Album Review: Airship, "Stuck in this Ocean"

The first few seconds of the first track on this album tell you everything you need to know about this young English band and, much more importantly, their fate and the fate of the music scene in general.

Let me as precise as possible. The track – named Algebra for some reason – starts with tentative, high-pitched, and atonal vocal notes, treated with echo. After a few seconds of this avant-gardism, a burst of more conventional drums and guitar feedback arrives (in a production room package) and injects a surge of frenetic energy, after which a plodding but pleasant melody emerges as the guitars and drums are pushed up and down in the mix to maintain energy levels. This sets the template for this song and several others.

Now, why is this so revealing? Because this music effectively signals three things: (1) avant-garde gesturalism, (2) commercial conservatism, and – most importantly of all – (3) a sense of claustrophobia, which I believe is the dominant note of all modern rock music.

The claustrophobia is the most important, so let’s deal with that first as all else flows from that. The real cause of this is the cultural “Super Gravity” of the GRAND TRI-DECADE.

The Grand Tri-Decade refers to the Golden Age of rock and pop that covered the three decades of the 1960s, 70s, and the 90s. This was effectively a realization and exhaustion of musical possibilities that were themselves created by intensified cultural links and new technologies. To be young and musically talented in this era was to walk like a god among men, the epitome being David Bowie, who died earlier this year, and whose death brought these long-harboured ideas into sharper focus in my mind.

By the 1990s all the low- and middle-hanging fruit had been picked and pulped and so music, rather than shooting onwards, felt a tug and an undertow that effectively dragged it back to the musical Super Gravity of the Grand Tri-Decade. Movements like Grunge epitomize this sense of undertow, while movements like thrash-metal were an attempt to achieve escape velocity by cannibalizing the ship. Folk metal, by contrast, was a recognition of the new curved space of the musical universe and an attempt to appear fresh by vaulting even further back than the proto-punk stylings of grunge.

All bands today have to grapple with this problem of running out of musical road and then being pulled back into the force field of the Grand Tri-Decade. This creates a sense claustrophobia that sees them upping the volume, the production, the echo, the number of notes, and overdubs in a desperate attempt to find that edge where the fresh breeze of the universe blows in your face.

This note can be felt in Spirt Party, where every attempt is made to make the song mutate into a growling guitar monster, without making it unlistenable. Back in the 80s musicians of this level of technical ability would have stumbled upon some much simpler and effective way of making their song stand out. But in this case Spirit Party just ends up sounding busy and overloaded as it is flailed into a state of energetic boredom.

But it’s not just the Super Gravity of the Grand Tri-Decade that hold this band back. There is also the commercial gravity that comes with the Shrinking Watering Hole Syndrome – with so many more aspiring NEETS and so much less money available for bands – those talented few who can get a tiny taste of record company lucre feel the need to produce product that is not too left-field, thus limiting their ability to aim for the still remaining high-hanging fruit. The trajectory of Radiohead is revealing in this respect, as they leverage their diminishing commercial appeal to gain permission to aim for the high-hanging stuff, even though they never seem able to jump high enough.

This consciousness of being trapped by the combined force fields of the Grand Tri-Decade and the Shrinking Watering Hole Syndrome incline bands today to safe, little token touches of avant-gardism. I first became aware of this a few years ago when I reviewed Yeasayer’s Odd Blood and then during a gig by The Drums, when I wondered about the playful eclecticism of the former and the rather well-digested Afro-beat affectations of the later.

Airship remind me of a slightly darker and amped-up version of The Drums, especially on the brooding but effective Vampires, the best track on the album, and the skittery rhythm texture of Kids.

Airship is a good band and Stuck in this Ocean has a lot going for it. 30 years ago this degree of technical talent would have seen them succeed somehow, but times are harder now for musicians. They are treading narrowing paths with greater numbers of wannabes. Despite putting a bit of a spin on old things, their originality is not quite enough to give them the gimmick they need to succeed beyond an album or two. In the future all bands will be tribute bands to the past.

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