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November 14, 2019

The Anti-Earworm Agenda

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

For a growing number of individuals, discovering joy and belonging in obscure, emotionally complex music genres is a journey towards self-acceptance and the quenching of a thirst for alternative forms of art that reject traditional ideas of musicality and dissonance

A few days ago, a friend asked me if I knew what an oscilloscope was. I regarded him with furrowed brows, images of pendulums and gigantic grandfather clocks instantly flooding my mind. A quick Google search determined that my assumption was way off the mark, that an oscilloscope, in fact, is a microwave-resembling, laboratory instrument which uses a two-axis graph to present a visual representation of a green-on-black waveform, with the horizontal axis representing time and the vertical axis representing the amplitude. Simply put, you can create music out of sounds that produce distinct images. The formula to produce the image of a butterfly on an oscilloscope would be plotted as…

x=sin(t)(ecos(t)-2cos(4t)-sin5(t/12))

y=cos(t)(ecos(t)-2cos(4t)-sin5(t/12))

… which would give rise to a synthetic kind of sound that is reminiscent of the Tron: Legacy soundtrack or the Stranger Things OST.

This discovery inspired me to go looking for music enthusiasts in India who have diverged from conventional music genres to entrench themselves in the works of lesser-known bands or offshoots of popular genres. To my surprise, I found a close-knit community of like-minded melophiles, who inadvertently ended up recommending each other’s names to me. What ensued were stimulating and enlightening conversations leading to a much-needed broadening of my musical horizon. I wondered about the driving force that compelled these individuals to actively seek out music that was so far removed from what their peers were listening to. “I suppose it’s the idea that we are not even close to done with making great music. You often see people sharing memes that say good music died with Pink Floyd, but you may then come across an amazing album made by a relatively unknown French band; it makes you realise that art never really ends. There is also the feeling of camaraderie — that you’re part of a scene that doesn’t have big labels or millions of fans behind it which means that you, as a fan, are close to the musicians themselves and support them directly“, says Srijan D, a 27-year-old freelance writer from Mumbai who is an avid explorer of blackgaze. Music is meant to provide a gateway to fans who subscribe to the same ideologies and socio-cultural movements that the genres they listen to sprung from. “Not always”, clarifies Shaunak, a 24-year-old musician from Hyderabad. “For example, ideologically, lo-fi indie is more identifiable with carelessness and being blasé — slacking off, if you will. I love the genre, but I don’t identify with the attitude. I don’t think millennials could identify with it because we are the generation of anxiety and panic. We can’t afford to be slacking off. We are living in the Neoliberal nightmare instead of the Neoliberal utopia that was promised to us around that time.”

Excerpts from our conversations….

Srijan D, 27

Freelance writer in Mumbai

Genre: Blackgaze

“In the early 2000s, black metal musicians started experimenting with production — traditionally raw and unpolished sounding — and adding atmospheric and ambient elements to it. Around the same time, genres such as post-rock began gaining prominence and using a lot of elements of shoegaze as well as metal in their music. Blackgaze is a portmanteau of black metal and shoegaze. The former is known for its fast, dissonant and arpeggiated guitar-playing, blast beats on drums, and shrieked vocals. The latter is known for its effects-heavy, dreamy guitar lines and subdued vocals with a strong focus on atmosphere and wall-of-sound production. It doesn’t sound like the two would go together, but they do, and surprisingly well.”

Early black metal ideologies have been vocally iconoclastic, especially in regard to traditional religion, theology, Christianity, and so on. Blackgaze took these explicit anti-religious — and sometimes downright racist — ideas out of black metal, replacing them with introspective or esoteric themes instead. Modern blackgaze also speaks of depression, sorrow, and apocalyptic events but in a non-theological way, apart from making references to nature and classical literature. While black metal has once again seen the resurgence of fringe fascist music, blackgaze remains intellectually separated from topics of race or religion. I prefer that to listening to music that is racist or uses a low-hanging critique of religion as a selling point, even though I don’t consider myself religious.”

“Some people seek out cinema that is a finer or rarer form of craft and chance upon David Lynch; some people who are generally well-read seek out literature that differs from the norm and find magic realism to be an interesting genre. My journey has been similar, and my exploration of unconventional ideas directed me towards blackgaze. As with many blackgaze fans, my introduction to the genre was with Deafheaven’s second album Sunbather (2013). The album art caught my eye in the beginning — I did not expect a band known for extremely heavy music to have such an aesthetic for the album art. But I was in love on the first listen. Of course, I’m still a big fan of early punk and hardcore and quite enjoy hip-hop as well. The mainstream does have its gems, but a lot of great stuff lies well off the beaten path.”

“I usually enhance my knowledge through dedicated and active Facebook groups that discuss the genre. I follow a large number of blackgaze artists on Instagram — it’s a great way to come across new bands. Sputnikmusic is a great site for reviews as well. The rest comes from recommendations by friends and by following labels that release similar music.”

“It’s tough to find like-minded people to discuss the genre with in India, but the ones who listen to it usually stand out. The community is small and if you know one person, you can find out about the rest. I’m most likely to find them in my Facebook mutual friends or at conversations over gigs, many of which begin because of the t-shirts we’re wearing.”

“Blackgaze is an emotionally complex genre to process because it blends the pure aggression of black metal with the melancholy and dreaminess of shoegaze. But somehow, it made instant sense to me — the feelings of rage, sadness, longing and urgency are not very different from each other in one way. I’d describe it as a sort of angry, horrific painting that hides some kind of intense sadness within it. An image that comes to mind is Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu — he is indeed a monster, but his isolation and sadness are very apparent in the film.”

“If I had to introduce someone to Blackgaze, Deafheaven’s Sunbather would be a no-brainer. I’d also suggest Try Not To Destroy Everything You Love by An Autumn For Crippled Children and Alcest’s Les Voyages de l’Âme to begin with since they are “smoother” blends so to speak. Oathbreaker, Avast, Fen, Bosse-de-Nage, Rolo Tomassi, Altar Of Plagues, Lantlos, and Les Discrets are other bands I would recommend. I’ve attended shows by hardcore punk bands like Converge and Sludge/Doom bands like Thou abroad, and these genres have a lot of influence on blackgaze. I would definitely travel for a show with a blackgaze headliner next year if I can arrange the funds.”

“People find it strange that I enjoy a genre with harsh vocals, but I’d say it’s an acquired taste. The first time I had whiskey, I wondered why anyone would enjoy a bitter drink that flows down your throat like fire, but I quite enjoy it now. Other than that, music — especially the kind that owes its roots to punk — has always been about not really caring what others think and being open to introducing others to your tastes, so I usually respond to misconceptions with recommendations, sometimes through my newsletter.”

“Blackgaze is a relatively young genre, and metal purists are not known to be open to new ideas; in fact, some of them are still fighting about whether the first wave of black metal was truly black metal or not. I think the genre is very complex from a production point of view and the sound will take some time to gain recognition in India. Bands here make their name and money by playing live and until there’s a sizeable audience, it will take time for them to take the stage. Still, with the rise of hardcore, screamo and emo-violence in India, I’m quite hopeful about the future of the genre. Alcest, known as one of the progenitors of the genre, even performed at Bangalore Open Air last year.”


 

Rohit Chaoji, 28

Programmer and data analyzer in Pune

Genre: Brutal prog

“I would best describe the genre as a very energetic, urgent, and heavy form of progressive rock, but it is decidedly distinct from progressive metal and related genres. It has its roots in avant-prog of the ’70s with songs by Magma or Eskaton being the best examples of precursors. The term itself was first coined by noise rock band The Flying Luttebachers. The Japanese band Ruins, which later expanded to form Koenji Hyakkei, was also rather important, and although they were primarily considered avant-prog, the brutal prog definition is also apt. The features that set it apart from other forms of progressive metal are its use of dissonance and percussive instruments. It is also more influenced by musical styles such as avant-garde jazz and math rock, rather than anything from the metal sphere or the more accessible kinds of prog music.”

“As a child, I had more interest in video games than anything musical but I started seriously listening to music as a teenager, after I discovered heavy metal and heard a few songs by Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and Megadeth. I quickly got into bands like Morbid Angel (death metal), Darkthrone (black metal), Repulsion (grindcore) and various other metal bands, and even some hard rock like Deep Purple, and progressive rock like King Crimson, which probably sparked my interest in brutal prog in the first place.”

“Over the last few years, I have sought out more experimental kinds of heavy music. Several years ago, I was introduced to avant-prog by a friend whom I met on a metal forum on Orkut. I enjoyed the bands I listened to so much that I never stopped being interested in more bands that played in a similar style. Even though the two genres are distinct, there is a major overlap.”

“Mainstream options are still rather tame in comparison to some of the genuinely far-out musicians. However, genres like brutal prog are not immediately accessible, as they need a lot of listening to before one can grasp the context behind the unusual melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas to really appreciate it. Brutal prog is very free-spirited and doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s not to say that the musicianship isn’t good because most of the bands comprise competent musicians. The aspect of not taking itself too seriously is reflected in the way they break boundaries of musical convention while doing it skillfully.”

“RateYourMusic is a pretty good source for understanding different genres of music. The other way is to just listen to more music. Listen to similar bands, bands that have signed on the same label or are found under the same tag on Bandcamp. The most important part is listening to it, simply to sample what people consider brutal prog.”

“Although there are far fewer platforms to actually discuss brutal prog with ease, I’m most likely to just find them on Facebook groups. Listening to music from the genre is like running down a steep hill at a high speed with occasional stops where you enjoy the beauty of the nature around you, which, at times, is just a thorny bush. Nothing is predictable here. It’s a wild ride and can range from pretty to ugly. But it’s mostly tense and frantic.”

“If you’re a novice to this genre, I’m still assuming you made it far enough to discover it in the first place. Therefore, you can handle almost anything, music-wise. Koenji Hyakkei might be a good starting point. If you are an absolute novice, I would suggest listening to some classic progressive rock such as King Crimson, but also take a step further and expose yourself to more left-field artists like Magma or Can; consider it an exercise in building some context.”

“I’m pretty sure people think I’m a hipster with too much time on my hands to even bother finding this stuff and actually enjoying it. But I don’t think enough people know about this genre to have an opinion about it. In fact, there are no bands or artistes in India well-versed in the genre that I am aware of. I would definitely support them if they existed. I think the closest would be Vishal J Singh; one of his albums had some avant-jazz/djent vibe going on, but it wasn’t enough to be called brutal prog.”

“Brutal prog is globally obscure. It’s a very niche genre for people who like their music wacky, quirky highly adventurous, experimental, dissonant and atonal. Not everybody really has the patience to get so deep into avant-garde forms of progressive rock that they would understand the context behind brutal prog and so it remains hidden.”


 

Adil Kurwa, 30

Sessions bass player and music educator in Mumbai

Genre: Math rock

 

“Math Rock is a subgenre of rock music with carefully woven odd time signatures and an emphasis on melodies with a lot of notes to build a sonic explosion.”

“I had to research music for a company I used to work for, which led me to find non-mainstream genres through blogs. I grew up listening to punk rock bands Blink 182, Sum 41, Bad Religion and post-hardcore bands like Underoath, Protest the Hero, Dance Gavin Dance along with indie-rock outfits like The Strokes and Bombay Bicycle Club. When I first heard an album called Animals by This Town Needs Guns, I was hooked to math rock. Then I moved on to American Football, Toe, Covet and The Dillinger Escape Plan. The last one is more mathcore than math rock but extremely relevant.”

“Some people think that math rock has something to do with mathematics but they are wrong. I would describe it as colourful rain dripping through my brain. It’s hard to find people to discuss this with in India, but social media can bring people with rare interests together easily. A couple of Indian bands like Ferry Tales and Kraken have music that is definitely influenced by the genre, but math rock doesn’t enjoy the same commercial appeal as pop music yet. Some of the music is complex and not always catchy.”


 

Shaunak, 24

Student/musician in Hyderabad

Genre: Lo-fi indie/slacker rock

“Lo-fi indie/slacker rock can be traced back to late ’80s and early ’90s bands that were into hardcore punk of the ’80s but also had strains of wimpy classic rock. It was a very raw, noisy style of indie rock that developed alongside alternative rock sound. As the name suggests, this was when indie, as a term, really meant independent — sonically, aesthetically and label-wise; a time when indie wasn’t just vapid aesthetic. The sound was a mix of punk rock and classic rock with influences from country and blues. Now, the songwriting also tends to be quite noisy and sloppy with a sort of blasé attitude displayed in the vocal delivery, guitar work, lyrics and general being. Pavement is the best example of this. The term slacker rock is used interchangeably and I think it perfectly captures the sound and the era. To me, the sound is the perfect representation of the early ’90s. Think the sonic equivalent of an early Richard Linklater film!”

“I first came across lo-fi through my flatmate, who was really into Mac Demarco and Courtney Barnett. I had heard of Pavement back then but I didn’t really understand them. I thought the music was quite crappy initially, but it’s funny how I have grown to love them. Newer indie bands tend to copy the lo-fi aesthetic, so it’s always been around but I never really got into until very recently. I’d say Dinosaur Jr, Guided By Voices and Yo La Tengo are the best examples of slacker rock.”

“Most of the bands involved with the inception of lo-fi were predominantly white dudes from well-to-do, suburban backgrounds. I don’t think lo-fi indie was or is necessarily political, but one can potentially utilise and reinterpret it for our generation because the music fits into the current socio-political climate.”

“Hip-Hop was my first serious introduction to music and I was obsessed with West Coast rappers like Tupac and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony back then. I shifted to classic rock/dad rock and then moved on to metal, which I stuck with for a very long time. I’m very invested in metal and all that it encompasses. From there, I branched out into other extreme forms of music like noise/industrial, ambient, drone and neofolk/darkwave. It was when I was introduced to the ’60s/’70s heavy psych, krautrock, avant-prog and zeuhl scene that I properly got into hardcore/punk/screamo, which is definitely not just a phase.”

“My education in lo-fi began with indie-folk bands like Attic Abasement, Teen suicide, Crywank, Car Seat Headrest, Flatsound, Elvis Depressedly and Salvia Plath that were stripped down, drawling and borderline dream-pop. After years of not having heard any lo-fi music, I rediscovered my love for Sonic Youth and this lo-fi shoegaze band called Swirlies, which sounds like a cross between My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth — the best combination ever. I went back and listened to Dinosaur Jr. and absolutely loved how J Mascis was so laidback and stoic on the guitar.”

“I mostly follow Rateyourmusic for all my musical exploration. Sometimes, Last.fm is helpful as well. Exploding In Sound Records is a great label if you want to discover this sort of a sound and of course, Reddit helps you discover melophiles with the same tastes. I got lucky early on and met people who were into the same music as I was but as I have shifted houses, I find most people are clueless about music. That’s alright though because that way, I get to enlighten them.”

“Listening to lo-fi is like summer. Spring break. Early ’90s. A car ride. The strange, comforting nostalgia of a place I have never been to, a life I have never lived. It makes me feel careless in a redemptive, liberating sort of way. If I had to introduce someone to lo-fi, I’d start with Hoirong cause they have a great lo-fi/indie mix going on. Stoned Seahorse from Bengaluru is a noise pop/shoegaze artist that has a distinct lo-fi/indie edge to it. Internationally, Archers of Loaf is a band that sounds like a more focused and energetic version of Pavement. Their record Icky Mettle should be as revered as Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted. I am a huge fan of Lou Barlow’s band Sebadoh as well. Newer bands like Parquet Courts, Yuck, Ovlov, Pile, Slam Dunk, Speedy Ortiz, Screaming Females and Cloud Nothings are also worth exploring.”


 

Sidharth Raveendran, 27

Media and Advertising professional in Mumbai

Genre: Post-hardcore

“Post-hardcore is an off-shoot of hardcore punk, which rose to prominence in the ’90s. It retained the aggressive, guitar and scream-oriented approach of hardcore, but with a broader emotional palette and sensibility, which in turn introduced new sounds into the genre at large. It has a fresh voice which allows it to express a wide variety of subjects and emotions with great maturity. On my part, I just get to vent my general dissatisfaction with the world through actual, meaningful music.”

“The genre had a strong DIY element since it was a not-so-mainstream music movement back then. Bands like Fugazi really stood by that sentiment and stuck it out; they created their own record label and didn’t play a single stadium show that was sponsored by a big brand. They never even printed any merch because of their strong anti-establishment statement. Their gigs were all-ages access and their tickets only cost a few odd dollars. Their legacy of over three decades has paved the way for an entire movement of bands to be chosen by bigger labels.”

“I used to be in a classic rock cover band and sang in a progressive/heavy metal band with epic sci-fi storytelling elements. My introduction to post-hardcore happened through Zack De La Rocha of Rage Against The Machine who earlier fronted a hardcore punk band called Inside Out. I dug a lot of Mars Volta in early 2011-12 and found that they had their roots in a post-hardcore band called At The Drive-In. I fortuitously came across Helmet while researching ’90s music. Deftones, an American alternative metal band, cites a bunch of ’90s post-hardcore acts like Snapcase, Far and Jawbox as inspirations. That’s how I stumbled upon new bands and artistes.”

“Last.fm was great in its glory days. Nowadays, Bandcamp is great to scour what the underground has to offer. Bigger releases find their way on to Spotify’s recommendation engine. YouTube is great for digging up older, abandoned and obscure releases. It’s always tough to find the right set of people to discuss music with, but I was lucky to find them at the right time or I might have not felt the same way about the genre like I do now. It’s like wanting to physically jump, shout and slam around while taking pauses to scream epic choruses or tear up to really climactic breakdowns and lead guitar parts. It’s what all of rock and roll history has always been about.”

“I’d give a limb to watch The Dillinger Escape Plan in a club setting. I watched them when they came for NH7 in 2017 and it’s a real bummer that they’ve split up. My middle-class upbringing has given me just about enough privilege to attend what I can in India so far, but I’d love to explore more artistes through my travels.”

“Post-hardcore is a little more nuanced than metal and cannot simply be clubbed with “noisy satanic music with growls”. It has scope for a little emotional range. There’s emo(tive hardcore) which is a spin-off of rock which has earned a bad reputation due to the general perception of the word emo. But that’s a different rabbit hole to go down. Some recommended album listening for hardcore novices would be In The Meantime by Helmet, Relationship of Command by At The Drive-In, Everything You Wanted To Know About Silence by Glassjaw, Progression Through Unlearning by Snapcase, Water & Solutions by Far and Slip by Quicksand.”

“The genre is not that obscure; maybe it never hit the mainstream appeal during the peak phase for college/band music in India. Those that know their music genealogy are aware that hardcore and post-hardcore are fundamental in the path of all -core music that followed in the ‘2000s. In fact, we currently have the best hardcore music talent in Mumbai — Death By Fungi, False Flag and The Riot Peddler are a few that come to mind. My band Pacifist is classic, unadulterated post-hardcore; the rest are heavier hardcore bands of different styles and influences.”


 

Ashish Dharkar, 27

Guitarist for doom/sludge metal band Dirge

Genre: Doom metal

“Doom Metal is a form of heavy metal which is a comparatively slow tempo with dirty down-tuned guitar tones and heavy bass with pounding drums. The whole lyrical theme that the music is based on is usually about sorrow, fantasy, horror, psychedelic adventures and personal experiences.”

“I’ve always been a huge fan of Black Sabbath and that band is one of the primary reasons why I picked up the guitar. They’re surely the godfathers of all things heavy. I was going through an extremely rough patch in life and somehow stumbled upon similar bands like Candlemass, Trouble and Acid Bath; listening to them changed my life. The sounds were unlike anything I had heard before — they shook me to my core and I’ve kept digging deeper ever since. It’s incredible how the genre has expanded and branched out over the years. There’s now a good amount of exposure with so many bands playing this kind of music and a few other international bands that have visited the country. Such gigs would be the ideal place to find fellow fans to discuss music with.”

“I have a close circle of friends who all have similar taste in music and we keep suggesting new bands to check out all the time. Apart from that, I read a lot of interviews of bands that inspire me and check out what they grew up listening to or are currently listening to. Down, Autopsy, ISIS, Neurosis and Crowbar were some of the first doom metal bands I listened to after I moved on from ’70s rock bands like Scorpions, UFO, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. For someone who wants to go deeper into the genre, I’d suggest albums like Epicus Doomicus Metallicus by Candlemass, As The Kite String Pops by Acid Bath, Through Silver In Blood by Neurosis, Nola by Down, Oceanic by Isis and Dopesmoker by Sleep.”

“I recently attended Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands for the first time. Every year, they have an interesting curation of bands and artistes and it has been a lifelong dream to experience it. It allowed me to discover bands that are pushing the boundaries of heavy music and I got to watch some of my favourite bands like Sleep, Thou and Mono in action. It was truly life-changing.”

“I’d say any genre is obscure in any part of the world till a point where the local audience or listeners turn into musicians themselves and form bands that play niche and underground music. This is starting to happen in India which has opened doors for international bands to perform here, besides creating an audience for this kind of music. Shepherd, Bevar Sea, Djinn and Miskatonic, Primitiv and The Grim Mage are some of the homegrown bands that play this style of slow heavy music. A word of caution for those who are interested in exploring this genre further: you might think it’s slow when you listen to it for the first time, but power through and it will grow on you.”

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