Perfect Sound Forever


Murder Capital, M(h)aol (photo by Jason Gross), Fontaines D.C. (photo by Daniel Topete)

by Brian F. Cousins
(June 2023)

James Carville, Bill Clinton's Presidential campaign manager said in 1992, "it's the economy, Stupid!" Did he know something about the current Dublin Post-Punk explosion that only became apparent to lesser minds many years later?

Music has always been a huge part of Irish culture and there were many highly successful bands in the '90's in the wake of U2's success, noticeably Sinead O'Connor, The Cranberries and The Corrs. Music making and songwriting is now seen as a practical career path. It is no longer simply considered an artistic endeavor or an end in itself but it is still enthusiastically enjoyed and supported in the country.

However in the last five years, the emergence of a vibrant Post-Punk movement is difficult to make sense of. This is music that is not really commercially viable in terms of reaching a mainstream audience. So why has there been such a huge resurgence of this music form in Dublin?

By 2019, there was rash of quality Post-Punk Dublin bands, most noticeably, the Gilla Band (formally known as the Girl Band), Fontaines D.C., The Murder Capital and M(h)aol. These bands have produced a torrent of exceptional music- all three of the Fontaines albums are excellent as well as the debut from the Murder Capital and the Gilla Band continue to produce some of the most unique and challenging music on the planet.

When Punk and later Post-Punk first happened in the late '70's and early '80's, Ireland was in a severe financial depression, unemployment was dangerously high, inflation rampant, poverty and lack of opportunity abounded. In these financial circumstances, Punk made total sense. It was a reaction to the financial reality that most young people were experiencing. Education did not lead to employment, interest and mortgage rates were prohibitively high and many people actually considered immigration from Ireland to either the UK or the US as a solution to their financial problems.

With the rise of Thatcherism in the UK and Reaganism in the United States, Punk had something to fight against- it had visible enemies that he could attack and vilify. Support for the Miners strike in the UK (1984-5) solidified the political dimension and gave it a practical focus- music and politics were combined in a struggle for equality and workers rights.

The Post-Punk movement emerged after the initial explosion of Punk by incorporating a broader perspective. It included a much wider worldview, an appreciation of the arts and culture. It even borrowed ideas from Prog Rock, incorporating elements from that maligned form as well as a nascent world music, modern African music, Jamaican Dub and early 70's German experimental music.

From this upheaval came music as diverse as the Pop Group's political diatribes, Cabaret Voltaire's electronic cut-ups and invention, the Raincoats' and Slits' eco-feminism, and Delta 5's and Au Pairs' sexual egalitarianism. And the relatively more conventional and better known Gang of Four, Joy Division, Public Image Limited, and Siouxsie and Banshees were more successful and enduring in a rock context but no less innovative.

But this music was very much confined to its original time period. New music came along- rap, hip-hop, and Neo-Soul in the U.S., House, Techno, BritPop in the U.K. Post-Punk was consigned to musical history, never quite forgotten by those who had embraced it but it seemed less relevant in the 21st Century.

By the mid '90's in Ireland, there was a huge economic shift known as the Celtic Tiger. Economic prosperity has finally arrived in Ireland- today, many of the large international corporations have their European headquarters in Dublin. There was a newly formed extensive financial services center in Dublin and also rampant financial inequality. Homelessness is now an issue due to increased property prices and increased rents.There has been a dramatic change from the '80's when homelessness was virtually unknown and social and financial inequality was far less extreme. Dublin, as a modern international city, is as divided between the have's and have not's as any other wealthy city in the world.

The financial crisis of 2008 was particularly severe in Ireland. Property prices that had been greatly over-valued crashed, banks failed and the construction industry all but ceased to exist. There was a collective realization that the boom and bust syndrome, long associated in Irish minds with the U.S of A., had fully arrived in the Emerald Isle.

Those in their early teens then are now the members of the bands and the audience that embraces and understands this re-emergence of Post-Punk. It makes sense in their world. This is the generation that was promised wealth and stability throughout education and entrepreneurship, only to have this it snatched away through recession and economic collapse. Yet this was a generation that was exposed to a world of unlimited choice and opportunity by the internet and raised in relative privilege by virtue of the economic prosperity from '95 to '08.

And it makes sense that it is not the rage and anger of Punk that this generation feels attached to- it is the more worldly and privileged vantage point that resonates. The metaphorical silver spoon has been withdrawn and these kids want it back ("and like right now, please and thank you"). There is, at times, a blatant careerist attitude from the likes of the Fontaines and The Murder Capital that was the antithesis of the original Post-Punk movement. In fact, an almost deliberately disdain for commercial success was commonplace particularly for the bands on independent labels. There is also a bratty privileged casualness to the feminist M(h)aol that would stand out against the original urgency of Delta 5 or the Au-Pairs. Really, the only current band that could seamlessly fit in with the original movement would be the Gilla Band, where their music and live performance are almost a matter of blunt force trauma, delivered with tender loving care to a willing audience.

The contrast with another Dublin band, The Thrills, whose career ended prior to the recession of 2008, is striking, These ambitious young men on their 2003 debut So Much for the City embraced a sunny California sound reminiscent of the Beach Boys, the Byrds and Lauren Canyon, which reflected their optimism and aspirations and those of their generation. The music and lyrics had no connection to any Irish reality and only acted as nostalgia for a past that never existed. Their demise was no great tragedy.

However, the desire for financial stability should not be dismissed- this current generation has experienced the harshness of recession and the punitive restrictions of COVID. In fact, these bands are with their careerism only responding in a responsible manner to the challenges that their generation now face. Home ownership in Ireland has never been more difficult, social media adds to social anxiety, insecurity is exposed and weakness is on display. They have not been dealt a great hand but these bands are playing their cards with a skill and confidence that can only be admired.

The Fontaines D.C. have delivered three consistently great albums that are as robust and as vital as any band playing today. From 2019's Dogrel to 2020's A Hero's Death to last year's Skinty Fia, vocalist and lyricist Grian Chatten deploys everyday phrases and language to remarkable effect. He elevates and renders the banal profound, which is no small talent. Focusing more and more on "Irishness" as defined in opposition to "Englishness," he draws from his life and experience, finding his voice and phrasing with increased confidence. The band and music is supportive and expansive and growing forever more assured. It seems like their best days are ahead of them and there is no telling where their talent may take them. Live, they know how to deliver, playing short intense sets. The only reservation is Grian's reticence- at a post-COVID show at Brooklyn Steel, his lack of stage banter seemed odd and standoffish. He didn't even acknowledge that none of this had been possible for the previous two years and seemed ill at ease between songs.

The Murder Capital's first album When I have Fears (2019) produced with great finesse by Flood is another remarkable album. Clearly a more considered proposition than the Fontaines and owing a considerable debt to Joy Division, they nevertheless delivered a stunning album. Centered on a friend's suicide, there is a gravitas and formality that seems appropriate. Just how they will develop remains to be determined. Their second album Gigi's Recovery was released this year and is intentionally a very different recording. It's a more nuanced collection but lacks the emotional punch of their debut. There are beautiful subtle musical touches though. Seeing them recently at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, their attention to musical detail was remarkable. Musicians' musicians for sure. Like the Fontaines, they exude a seriousness and naked ambition.

M(h)aol played a scrappy live in-store at Rough Trade records in Manhattan earlier this year on a New York pitstop en-route to SXSW. They offer a female/feminist perspective and deal with issues of sexual identity and desire. Singer Roisin Ni Ghearsailt's is never less than completely frank but at times, the band seem to write and perform for themselves rather than an audience. They are simultaneously having a blast and letting off steam with the audience only invited as witnesses to observe the band figuring life out. It's a strange and unsatisfying proposition.

The band that really started it all for the Dublin Post-Punk revival are the Gilla Band. Originally called Girl Band, they changed their name, as the all-male band felt it to be inappropriate and disrespectful. However, there is nothing woke or precious about Dara Kiely and friends. This is one of most visceral and confrontational bands on the planet at the moment. It is tempting to imagine that Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band are a primary influence given Kiely surreal and absurdist lyrics/words and the abrasive and disjointed music fragments that form the "songs," However, Gilla Band have more in common with surrealist bands like A Witness, Big Flame and Stump featured on the C86 NME compilation (from 1986). Gilla Band's music is as abrasive as any Steve Albini project and has no real associations with any traditional musical genres. Kiely's words are really ruins and fragmented memories of traumatic events, tangential and absurdist but are peppered with mentions of food, clothes, money and occasionally love. He is particularly partial to five Euro banknotes (fivers), Nutella (a chocolate and walnut spread) and Eason's (a Dublin bookstore). He "rants and raves" in a deliberately unpoetic fashion but occasionally, he slips up and turns eloquent despite his best efforts to remain random and unhinged.

"Math plus Math
It equals Maths
A crooked dovetail
A necklace claps"

Gilla Band is not for the faint hearted. It's as if Kiely keeps trying to test his audience, not to shock in any sensational fashion but rather to expose the audience to the working of his mind. He wants us to know how his brain works or attempts to work and how it feels to be him. He's kindly sharing his pain and confusion with us.

He is open about his mental health struggles too. The band at times have had to postpone or cancel live shows and touring due to his fragility. This is really striking in an Irish context where there is still a huge social stigma associated with mental health issues and intense secrecy surrounding it.

On the closing track on the current album, "Most Normal," Kiely breaks from behind the wall of absurdity and addresses his mental health concerns directly. It is the pivotal point that the band have been building over their three albums.

"A kerfuffle with the psycho muscle,
Psycho muscle, psycho muscle, psycho muscle,
I'm in between Breakdown, constantly
In Recovery
I'm in Recovery"

And later he adds:

"Took it all for granted,
Gonna end up homeless,
I hid behind the surreal
I'm a bit too much"

In acknowledging his issues and making his vulnerability explicit, he is, one would hope, really starting to overcome his problems, building strength and confidence and becoming a more stable person. At a Brooklyn Made show earlier this year, he seemed to have his ducks all lined up in a row and was friendly and relaxed on stage as the band pulverized the audience with a demented sonic assault. Such are the joys of great live music.

Check out Brian Cousin's Hollander and Lexer shop for fine shirts
and check out his store in Industry City, Brooklyn where he features excellent vinyl also.

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