By Alex Holt
One of the most interesting recent trends in alternative rock is how readily many bands have re-embraced a synthesizer sound. Back in the 1980s, synths were often telltale signs that a band was mainstream. “Real music” had churning guitars and thrashing drums.
This is why it’s so interesting when bands like the Killers and the Ting-Tings show up on college radio stations. The Killers and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, in particular, blur the lines between indie and electronica.
Songs like “Human” and “Zero” feature enough synthesizers to fill a Tears For Fears album and reflect a glossy, retro-futuristic feel worlds away from the near-sludge of say, Soundgarden or the Foo Fighters. Yet they also share the same strong vocals, catchy hooks and quirky lyrics. The attitude of heavy rock is still there, but with a little more going on in the background.
This same contradiction carries over to other bands who borrow from New Order just as much as Joy Division or Husker Du. One of MGMT’s biggest hits, “Electric Feel,” with its catchy hooks, falsetto vocals and upbeat vibe, it wouldn’t be out of place on an ‘80s new wave compilation.
Even Ben Gibbard, front man for the decidedly non synth-based Death Cab For Cutie, has actually had just as much success (if not more) with his electro-pop sidegroup the Postal Service, whose song “Such Great Heights” has become the background music for UPS ads.
So what’s behind this shift away from loud guitars and crashing drums toward sweeping synthesizers and steady drum machines? Part of it is that music software has made it much easier to create music that doesn’t sound like it comes from a specific set of instruments without bordering on overkill, like so much ‘80s pop did.
Also, mainstream groups like Creed, 3 Doors Down, Hinder and that most detested of all bands, Nickelback (not to mention the entire emo movement), have overused plodding grunge-esque chords to the point where they seem as boring and clichéd as synth pop did in Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley’s heyday.
Besides, when you consider how many bands at the beginning of the last decade imitated Gang of Four and Joy Division, it really shouldn’t be so surprising that many of them eventually chose to explore the rest of the offshoots of the New Wave music made in the 1980s.
For all the 360-degree transformations alternative music has undergone since it first became a distinct phenomenon in the late 1970s, the one quality that has always remained is a determination to be different from whatever was previously considered the musical norm.
In the early 1990s, that meant breaking out the guitars and drums and letting loose. But now, 20 years later, it means synthesizers and songs you can dance to. It might seem like quite a change from what most bands have previously been doing, but that just means it’s being done right.