# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Miscellaneous - August 2014

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 9 / 8 / 2014

Miscellaneous - August 2014


In 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll', Ben Howarth writes about his increasing hatred of synthesizer music.

Here’s a confession for you. I’ve gone off synthesizers. In fact, I was never much of a fan, but occasionally they made a nice change. But now, if I hear a new band playing synth-based music, I don’t even give them a chance. I’ve had my fill and I want no more. This can be hard work. Synths have become the default instrument of choice. Inexplicably, they are still widely viewed as the sound of the future (despite being old enough to claim their free bus pass). To plug in a synth is to embrace modernity. To stick with guitars is to be a lumbering dinosaur. In years gone by, synths were the marmite of pop music. Bands either used them all the time, or never used them. And, like marmite, that made them easily avoided. When I was at school, there was a distinct divide between hardcore dance fans (listening to nothing but Kiss FM and maybe the occasional rap album) and ‘grungers’ (anyone who liked guitar music got this label, regardless of whether their favourite band was Belle and Sebastian or Fear Factory). The secret, though, was that – mainly for variety’s sake – the ‘grungers’ listened to quite a lot of dance music. We bought every Chemical Brothers and Underworld album, and then moved on to Four Tet and Boards of Canada. Some of us were even conned into buying the unlistenable Roni Size record after it won the Mercury Music Prize (and would still quite like a formal apology from head judge Simon Frith). Rock/dance crossovers were far from uncommon. Some albums, though technically ‘dance’, were clearly aimed primarily at rock fans. After all, we tended to buy albums, and make people rich. Dance purists tended to stick to while label vinyl releases and, every once in a while, ‘Ministry of Sound’ compilations. Then Radiohead made ‘Kid A’. It was, and is, an enthralling record – a synthesis of prog, electronica, jazz and classical that, while it didn’t strictly invent any new musical forms, redefined what a typical guitar-based band was expected to sound like. Before then, guitar bands were rock stars – pouting and prancing, initiating handclaps and making breathless forays into the front row. Dance acts, however charismatic, were always stuck awkwardly behind their desks. Suddenly, after ‘Kid A’ you could be in a band, but still play a synthesizer. And – even as Jack White was busy re-popularising the bluesy riff - more and more bands saw synths as the instrument of choice, even while making music that defiantly could not expect an airing at Ministry of Sound. I have never learned to play guitar, and I have never attempted to make music on a synthesizer. But let’s be honest here, we all know that one is a lot easier to play. Watch a new band in a pub, and you know the guy with the synth is there for one reason only – they rehearse in his garage. Most synth music really does sound exactly the same. Of course, there are a handful of genuinely creative musicians capable of transcending the synth’s inherent limitations (just as the most imaginative visual artists are capable of transcending the inherent limitations of abstract art). But, while even the more unimaginative guitarists can’t help but show some element of their personality in their guitar playing, the vast majority of synth music is simply flat and dull. The same sounds, the same rhythms, the same tone. Even if the ideas and motivations are different, the sounds are the same. And, as more bands pick up synths, the less likely they all are to make something interesting. You are probably thinking that this isn’t an especially insightful observation. But that, in fact, is the point. Guitar bands are often derided as unimaginative, while using a synth is seen, almost automatically, as a sign of imagination, of breaking down rock’s shackles. Why? It goes back to the early 80s, when rock journalists fought (largely pointlessly and ungracefully) against the inherent association some saw between ‘rock’ and authenticity. Luckily, no one says ‘rockism’, anymore. Our time is better spent addressing actual injustice, not berating Black Sabbath fans. But, through the back door, an inverse set of assumptions has taken hold. The mere holding of a synth has been allowed to convey openness to new ideas, an interest in music of different cultures and a refusal to stick to ‘traditional’ musical forms. And yet, synth music predates punk, predates prog and predates the Beatles. Its sounds are familiar, and while modern programming does technically offer the possibility of new sounds no one has ever heard before, the bands that actually use synths appear unable to find them. And we all know why – because synths aren’t modern or imaginative at all. They are just the soft-option that allow you to get round the hard work of actually learning an instrument. The death of guitar music is routinely predicted. But just like the taste of beer, or the joy of watching football, people keep coming back. I have reached a point where I don’t want to keep coming back to synths – the novelty has worn off. They are like that fleeting interest in American sports you briefly tried to keep up after your holiday in New York, or that fruity cocktail you enjoyed on a visit to an overpriced bar. So here it is then – it is possible to be a demanding music fan, who wants ambition and innovation and challenging material, but also hates listening to synths. I bet I’m not the only one.

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