On "Horns Surrounding Me", a track from Julia Holter’s magnificent Loud City Song, the muse longs to wander softly through life, but something interrupts her. “Horns surrounding me, so forcefully and high!” she cries. “We will run forever with the hot timpani bang!”
The intrusion, illustrated by jarring brass, belongs to a marching band who bombard her every step. In the album’s context – of a reluctant celebrity “trying to get through society” – they represent flashing paparazzi, and in turn the public gaze. But the imposing brass also symbolises the wider social pressures of our time: car horns, beeping phones, rolling news; the hubbub of social media and technology; ads at home, ads at work, on the tube. One thousand voices that all have what you want.
Four of the most electrifying albums of 2013 describe our relationship with this new noise. Accordingly the noise induces four states, ranging from integration to retreat to rejection and collapse. Where Holter’s music assimilates city sounds, Savages’ Silence Yourself fights to gag outside voices. While These New Puritans paint a corrupted nature on Field of Reeds, Doldrums harnesses technology’s creative possibilities to publicise its dehumanising effect.
“The world has been really loud ever since the industrial revolution,” Holter muses of the phenomenon, “but (on Loud City Song) it’s not always literal. I think advertising and stuff is really loud and in your face. "Horns Surrounding Me" is about someone trying to have a quiet moment and intimacy in their life, but they can’t. Even their love life is too loud, too unfocused and superficial. So there’s no truth. They’re trying to find truth, true love, but it’s hard... because there’s a marching band chasing them.”
As well as crafting sounds that mimic car horns and groaning railway tracks, Holter integrates into the record real metropolitan noise. To get a feel for LA’s rhythm, she walked up Hollywood Boulevard making field recordings, occasionally being interrupted by skidding cars and celebrity-tour guides. You grasp her relationship with the city through her lyrics, which, against a backdrop of traditional instruments, transfigure LA’s grey mundanities into artful ones. "This is a True Heart" wonders, “Did you ever see a downtown businessman / Sing a joyful talk in a suit made out of song?”
Although Holter’s muse embraces the hubbub, panic paves her city. After "Horns Surrounding Me" comes a song called "Into the Green Wild", whose title and content introduce a withdrawal reflex, the yen to retreat into nature. It’s a common fantasy for modern musicians: to insulate their music behind an escapist portal. The noise has vanished, replaced by enforced calm, but its presence remains, as in a traumatised subconscious.
It’s this implied loudness that empowers Julianna Barwick’s immaculate Nepenthe. Its soothing drones and choral vowels sharply counterbalance metropolitan noise, an implied but no less vital presence in the music. That presence further crystallises on Jon Hopkins’ Immunity, a stunning concept record that depicts the trajectory of a night out: over seven tracks it recedes from heavy clubbing noise to white-light piano. Essentially, the album’s second half retreats from its glow-pulsing first.
Perhaps most symptomatic of the withdrawal reflex is Lesser Evil, the debut from Montreal’s Doldrums. Even though, as he quickly highlights, his true commitment is to live performance, Airick Woodhead records hermetic and insular music. His subject is the noise of technology, whose defocusing effect stems from invasive advertising, constant connectivity (ironically, Woodhead’s aversion to phones made him frustratingly hard to contact for our interview) and the invisible electronic wires that bind us. Hear the spiralling, black hole synths of "Lost in Everyone", a disorienting number that links globalised alienation to internal oblivion.
"Today, technology can’t be good or bad; it’s just there"
“If you want to create some fictitious world for your music, then do that,” Woodhead says of the allure of retreat. “But it’s important to exist adequately in both worlds. I could never be one of those ‘Second Life 4 Liferz’, peeing through a tube and going 24/7 on www.doldrums.com”.
This devout commitment to physicality, which ten years ago would’ve seemed absurd, is not uncharacteristic of Woodhead’s type. A friend of Claire Boucher, he furthers Grimes’ inroads into ‘internet music’, a term defined by a combination of insular electronic sounds and - thanks to the web’s disintegration of monoculture – a firm disinterest in the boundaries of genre or taste. Along with Braids’ Flourish//Perish and Blue Hawaii’s Untogether, both Montreal-based 2013 releases, Lesser Evil creates a musical forcefield from which to peer at a problematic world.
These are records that, like their creators, depend on the same technology they reject. Their message is that because technological noise is omnipresent, the only place to hide is within it. Today, technology can’t be good or bad; it’s just there.
“THE WORLD USED TO BE SILENT
NOW IT HAS TOO MANY VOICES
THE NOISE IS A CONSTANT DISTRACTION
THEY MULTIPLY, INTENSIFY
THEY WILL DIVERT YOUR ATTENTION TO WHAT’S CONVENIENT
AND FORGET TO TELL YOU ABOUT YOURSELF”
- excerpt from Savages’ Silence Yourself cover essay
Savages, as we know, are hardly retreating types. Conveniently, their manifesto echoes a quote of Julia Holter’s reminding us “not to have things thrown at [our] ears; to listen actively instead of passively”. When Silence Yourself opens with a song called "Shut Up", you know what’s coming: an album of fuming invective, oratory shout-singing and plumes of distortion. On "City’s Full", a driving bass-led tune, singer Jehnny Beth muses, “I love the rings around your eyes / I love the stretch marks on your thighs”. It’s a romantic couplet with aggressive intent, indicting a culture of “skinny pretty girls” who populate sidewalks, ads and shopfronts in the song’s opening line.
Certainly this culture accounts in part for Beth’s jittery and paranoid tone. And yet, stoked on “I am here” self-assertion, Silence Yourself punches through social anxiety to violently strip modern indie of apathy, distractibility and complacency. Savages borrow the tools of ethic-driven postpunk to counteract noise, not by self-removal, but systematic empowerment. That’s not meant in the word’s common translation - that they dare to express femininity - but rather that they antagonise nonspecific forces of evil, extolling the power of silence to excite a kind of sexual, intellectual and psychological renewal.
In this sense, Silence Yourself is a twisted twin to Doldrums’, Braids’ and Blue Hawaii’s musical hideaways, all designed to illuminate and offer an alternative to modern anxieties. Even Holter’s Loud City Song, an album given to the oblique, ends with a redemptive cleansing. "City Appearing", its closing track, describes a downtown fire burning through “trombones on the roofs” and “the screamers who fell in love or died”; the flames symbolise both lust and death – not an image you’d struggle to imagine Savages conceiving.
The ambiguity of apocalypse is again implied in Field of Reeds, a major work that installed These New Puritans as cult national treasures. Its finale, the title track, is a grand spiritual renewal, less evoking a celestial afterlife than a glorious retrenchment of nature over humanity. Despite his dispelling overarching theories, Jack Barnett’s closing lyric, “I am in the wrong place, so I will go away” (which prompts his premature erasure from the song) seems strikingly pertinent to the theme of intrusive humanity.
Subconsciously, if at all, Field of Reeds is for all its innovation a wonderfully sentimental album. Its opening suite of fragmentary piano and tranquil strings establishes a landscape that evokes the Thames estuary islands of the band’s homecounty. What follows is an increasing contrast between pastoral and electronic sounds, especially evident in the insurgent, traffic-jam electronics of "Organ Eternal". But like Holter, Barnett admits an affinity for aspects of certain cities – at one point, he mentions the strange “serenity” of Tokyo. Discussing the album's song "The Light in Your Name", he says, “All the best things have this ecstatic chaotic quality, you know? Love, et cetera. And I like it when music reflects that”.
If there’s something the above share, it is a desire to rejuvenate, to somehow appropriate the new noise and use it as leverage for entering a new consciousness. Even Savages, in calling for calmness of thought, drive towards a world where we again harness the awakening power of volume: “Silence yourself,” they insist, but seem to add, “and next time, scream louder!”
In Holter’s universe, the city’s future is ambiguous. “The thing is,” she says, “with "City Appearing", in one way it’s a fire and in another way its love. So it’s almost like the city’s burning but it’s burning with desire.” She laughs. “It’s like, okay, I feel at odds with this city, but I’m going to embrace it and live with it. Live with all this noise. And then in the end there’s this apocalyptic realisation.” But isn’t it a happy ending? “Yes, it was to me,” Holter concludes, shrugging. “I think apocalypses can be positive.”