has become something of a myth. The darling of music critics and longhaired teenagers everywhere, the sheer level of sonic experimentation contained within it renders it an essentially timeless record. 

Where other albums are intertwined with the cultural landscape of their time, loveless is impossible to pin down in that way. The album came out in 1991, but it feels like it might have been yesterday.

The story of the album’s creation is itself the stuff of legend. For 3 years, the constituents of My Bloody Valentine slaved away under Kevin Shields, the band’s lead vocalist and mastermind. Shields was in no hurry to finish the album—rather, he took his time going from studio to studio to perfect its signature dreamy, hypnotic sound. 

My Bloody Valentine in the late 80s. (Image credits: The New York Times)
Left to right: Kevin Shields, Bilinda Butcher, Colm O’Ciosoig, Deb Googe

If there’s one way to describe loveless, it’s that it feels like an impressionist artwork. A rich layering of tones and textures is what characterises the album, with its focus on atmosphere rather than coherence. Shields’ indecipherable vocals function not as the songs’ centrepiece, but merely as another layer of sound, another coat of paint on a canvas, creating the sort of music that just sinks into you.

The band’s name is incredibly apt: there is something bloody about loveless, something sweetly mutilated and sludgy. On this album you’d be hard-pressed to find any pockets of silence: everything is so compressed, layered, and buttery smooth. Songs slide into each other, creating a continuous tidal wave of noise unlike anything you’ve ever heard, a scintillating fog—overwhelming, intoxicating.

But there’s romance too. “When I look at you / Oh, but I don’t know what’s real,” Shields sings, equal parts forlorn and lovestruck on when you sleep. It’s their best-known track, for good reason. Out of the album’s dense, amorphous pink cloud of noise descends an achingly sweet melody that feels like it’s swinging into you. Shields’ voice, confused and yearning, emerges from beneath the layers of sound — the samples of feedback and the trembling, distorted guitars.

It was on loveless that he developed his “glide guitar” technique, strumming while holding the vibrato bar to create a wavering pitch. On when you sleep, the effect is a perpetual whine, alien and intimate, a cocooning purple mess of sound. The song is a tale of tension and distance, of the surrealness of watching love slip away.

It’s impossible to deny the romance in the album’s swelling disharmonies and vocalist Bilinda Butcher’s ethereal coo, but more than that, loveless feels like falling asleep. To be more precise, it feels like the moments before sleep, that sense of haziness and unreality that pervades the entire body. It’s all sludgey disorientation, this fuzzy, hypnagogic drone, this gorgeous sigh; this album that dwells in that mellow state of semi consciousness, suspended between reality and dreams. 

1991 was an important year for music. Elsewhere in North America, thrash metal was on its decline, to be finally put away by the more cynical, down-to-earth grunge. The release of Nirvana’s Nevermind cemented it as the year that would change rock forever. 

But in the rainy British Isles, the Irish-English My Bloody Valentine appeared apart from it all. Across the ocean, they engineered a new kind of guitar rock in loveless that seemed utterly unblemished by the events surrounding it, existing in a world of its own.

Turn On The Bright Lights, Interpol

Interpol rose to prominence on the New York indie scene in 2002, a four-piece of brooding NYU art students, or, as they appeared to onlookers then, a well-groomed, sullen boy band. Their arrival came at a confused time in the city’s history: following the tragedy of 9/11, but before the wave of gentrification that came down hard on the city’s dive bars and sprawling musical underbelly.

But make no mistake, the early 2000s was one of the best times to be a band in New York City. Amidst a “new rock revolution” set in motion by sister bands like the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the music press of the world heaped attention and praise upon the burgeoning New York scene. 

The world had its eye on the city, so when Interpol first surfaced, with their pressed, dark suits and thin ties oozing a film noir mystique, it was no surprise that they turned more than a few heads.

Interpol all suited up in 2001. (Image credits: Classic Album Sundays)
Left to right: Carlos Dengler, Sam Fogarino, Paul Banks, Daniel Kessler

Turn On The Bright Lights is one of the few albums that can truly boast of having no filler. It’s hard to tell that this is a debut record: it’s so sure of its own identity, of what it wants to be, that at times it sounds almost self-indulgent. 

Interpol draws heavily on the post-punk of decades past—the cynical Joy Division famously comes to mind—and transforms that sound into a more modern, lush production. The album is decidedly post-punk, without any of the genre-bending that, say, the Pixies might indulge in, but it’s versatile nonetheless.

The guitars regularly pivot between soft, saturnine thrumming and jagged, striking rhythms, sometimes interplaying between each other, against the backdrop of drums reminiscent of 80s gothic rock. Carlos D’s bass lines are deftly complex, smooth yet dispassionate; the instrumentation is elevated by Banks’ sharp, almost toneless baritone.

The lyrics are aching and violent and nonsensical. “I wish I could eat the salt / off of your lost faded lips,” Banks murmurs in Obstacle 1, and then in the very same song he gasps, “You go stabbing yourself in the neck,” urgency and desperation palpable in each sharp intake of breath. There’s an anxiety tingeing his voice, an ever-present dead weight of paranoia.

It’s no accident that Interpol’s smooth, glacial exterior belies the sheer height of the emotion conveyed by its frontman. In between dramatic, heavy-handed generalisations interspersed with ironic rock’n’roll cliches, Banks weaves moments of introspection and longing.

That’s not to say that his techniques aren’t oblique or sometimes even incomprehensible. Lines like “Clock is set for nine / but you know you’re gonna make it eight,” seem absurd, but when paired with the moody guitars, they just make sense. Either way, there’s something unflinching about the way Banks delivers these lines, an emotional relentlessness that’s impossible to ignore.

This feeling is particularly striking in Stella was a diver and she was always down, the album’s cumbersomely-titled outlier. A melancholic ode to a troubled lover, the song is as loose as Interpol is willing to get, stuffed with lusty double entendres and featuring only the barest skeleton of a song structure.

In this 6-minute epic, pulsating guitars and quickening drums work together to constrict the melody, creating the sense of an emotional swell. The tension climaxes in a euphoric catharsis. Banks sings “Stella, I love you / Stella, I love you / Stella, I love you”, and on the last syllable his voice slips into something guttural and unrestrained. 

In between the moody, taut guitars and the enigmatic lyricism there exists a sense of murkiness, both moral and emotional. Across the album, moments like this—moments of sensuous bliss—are tempered with a slight unease that fails to resolve itself. Interpol echoes the dual beauty and ennui of navigating adulthood in a postmodern world, and, especially in the wake of 9/11, a world that has lost its innocence.

Listening to Turn On The Bright Lights is like slipping into a dark pool of memories. Whether the band intended for it or not, the album’s identity is inextricably linked to the New York of the 2000s, or at least the sullen, splendid version of it that we remember. 

It presents a version of the city that is unpolished and bare, that glimmers with the prospect of illicit affairs and moody isolation. Songs like NYC and The New capture the essence of New York City as if in a freeze-frame picture, a moment unrecognisable until it had passed.

The crushing alienation of its crowds. The warmth of its indifference. Interpol puts you there, in the middle of all of it. As if they’re saying, you had to be there

465564cookie-checkAlternative Rock and Its Many Faces


Leave a Reply