By the mid-70s the most divisive and exciting change in rock music was the development of punk music. Its brutal economy and stark nihilism was a swift reaction to both the social upheavals of the 70s and the decadence of mainstream rock ‘n roll. Joy Division originally started off as a punk band by aping the style of forerunners like The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Buzzcocks. Tony Wilson, the extremely influential head of Factory Records, described Joy Division’s stylistic change from rabble-rousing punk to the darkly melodic sound that became known as post-punk, saying, “Punk enabled you to say ‘fuck you’. But somehow it could only go so far, it was just a venomous two-syllable phrase of anger which was necessary to reignite rock ‘n’ roll. But sooner or later, someone was going to want to say more than “fuck you” someone was going to want to say, ‘I’m fucked’.”
Bands like Joy Divison, Gang of Four, Echo and the Bunnymen and The Cure used the simplicity of punk to convey more complex themes from tortured relationships to social malaise. Simon Reynolds in his definitive book, Rip It Up and Start Again describes the musical period between 1978 and 1984 as just as important for rock history as the golden era of the mid-sixties. A variety of bands and genres emerged from that primordial soup – from the snyth-pop of Depeche Mode to the no-wave of Sonic Youth and what we now commonly refer to as the alternative rock of R.E.M and U2.
Since this hey-day over thirty years ago those offshoots have firmly established themselves in the rock canon but over the last few years there has been a quiet atavistic storm occurring in the most unlikely of destinations: Scandinavia. Coalescing around the scenes in Copenhagen and Stockholm a group of young bands are harking back to the vitality of the early 1980s. They are simultaneously rejecting the pristine pop Scandinavia is famous for and embracing its lesser known punk and hardcore history. These ten songs represent a broad swathe of styles but share the simplicity and frugality of punk while channeling the truly conflicted space that most millennials live in, where there seems no other recourse but to say, “I’m fucked”:
10. Communions – Children
Communions are a four-piece Copenhagen band that share a practice space with other similar bands like Iceage and Lower. Their song “Children” is off of their debut EP, Cobblestones, from earlier this year and was also included on a compilation called Dokument 1, which intended to bring all the nascent bands in the city on to one disc. It’s three minutes of crackling drums, muffled vocals and wiry guitars. There’s a composure to the young band that indicates that they are likely to follow the success of their more illustrious friends.
9. Lust For Youth – Epoetin Alfa
Post-punk bands like Joy Division’s later incarnation New Order melded the world of rock together with the burgeoning world of dance by incorporating more prominent synths and shuffling drum patterns. Lust For Youth whose early recordings were bleak, synthy sketches of electronic dread opted to incorporate a little more light and polish to their new album International. Lead single ‘Epoetin Alfa’, which gets its title from a popular doping drug in cycling and deals with Lance Armstrong’s demise, is indicative of that. The sounds may be slightly warmer but its still a pop sound for everyone with stilted view. Lead singer Hannes Norvide’s hollow and monotone voice cuts through the industrial-tinged instrumentation to muse on society’s fascination with a cultural icon’s dramatic fall from grace and shows the variety of the scene’s music by creating brittle and menacing electro pop.
8. Iceage – White Rune
The first band to emerge from the scene and also the most successful are the Copenhagen band, Iceage. The opening song ‘White Rune’ off their debut New Brigade shows off their talents well from the chugged bass riff that is distorted and is reminiscent of the dark, gothic touches Martin Hannett added to Unknown Pleasures. But the energy here is all punk, as the careening guitars and pounding drums bruise their way through the bandmates’ shared anxiety. The band are known for their kinetic live shows that often play to fans ranging from hardcore skinheads to dark metal enthusiasts. Iceage’s success has been that they do not seem to employ cheap gimmicks; their grit and stone-cold demeanours are all original and frightening. And yet, endlessly exciting.
7. Holograms – Monolith
Although the Copehangen scene is perhaps the most lively, further north the Stockholm scene has proved to be just as vital. The most notable band out of that scene is the young four-piece, Holograms. Their sound is a taut and polished version of bleak synth-backed post-punk. ‘Monolith’ is the standout song from their self-titled debut. Building on an atmospheric and moody intro it erupts into a militaristic stomp lead by the chants of lead singer Andreas Langerström as he shouts, “Standing in line/Skyline/See you fall/On concrete floors” creating their signature tenuous mix of industrial gloom.
6. Vår – Pictures of Today/ Victorial
Vår represents somewhat of a Copenhagen supergroup – made up of members of Iceage, Lower and Sexdrome. Ditching their guitars, they opt for claustrophobic and impenetrably dark synth ravaged songs. There are similarities with early 80s goth, the dissonance of Suicide and the throbbing terror of revivalists like Cold Cave. The most melodic song off of their debut album from last year, No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers, is the ravenous ‘Pictures of Today / Victorial’. Built from a throbbing drumbeat, decaying drones and electronics, its brooding starkness is augmented by the vocals, which are spewed out like ancient Viking incantations. Its brutal minimalism is indicative of a band making beauty out of the most perilous shades of grey.
5. Makthaverskan – Drömland
Operating on the other side of the post-punk spectrum is the Gothenburg band, Makthaverskan. Lead by front-woman Maja Milner, their name translates to ‘powerful woman’ and their textured dream pop is closely aligned to the more anthemic moments of The Cure. They also cite influences like The Velvet Underground and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Their 2014 album II is a great mix of angst ridden and melodic post-punk but the most interesting thing about the young band are the truly awe-inspiring vocals of Milner. ‘Drömland’ begins with the simple ‘Be My Baby’ drum intro but then builds with Milner’s billowing voice to an anthemic and heady conclusion. These young Scandinavians prove that there is just as much tension and stress in blazing daylight as there is in the dark of the night.
4. Holograms – Flesh and Bone
The Scandinavian scene, owing to its legacy in hardcore, has always seemed to flirt with a stark and aggressive image that has often been aligned in the media to nationalistic or fascist sympathies. The bands have often spoken of their generally left-wing backgrounds and have staunchly rejected such criticism. Holograms are the most obvious reaction to that and this is shown on the pulverizing, ‘Flesh and Bone’. On their debut album they often toyed with Sweden’s dark legacy of patriarchy from Viking times to mid-century fascism by attempting to expose the inherent fallacies that are present within nationalistic ideals by playing up on the themes of conflict and aggression.
The cover of their sophomore album Forever features the classic image of a young boy dying and is representative of the overpowering nature of machismo. ‘Flesh and Bone’ burns through its four minutes with an intense and chaotic mix of overdriven guitars, bruising drums and haunting synths. This is held together by the impassioned vocals of Langerström who seemingly acts as the defiant witness to a collapsing and unforgiving world.
3. Makthaverskan – Asleep
Makthaverskan is a window into lead singer Maja Milner’s conflicted and tumultuous mind. The album is intensely personal in its reflections of deadbeat youths and brutal and abusive relationships like how on ‘No Mercy’ Milner shouts with hollow disdain, “Fuck you, for fucking me when I was seventeen”. It is filled with lyrics written to be straightforward and music that feels raw and unvarnished. It was written as an intentional reaction to what they perceived as the straight-laced conception of Swedish pop music.
The brightest moment however is the album’s lead single, ‘Asleep’ which is the bands most definitive moment. Its Cure-like indie sensibility of clean guitar riffs and plucking bass is tempered again by Milner’s vocals as she wails, “It’s not me you’re dreaming of”. Her cry of emotional despair in the context of the song feels like the final cathartic moment at the end of a long period of turmoil.
2. Iceage – Coalition
Iceage are a band that always seems to play to extremes. There is a distinctive punk sound to the band, with most of their songs just creeping over the two-minute mark. But the manner in which they manage to mix their shredding guitars and gunfire drums to such tormented yet tight effect suggests that they are a band that have spent hours honing and perfecting their particular brand of anarchic chaos.
Their second album, You’re Nothing, represented not a transformation but a progression of their sound that amplified and sharpened their style. ‘Coalition’ shows off that new found precision, as every element feels considered and practiced without losing the raw energy that they are known for. That all leads to Elias Bender Rønnenfelt stark vocals that reach breaking point when he screams, “Excess! Excess! Excess!”. Which are ironic lyrics for a band that has developed a style that is pure economy, no faff or filler, just pure punk heart.
1. Lower – Craver
The bands of the Copenhagen underground scene seem like members of an extended family, sharing members and helping each other record their own DIY records. Lower share members with Sexdrome but rose to prominence on the back of their sensational Walking on Heads EP. Sharing a similar ethos to Iceage, their punk music is immediate but well crafted and melodic. Drummer Anton Rothstein commented on their sound saying, ‘We’re not aiming for joyous or sunny tunes. Someone labeled it “downer punk” and “depression rock.” I don’t know if I would say “aggressive,” I would rather use “afraid.”’
Despite that context nothing quite prepares you for the laser-like brutality of their 2012 single ‘Craver’. The drums stutter as the guitars tentatively screech into action and lead singer Adrian Toubro’s voice blasts through the debris with all the force of a man possessed. It’s the standout single from all the young Scandinavian bands not simply because of its excellent instrumentation but more so because it embodies the defining theme that marked post-punk development three decades ago. As the song build on the pounding bass riff and reaches its bareknuckle conclusion you can’t help but be overcome by the overwhelming sense of how desperate Toubro sounds; the same desperation that gripped frontmen like Ian Curtis, Johnny Rotten and Jon King. There is a sense of kinship in this common and universal feeling but that familiarity is swiftly overcome by a deep and glooming fear. Rothstein was right, this is music to be “afraid” of.