The New Sprawl of Post-Punk

Post-punk was a firmly British institution in the genre’s early glory days. Consider Joy Division, formulating a sound that could only have emerged from the minds of young punk fans dissatisfied with the industrial gloom and economic depression of Greater Manchester – mechanical, clean, precise instrumentation and abstract lyrics with intense emotional undercurrents. Who else could feel chills the first time they heard the line ‘I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand’? What served to heighten their acclaim was vocalist Ian Curtis’s live performance, his sporadic dance moves that emulated his epilepsy and the iconic Vox Phantom guitar he would later don. The 1980 suicide of Curtis in his Macclesfield kitchen may have ended Joy Division’s reign as kings of post-punk, but they were cemented in history as amongst the undoubted pioneers.

Let us not forget their equally prominent peers. Siouxsie and the Banshees, fronted by an assertive, red-lipped siren, had all the deadpan cockney charm, mad eyeliner and black leather to pave the aesthetic path to gothic rock. The Cure are thirteen exquisite studio albums deep as of 2017, audial magic conjured by the band’s one constant, that creative powerhouse Robert Smith. Some forty years after the inception of these bands, of course, their relevance is now a matter of opinion.

Yet, especially with the turn of the century, America has taken the genre right out of British hands and shaped it into something of their own, something modern, driven, intriguing. Sure, we can pin this on British influences, as they drew from the well provided by New Order (Joy Division sans Curtis) and their experimentation with dance beats. The current post-punk scene has flourished with the utilization of electronic influences. More and more bands, musicians and projects are taking bits and pieces from synthpop and electronica, further blurring the lines between distinctions of genre. At this rate, what even is post-punk but a vague umbrella term for a sprawling genre?

Drab Majesty has given post-punk not only a breath of fresh air but a dash of colour too. The flamboyant solo project of Andrew Clinco of Los Angeles, California has snapped up the attentions of scenes from across the globe, with a fanbase as broad as those faithful to underground black metal or grime. This year alone has seen an extensive European tour spanning the course of three months as well as dates across America. Their reputation proceeded them on the continent, through bizarre lo-fi music videos based on avant-garde conceptual art – only for all expectations to be trumped by the intensity of their live performances. Let’s start with their stage get-up: metallic white face paint and powder blue wigs, black space goggles, kaftans adding to the illusion of androgyny – ready for the future, even if their audience aren’t. Cue choke-miming before blowing the socks off everyone present, astonished faces lit up by rose-hued stage lights. The music is a fusion of Depeche Mode and early Killing Joke, synth-heavy and distorted, dashed with innovative imagery and crisp production.

Further to the east, in Detroit, dwell Ritual Howls. The trio consider themselves ‘industrial rock/cinematic deathrock’. The term ‘death jangle’ has also been thrown around in interviews and press releases. However, their roots are very firmly in post-punk, more in the monochrome vein of Bauhaus. The past three years have been prolific for the band, with two studio albums ‘Into the Water’ and ‘Turkish Leather’ to great acclaim, continuing so with the release of their 2017 single ‘Blood Red Moon’. Artistic statements in the stark simplicity of their album covers, concentrating on metallic elements, liquid gold robes or rich bronze waves, demonstrates their flair for the dramatic, as much as each wry lyric or dull thudding beat.

Wes Eisold has darted between Los Angeles and New York for his solo project Cold Cave since 2007. What comes to mind infinitely is how his vocals contain the ghostly echo of the omnipresent Ian Curtis. Cold Cave are amongst the most notorious of recent underground post-punk acts to emerge in the past decade. However, music is only one facet of Cold Cave. With the contribution of a variety of artists, filmmakers and photographers (Art Boonparn and Caralee McElroy to name a few), there has emerged a very distinct orientation around blends of experimentation and cinematography within Cold Cave.

This evolution, or ‘the new sprawl’ of post-punk is down to the consistent rejuvenation of the genre with the injection of varied influences, the adherence to a musical modernity of sorts. Britain is where post-punk originated, but while the genre has somewhat stagnated here, for sure, America is where it continues to flourish, in those self-deprecating leaps and bounds.

By Georgia Curran

Photo credit: Megan Major