By JT James
The steady decline of Rock’s popularity in recent years has been debated to great length with both sides of the equation effectively arguing their respective, varied opinions. I’ve always been a fan and grew up with a healthy diet of Rock and Hip Hop before House Music, Rave Culture, DJ Life and all that good stuff began taking roots in me. So, while it has always been a part of my musical mosaic, its influence and the attention I’ve given it have ebbed and flowed with the times.
Rock is not dead. It’s actually enjoying the good life away from the pressures and constraints of trying to appease the mass market. Simply put, Rock has moved from being the dominant mainstream genre and into being a niche market, and depending on who you talk to, with older demographics holding steady to their “Rock is Forever” attitudes and younger heads shrugging their shoulders and turning up the beats. I haven’t gathered the data yet, but my gut tells me that somewhere around the mid 80’s tastes began to change and if you were an impressionable young kid coming of age at that time discovering new music, then odds are you were influenced by that crazy sound coming out of the Bronx. In fact, I will give you an exact date.
July 4th, 1986
Why this date? Well, this was the day the Run DMC released their cover and collaboration of Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’. More accurately, Rick and Russell at Def Jam released it contrary to Run and DMC’s wishes. But, being the visionaries that they were, they saw how this track could crossover into the mainstream. And crossover it did selling millions of copies. This was Rock passing the torch to Hip Hop. The transition began. The rest is history.
The Rap/Rock hybrid sub-genre would punish us later in the 90s for such a blasphemous fusion of cultures. It’s not easy territory to navigate and it’s seldom done well. I think I can count the number on one hand. Or one finger. You can’t blame people for trying. It is the unfortunate casualty of almost any genre. Sounds and styles get beat to death and people, both artists and listeners, get bored. In an attempt to be original boundaries are pushed, sometimes with fantastic results. Often times not. That’s why Golden Eras exist for every genre. That point where innovation, inspiration and originality are in their purest form, the proverbial sweet-spot, that takes a style to Olympian heights and becomes the benchmark for success (one rarely ever achieved again).
I never stopped keeping my pulse to certain styles of Rock. Alternative Rock has been a huge influence my entire life and quite frankly has been holding the torch in terms of overall appeal and interest from younger fans. From Jane’s Addiction to Japandroids, Alternative Rock has moved from the fringes of the genre to becoming the dominant commercial sub-genre. Alternative acts seem to be more open-minded when it comes to trying new ideas and injecting dance elements and funky grooves into their work. In fact, it was Alternative Rock channels that gave a voice to early incarnations of Electronic Music, just ask Fatboy Slim or The Chemical Brothers.
I’m not sure Rock can ever reach the lofty heights it reached in the 70s and 80s again, but I do think that it could be due for a surge in popularity. But, it’s not gonna be some band that has been around for 10 or 20 (or more) years that is going to do it (without a radical sound departure). There needs to be some youthful, energetic, exciting acts out there doing something new that younger listeners can relate to. I highly doubt there are many young kids in high school daydreaming about being (insert washed up rock lead singer here), they are on that stage and the crowd is screaming, but their name is Kendrick, Tyler, Rihanna or Calvin.
The pre-1986 kids grew up in an analog world with analog sounds and guitar sounds from clean to distorted dominating the airspace. The after-86 crew grew up with a bit of that, but with the new sound that claimed beats over brass strings. Bass over Treble. Video games and cell phones proliferated, technology advanced and the environment which everybody continues to grow up in is more and more digital. Beat-based music began taking over from the mainstream from guitar-based compositions somewhere in the mid-90s and never looked back. The Rock Legion saw it coming and cranked up the distortion, screaming (literally) to remain relevant and heard above the avalanche of clever sampling, huge drums and hot 16s. No wonder Hip Hop and EDM has been killing it. We were programmed to like it.
For Rock to appeal to a new generation it needs to evolve. Listen to Rock from every decade from the 50s to now. There is a steady progression from Bill Haley to Billy Joe Armstrong. The next band to break through the mainstream will be one that fuses the sound, energy and soul of yesteryear with the sounds of today. And most importantly makes something different from it.
Sorry Greta Van Fleet, but one Led Zeppelin is enough.
I say that with peace and love. Peace and Love!! I think they are a decent band and was touting the possibility of them leading the new vanguard of Rock talent just a couple years ago. But, being in an occupation where I still manage to sneak in some rock amongst the Pop, Hip Hop and EDM favorites of today, I don’t think i have ever heard anyone under a certain age speak of them. And trust me, I ask. Don’t get me wrong, I hope for their sake they carve out their own sound to secure their longevity in this ruthless industry, but when almost every single person that ever listens to their music immediately compares them to the same band EVERY TIME, then you might have a problem. This is not to say they can’t thrive in their niche (and that might be exactly what they want to do) but elevating to a level much higher than that which they are currently enjoying may be a challenge.
Bands such as the Black Keys, Queens of the Stone Age, Kings of Leon and Royal Blood have been holding the genre strong, but there is one band that I feel represents the next evolution of Rock.
These guys sound a lot like Pink Floyd and they’re amazing.
In my opinion, that band would be twenty one pilots. This blistering two-piece has all the elements that are appealing to the tastes of the modern listener. Solid bass grooves, bangin beats and splashes of electronica here and there to make things interesting. Josh Dun is a beast on the drums, borrowing heavily from Hip Hop rhythms decades past (who borrowed from everything decades before that). Their beats are huge, in my opinion a testament to Hip Hop being the new most dominant form of music in North America.
“Hip Hop didn’t invent anything. It reinvented everything.”
In fact, if you haven’t noticed, most bands (especially in Alternative) have updated their sound to reflect this. Advances in modern production have expanded the sonic palette with much more emphasis on the lower frequencies than in the past. It’s the new normal, and if your beats don’t knock these days, then chances are your act sounds dated. Take a listen to a couple bands that have managed to stay relevant over the years, Weezer and Fallout Boy. Listen to their singles from as little as 4 years ago and listen to them now. You can hear a noticeable difference in the production quality and style that reflects the tastes of today. They got the memo.
Vocally and melodically the Pilot’s Tyler Joseph aptly represents the angst, fear and love of a generation. I’ve listened to this band evolve over the past few years and to be honest at first I was skeptical. Being a DJ and hip hop artist and more importantly a fan, I often cringe when I hear Rock acts rapping. Let’s be honest, it can go sideways quite easily. You can tell when someone has developed their craft whether it is in the way they command their guitar or by how they deliver on the mic. Or maybe if you’re really good at one thing that means you will be automatically good at something else? Let’s flip it and see if Lil Wayne can give us a rough idea.
Ok. Got it.
While I do prefer Tyler’s singing to his rap skills , after listening to their latest album ‘Trench’, I can see how he is evolving as an MC and seems to have a good instinct for how much of this aspect of his vocal performance to inject into their compositions. They have found a good balance, with some tracks on their latest album, ‘Trench” being straight up Hip Hop beats. (see: ‘Legend’). What I appreciate about this particular electric piano drenched groove is his choice of vocal style. Another example of Tyler’s evolution of creative talents is displayed here. Not afraid to bare his soul, I can only assume his song is about him saying goodbye to his Grandfather for the last time. His ability to tackle specific, situational emotions other than the traditional “man-love-woman” angst, makes him a force to be reckoned with lyrically. Same could be said for “Morph” which digs deeper into Mr. Joseph’s psyche while leaning on rap heavy verses that display technical and creative growth since 2015’s Blurryface. It’s a good sign.
What gives these guys a real shot at inheriting the Kingdom of Rock and propelling themselves into the upper echelons of Pop Culture is their ability to create a sound that is exclusive to them with solid production value that is a good representation of the genre itself and modern music today. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised these dudes share home cities with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Maybe we have begun to witness a new dawn in music. The Cleveland Sound? Wouldn’t be the craziest thing I’ve heard in a while. Not even close. As anyone living in Vancouver can attest to, major cities across North America have witnessed a meteoric rise in housing costs. The ability for young artists to thrive and grow their craft in these metropolises is becoming more and more difficult. I doubt the next big scene will be coming out of New York City, Toronto or San Francisco. I bet the rent is cheap in Cleveland, though.
Other notable recent releases have also given me reason to smile and put the dirt mitt in the air. A recent release by Muse, sees them evolving their sound, and New Orleans’ The Revivalists have injected some much needed soul into the genre. A heavy honorable mention goes to one of my new favorites, The Interruptors. No doubt, comparisons will be made to other bands from the past with these guys as well, but it’s not as glaring. Their ska-infused soundtrack is solidly fronted by Aimee Allen on vocals backed by the Bivona Brothers, part of the Rancid and Tim Timebomb Family. There are two things I like about his act that give them a fighting chance. They inject a fantastic energy to their music and they are fun to listen to. Rock needs more of this.
Thanks for reading and please like, subscribe and follow me not only here, but on my other socials (see below). I will leave you with a link to my favorite cut on twenty one pilots’ Trench, the brothers-in-arms single ‘My Blood’. The swaggering bass groove and atypical subject matter grabbed me at first listen. When they released their creative, emotional, and cleverly timed video for it a few weeks later, I was sold.
Twenty One Pilots – My Blood
The Interruptors – She’s Kerosene
The Revivalists – All My Friends
Muse – Pressure
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