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As the name implies, this music is that intersection where the spartan values and energy of punk rock meets the intelligence, ambition and futurism of art rock. Movements under the “art punk” umbrella include post-punk, post-hardcore, and post-punk revival among others, even though the identifier “art punk” is not as commonly used as those terms. Some notable art punk bands include Joy Division, Mission of Burma, Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and At the Drive-In.
Art Punk’s earliest roots are a number of late 1960s and early 1970s groups who combined abrasive garage rock sounds with avant-garde ideas derived from modern classical music and experimentation with electronic sounds and other strange instruments. The earliest of these groups were the The Velvet Underground, made up of close associates of pop artist Andy Warhol, and Pink Floyd as lead by Syd Barrett, both groups important progenitors of art rock in a greater sense. Groups who followed directly in their wake, like Hawkwind and Roxy Music, who featured a young Brian Eno in their lineup, were very influential to art punk specifically, as were a number of darker, noisier psychedelic groups, like The 13th Floor Elevators, and the German krautrock movement consisting of Can and Neu! among others, which placed a premium on minimalism and the integration of electronic elements, most prominently the synthesizer, into rock music. Concurrent to all of this activity was the UK glam rock movement which launched the career of art rock icon David Bowie and favored an over-the-top, theatrical sensibility, a more intense permutation of ’60s garage rock played by groups like The Stooges, The New York Dolls, The Modern Lovers and The MC5, the ambitious progressive rock movement made up of musicians like Yes and King Crimson who sought to pursue rock and roll as art music via extended pieces, the dub phenomena in Jamaica in which reggae songs were reworked in instrumental, often bass-heavy form, and the British pub rock movement, something of a UK answer to American garage rock. All of this was influential to punk rock in general and/or art punk specifically, and much of the indie rock of the following decades.
As the 1970s continued on, a bohemian rock scene began to develop in New York’s Lower East side, around clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, which would eventually become ground zero for the American classic punk scene. In addition to more traditionally minded classic punk groups like The Ramones and The Dead Boys, more ambitious, progressive groups like Talking Heads, Television, and Patti Smith also played an important, perhaps even superior role. As American punk grew, so did art punk, which was commonly termed post-punk around this time, despite the fact that it grown both within and along side of more basic punk music. It grew to encompass Ohio upstarts Devo and Pere Ubu , as well as spawned the no wave scene, comprised of several New York-based art punk extremists. Punk soon had become a full-fledged, cohesive movement and had spread to Great Britain in pretty short order, and with The Damned and The Sex Pistols came more avant-garde groups like Siouxsie And The Bansees, Joy Division, Wire, Bauhaus, Gang of Four, The Slits, The Cure and The Raincoats among others. Activity in America continued, with Boston’s Mission of Burma becoming important, no wave fusing with late-period disco and then-nascent hip hop for a brief time resulting in influential work on 99 Records from ESG, Liquid Liquid and Bush Tetras as well as the development of a scene in the college town of Athens, Georgia, which gave rise to playful groups like Pylon and The B-52s . Art punk had even transcended the Anglophone world as evinced by France’s Metal Urbain, among others. By 1980, there was even some considerable mainstream interest in art punk, thanks to fluke hit singles by artier bands like Devo’s “Whip It,” Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster.”
As the 1980s continued, new wave became very popular. New Wave was a lighter, more pop-friendly version of post-punk, which began in the late 1970s with groups like The Cars and CBGB veterans Blondie, and grew to encompass critically and commercially successful groups like Dublin, Ireland’s U2, The Police from London, The Smiths from Manchester, and Athens, Georgia’s R.E.M.. synth-pop, a New Wave offshoot referring to an electronics-driven, vaguely angular type of pop music, also became popular. Meanwhile, death rock, a style of music borne from the gloomy, melodic, bass-driven post-punk of Joy Division and the Cure among others garnered a cult following thanks to groups like Christian Death, Sisters of Mercy and The Virgin Prunes, which in turn birthed the goth subculture. Also, as the careers of the initial crop of post-punk groups progressed, they either broke up or gradually lost their more abrasive edges, gravitating towards pop and dance music.
During this same period, hardcore punk was gaining notoriety in the fledgling American underground music scene. Pioneered by groups like The Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat and Bad Brains, hardcore stripped away most of the elements of classic punk derived from classic rock, the british invasion, and early rock and roll, and ratcheted up the speed, volume, and intensity of the music. Around the same time post-punk was disintegrating in the mid 1980s, some members of the hardcore punk scene were frustrated with the lack of stylistic innovation and diversity increasingly present, as well as the violence from within the scene and the harassment by authority figures from outside of it. In Washington DC, Minor Threat singer Ian MacKaye’s Dischord records spearheaded a conscious effort to break with the musical and social constraints of hardcore via a 1985 campaign by the label called “revolution summer,” resulting in the creation of post-hardcore. The two most notable groups emanating from that period were Rites of Spring, and MacKaye’s own Embrace. Lyrically self-reflexive and introspective, both groups were far more conscious of melody and rhythm than any previous hardcore of note, and their songs much more intricately composed. Wildly cathartic, Rites of Spring, Embrace, and other groups of their ilk were derisively dubbed “emocore” by those critical of this new direction, which to the chagrin of major figures such as Ian MacKaye and Rites of Spring frontman Guy Picciotto became a quite popular name for music that broke with hardcore’s traditions. These newer groups were not without precedent, however, as there was some noteworthy experimentation within hardcore, most prominently The Minutemen’s flirtations with funk, classic rhythm and blues, and minimalist concepts, Husker Du’s well-honed pop songcraft and creation of Zen Arcade, a double-disc concept album that expanded upon the hardcore punk form, Flipper’s garage rock dirges, and even hardcore godfathers Black Flag’s experiments with noise, dissonance, and atonality. Additionally, noise rock bands formed in the early 1980s like one-time New York no-wavers and eventual art punk institutions Sonic Youth and Swans, as well as the Metal Urbain-inspired Big Black from Chicago, had persisted in playing proudly bracing, loud, confrontational and intelligent art punk, even after art punk’s first wave had grown increasingly mainstream.
Mid 1980s emocore was not art punk proper, though it was inspired at least partially by post-punk and new wave. It was not until 1987 that post-hardcore gained its art rock qualities, thanks to groups like Happy Go Licky, which comprised the entirety of Rites of Spring’s lineup and experimented heavily with elements of no wave, noise rock, and 99 Records-style punk-funk, and Annapolis, Maryland’s Moss Icon, who made use of non-traditional song structures, sharp dynamic contrast, and improvisational techniques. Moss Icon experimented with their sound restlessly throughout their brief career, which ended in 1991, while Happy Go Licky’s Guy Picciotto and Brendan Canty eventually joined with Ian MacKaye and bassist Joe Lally in their new project, Fugazi, which went on to be the definitive art punk group of the 1990s by constantly touring around the world and building and improving on their basic sound, essentially noisy yet distinctive guitar work set against a tight, hard-hitting and complex rhythm section. Noise rock continued to remain strong in the late 1980s, a period which included the release of Sonic Youth’s most renown album, 1988’s Daydream Nation. In the UK, there was little art punk activity in a strict sense, though many members of the shoegaze, madchester, and to a slight degree britpop movements were inspired by post-punk and noise rock.
As the 1980s became the 1990s, post-hardcore continued to spread through the American underground, as did noise rock and math rock, a style which placed a premium on the usage of odd time signatures and complex melodic motifs which eventually moved beyond art punk and became an art rock subgenre in its own right. The distinction between post-hardcore, noise rock, and math rock was often quite blurry, and generally speaking the art punk of this time period was increasingly complex, ambitious and emotional, and often found inspiration in avant-garde jazz and progressive rock. In the wake of popular flagship groups like Fugazi and shellac, groups like Kerosene 454 and Hoover from Washington DC, 1.6 Band, Native Nod, and Rye Coalition from the greater New York area, Trenchmouth, Gauge and cap’n jazz from Chicago, Drive Like Jehu, Clikatat Ikatowi, and Antioch Arrow from San Diego, Lungfish and Universal Order Of Armageddon, who featured ex-Moss Icon guitarist Tonie Joy, from the greater Baltimore area, and many more across the United States. Not all of these groups were especially abrasive or anti-commercial, as evinced by the more melodic and pop-structured stylings of Jawbox, Shudder To Think, and Sunny Day Real Estate.
Starting in the mid 1990s, a number of hard-edged art punk groups including The VSS and Braniac reintroduced electronic instruments into their sound in a way that recalled Devo and Pere Ubu, perhaps following in the spirit of Rhode Island group Six Finger Satellite. The slightly more accessible Les Savy Fav and The Dismemberment Plan were also practitioners of this, and both of those groups became quite prominent in the late 1990s. Though the synthesizer, and to a lesser extent the drum machine and the practice of tape and sound manipulation had played a very important role in the art punk of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it had all but disappeared from the music by the late 1980s. Their reintroduction into art punk led to a renewed interest in the original post-punk music of the 1970s and 1980s, and also evinced a recognition of the growing hip hop and techno scenes, as well as renewed sense of exploration of musical styles outside of art rock and punk.
The culmination of all of this new activity was an ambitious and energetic El Paso group called At the Drive-In, a post-hardcore group with a strong latin and afro-caribbean rhythmic bent and a proclivity towards experimentation with guitar effects and electronics. Perhaps inadvertently, At The Drive-In did much to bring art punk to mainstream attention, even if they were sometimes misconstrued as nu metal. At The Drive-In, for a time, stood poised for mass popularity on an international scale in the wake of their 2000 album Relationship of Command, yet broke up soon afterwards into two groups, prog-rockers The Mars Volta and the arena rock-tinged Sparta. Nonetheless, along with Les Savy Fav and the Dismemberment Plan, they helped make art punk more accessible and prominent, and readied the music for the next stage in its development.
At The Drive-In’s break up roughly marks the end of art punk’s long second phase. Many leaders of the scene either broke up or gone on hiatus at the dawn of the new Millennium, including Fugazi, Shellac, Six Finger Satellite, and the Dismemberment Plan. emo (the term referring back to the original “emocore”) had risen to prominence around the time of At The Drive-In’s break up, comprising of groups like Braid, Jimmy Eat World and Saves The Day. Informed by early 1990s group Cap’n Jazz sunny, melodic, and uptempo brand of post-hardcore, these groups played an accessible, mainstream-friendly derivative of post-hardcore. Though a product of 1990s art punk, Emo was largely devoid of any progressive or avant-garde ambitions, and lost any it might have had as it became an extremely widespread cultural phenomena and youth subculture over the course of the 2000s. In response to this (and perhaps mainline art punk’s embrace of electronics), a puritanical post-hardcore movement known as skram coalesced, with many groups drawing from the chaotic side of 1990s post-hardcore. Members of this movement included Saetia, Orchid and Yaphet Kotto.
Also popular around 2000 was the garage rock revival, which comprised groups who updated the sound of British Invasion groups like The Kinks and The Yardbirds, American garage groups like the Stooges, the MC5 and The Sonics, and to a slightly lesser extent, classic punk. Members of the early 2000s revival included The White Stripes, The Libertines and The Hives among others. Cross-pollination between these groups and the still-strong remnants of the late 1990s art punk scene resulted art punk’s third wave, commonly termed Post-Punk Revival, despite the fact that it far from a pure imitation of the sounds of late 1970s and early 1980s post-punk. Third wave art punk does indeed draw from early art punk as well as noise rock and post-hardcore, but it also is typically informed by contemporary dance music and occasionally hip hop. Another common feature of third wave art punk is a lineup somehow incomplete by traditional rock standards. Usually a bassist is missing, though some groups lack a guitarist in favor of a bassist or keyboardist.
New York City was initially a major center for early third wave art punk, as it was home to Interpol, who combined the gloomy melodies of Joy Division with the intricate guitar work of Television, Sonic Youth and The Chameleons, The Rapture who moved from an intense and spare style to smooth dance-pop over the course of their career, Liars, who were easily the most challenging of the initial group of third wave bands and noteworthy for complete stylistic reinvention with each subsequent album they release, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the most confrontational third wave group at the time who had an unexpected mainstream hit with their ballad “Maps,” and commercially successful garage rock revival crossovers The Strokes. There was also overlap between these groups and full fledged art rock units like TV on the Radio and more dance-oriented units like !!! and LCD Soundsystem, the latter of which the project of long time art punk scenester James Murphy. Most of these groups had a strong pop sensibility about them, and were subject to much attention in the music press at the time. The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs both landed major label contracts early on, and indeed much early third wave art punk could be heard on alternative rock radio at the time.
New York was far from the only center for third wave, though. Washington DC produced the melodic yet challenging Q and Not U and the abrasive Black Eyes and Seattle gave rise to the jittery Blood Brothers and the technically virtuosic Pretty Girls Make Graves. Great Britain was again a major international player in art punk, producing among others the moody British Sea Power, the spiky Maximo Park, The Futureheads, who combined off-kilter vocal harmonies with heavy guitar work and odd time signatures, and Bloc Party, arguably the most complex of the British groups.
By 2007, many of the major third wave groups had released at least one album, and some had broken up. It was not uncommon, though, for a third wave band’s critical and commercial standing to decrease dramatically as their career progressed. Additionally, there was the phenomenon of groups like The Killers and The Bravery who played a lighter, more pop style of third wave art punk, and groups highly derivative of other groups, for example Interpol imitators Editors. The response to this was the art punk audience’s return of attention to the underground. Groups in the American cities of Baltimore, such as Ponytail, Double Dagger, videohippos, and The Death Set, and Los Angeles, such as Health, Mika Miko, Abe Vigoda and No Age began playing varieties of third wave art punk that were either more forwardly avant-garde than that which had immediately preceded it, inflected with elements of hardcore, or in many cases, both. This is the current state of art punk. Not only are the individuals who comprise these bands newcomers to rock music, but some are veterans of the art punk scene, as well This new strain of more intense, energetic and abrasive contemporary art punk is far from limited to those two geographical areas, as evinced by San Francisco’s Mi Ami, New York’s These Are Powers, the UK’s PRE and Future of the Left, Canada’s AIDS Wolf, Australia’s Love of Diagrams. The future of art punk remains to be seen, and is open to speculation.