Blog: Where has all the anger gone?

“Anger is an energy,” a wise man once shouted. And throughout rock history negative emotions, righteous fury and scattershot rage have fuelled a huge amount of great rock music. Far more, in fact, than ecstatic joy, loved-up happiness or upbeat party-hard euphoria.

So why, in 2015, does there seem to be so little genuinely angry rock music around? While 10 or 20 years ago, bands such as Rage Against The Machine or System of a Down carved much of their artistic identity out of indignation, those acts spiritual and political descendants don’t seem to be emerging – or if they are, they haven’t made music powerful enough to make their feelings register.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s as much as ever of what Shakespeare called ‘sound and fury’, but more than ever it seems to be signifying nothing.

A cause of more dismay is the fact that rock seems to have become music’s most apathetic genre. Tribally-minded Rock fans may blithely dismiss pop and R’n’B as mindless, commercially oriented fare lacking grit, guts or moral fibre. But who’s showed those qualities where social commentary is concerned?

The recent tensions between the black community and police in Ferguson and Baltimore saw hip-hop artists galvanized into pre-show speeches (see Killer Mike’s address to the Run The Jewels crowd in St Louis) and topical jams like J Cole’s Be Free, while even the never knowingly flag-waving likes of Prince (Baltimore) and Lauryn Hill (Black Rage) have felt moved to vent their spleen about the situation.

Meanwhile, when Paloma Faith is taking left-wing author Owen Jones on the road with her, rock needs to take a long hard look at itself and ask where its values have gone.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of good music getting made, and I’d be the last to suggest that we want everyone gobbing off about social issues. But check out the nominees for best new band at last November’s Classic Rock awards: Blackwolf, Massive, Cadillac Three, The Golden Grass, No Sinner and Blues Pills all indulge in good-time rock for rock’s sake. And why not? Meanwhile, Purson and The Strypes plough an unashamedly retro furrow. Even the all-conquering Royal Blood, for all their power-duo punch, seem to deal, lyrically, in sneering personal antipathy rather than anything approaching socially-conscious agit-rock.

Admittedly, readers of a magazine called Classic Rock are always likely to prefer their music a little more traditional, but what happened to the tradition of sharpening your riffs by adding a lyrical point?

Meanwhile, the generation usually given to getting worked up about anything from student fees to nuclear disarmament seem more bothered about where their next tattoo inscription of vague but empowering poetic platitudes will be positioned.

And their new idols aren’t helping. Current arena-rock favourites like You Me At Six seem more interested in promoting their lucrative clothing lines than changing the world, while the likes of Black Veil Brides may lace their hair metal with a tinge of gothic melodrama, but they’d rather thrill teenage girls and upset parents than kick over the statues.

You’d have thought that the bluesier end of the rock spectrum might see the emergence of a bit more righteous rhetoric. Yet while the Black Keys and the White Stripes before them may have recalibrated the blues and injected it with edgy new energy over the past decade and a half, there’s been little of the Blues’ traditional spirit of protest in there.

Maybe in the age of recession we’d rather hear someone like Seasick Steve singing happy-go-lucky hobo fare than actually getting pissed off about poverty and making his mostly middle-aged, middle-class audience feel uncomfortable.

The trouble is, even when you have a cause for your rebellion, there’s always the perennial problem of making decent music to go with it, so people might actually listen. Pussy Riot gained global fame for their daring publicity stunts and subsequent jailing in Russia, but very few people have actually heard them play, and as anyone who has can attest, there’s a good reason why little of the media coverage chooses to spoil a good story by focusing too closely on their fifth-form riot grrrl racket.

But even a modicum of musical ability can be turned into something thrilling with the right attitude. The return of Body Count, for all their faults, puts the emo wimps and alt-rock whiners into a little too much perspective for comfort, reminding us that there simply aren’t metal bands around now who could be as daring and radical lyrically as Ice-T’s rock-band-with-rap-attitude mob.

There are a few notable exceptions, but like Body Count, they’re mostly spawned from an old guard of musicians rather than angry young blades.

Skindred might channel reggae’s righteous ire but they are essentially graduates of the early 90’s explosion of rap-rock and cross-genre eclectic metal that spawned their predecessors Dub War.

In another generic corner, Steven Wilson has rarely been short of thoughtful things to say about the world we live in, both in recent solo outings and with Porcupine Tree, but he’s hardly one to get worked up about stuff.

Meanwhile, likes of Dream Theater have also had their moments of holding forth on the state of the world, but ultimately, with the greatest respect, we’re talking about middle-aged men, not young firebrands with the energy or currency to have a real impact on music’s future.

I’m not just talking about a drought of political anger here, either. Listen to the splenetic fury and alienated rage informing Nirvana’s best stuff. It might be essentially nihilistic, but by Christ it got your pulse racing, and their whole attitude and approach to their art was sufficiently radical and spiky to make it political, all be it with the proverbial small ‘P’.

For all Kurt and co’s influence over the last 20 years, you have to ask, where’s the beef? A lot of the music they influenced is <kind of> angry, vaguely pissed off, but hardly focused.

The most obvious exception to the apolitical rule among young bands is Enter Shikari. They too are graduates of the last decade rather than standard bearers for a new generation, but at least they’ve had some good points to make: “To us it’s second nature,” said frontman Rou Reynolds earlier this year. “It’s what this music is for. If you take out the social commentary, it’s not punk, it’s just noisy pop.”

He may have a point, and one that’s rarely echoed in 2015. Certainly while many new rock bands consider themselves to have a punk outlook, you have to ask – what is punk without an anti-establishment world view, and a healthy disaffection for the status quo? And I’m not talking about sexagenarian boogie bands here, although if someone wanted to get particularly up in arms about Rossi and Parfitt’s recent switch to acoustic instruments, it’s as good a topic as any to get you worked up…

So who else is going to stand up and be counted? Who’s going to spearhead a new movement of rock bands with something to say about the state of the world, and the means with which to say it? It might not be fashionable; it might not be the quickest route to a major record deal. But you’ll certainly stand out from the crowd.

Johnny Sharp

Johnny is a regular contributor to Prog and Classic Rock magazines, both online and in print. Johnny is a highly experienced and versatile music writer whose tastes range from prog and hard rock to R’n’B, funk, folk and blues. He has written about music professionally for 30 years, surviving the Britpop wars at the NME in the 90s (under the hard-to-shake teenage nickname Johnny Cigarettes) before branching out to newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent and magazines such as Uncut, Record Collector and, of course, Prog and Classic Rock