The 6 best modern bands championing 80s-style arena rock

Augustines
Augustines
(Image: © Marie Korner)

The Big Music is back. Long after the 80s heyday of bands like Simple Minds, The Waterboys, The Alarm and Big Country, all of whom set about creating a rousing strain of impassioned rock designed for big arenas and pumping hearts, a new wave of artists are reclaiming the genre. Sweeping guitars and soaring vocals are the key signifiers, along with an earnestness and sincerity that, while not always endearing these bands to the hipper elements of the music fraternity, are designed to foster rolling vibes of good-time camaraderie.

There are several things that all of these groups tend to possess, including crisp production, a sturdy message and a gradual build towards the cathartic emotional release of a cloud-punching chorus. And while it might be a stretch to describe The Big Music as a scene, its purveyors are united by a similar sense of ideology and purpose. Here, then, are six bands with the everyman touch.

Augustines

The Brooklyn-based trio of Billy McCarthy (vocals, guitar), multi-instrumentalist Eric Sanderson and drummer Rob Allen emerged from the ruins of indie band Pela in 2010. Augustines are all about diarising life’s triumphs and trials, McCarthy drew from painful first-hand experience for 2011 debut Rise Ye Sunken Ships (credited to We Are Augustines), which addressed the trauma wrought by the deaths of his mother and brother, both of whom suffered from mental illness. Most impressive of all was his ability to take intensely personal themes of damage and loss and give them universal scope.

The follow-up, 2014’s Augustines, dealt with the problems of how to move on from tragedy and reconstruct a life. This compounded the band’s reputation as prime purveyors of Springsteen-ish, heart-on-sleeve rock. As Sanderson has noted on more than one occasion, “struggle has kind of become our identity”. Augustines’ own brand of catharsis is versed in surging choruses, ringing guitars and hard truths.

The upshot of this emotional blood-letting and gritty guitar rock is an ever-widening fan base.

This June saw the release of their third album, This Is Your Life. A documentary, making use of footage from a sell-out show at the Roundhouse in London, is currently in the works.

The People The Poet

The People The Poet

The People The Poet

Pete Townshend always maintained that a band’s duty was to reflect its followers. South Wales band The People The Poet have taken that philosophy to a different level.

For their stirring debut, 2013’s The Narrator, the quartet asked fans for their own stories of everyday struggle, for a concept piece about love, loss, faith and survival. The songs resonated with communal warmth, fired by big-voiced frontman Leon Stanford and the uplifting guitar hooks of Tyla Campbell. The panoramic clout of The Narrator was helped by Pixies producer Gil Norton, who worked on the tracks Molly Drove Me Away and Sing.

Such was the album’s impact that The People The Poet soon had festival spots at Hay and Latitude and were nominated for the Welsh Music Prize. They have since played a succession of BBC sessions, and in March this year made their second appearance at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Live shows are often ecstatic gatherings, the band’s habit of indulging in mass sing-alongs bringing to mind another great Welsh group with a resolute sense of purpose: The Alarm. And while we await a follow-up to The Narrator, recent EP Paradise Closed proves they’ve lost none of their searing potency.

The Gaslight Anthem

Drawing from the rich lineage of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Southside Johnny, The Gaslight Anthem deliver thumping heartland rock in spades. The Springsteen comparison in particular was made explicit in 2009, when the New Jersey quartet supported The Boss in Hyde Park. At that year’s Glastonbury and at Hard Rock Calling in London, Springsteen joined the band on stage for their signature tune The ‘59 Sound.

Bruce connections aside, their music is also very much indebted to The Replacements, Pearl Jam, The Clash and the Stones. Led by Brian Fallon, the band formed in 2006 from the ruins of This Charming Man. Six years later, fourth album Handwritten (their major-label debut), proved a commercial breakthrough, giving them an international hit that made the top three in the US and UK, although the peak of their ambition is represented by 2014’s Get Hurt, festooned with towering melodies and shouty choruses, as well as elements of soul and psychedelia. “Nothing was off limits, nothing was off the table,” Fallon remarked. “Everything was fair game.”

It was also a signal to take stock. After signing off at the Reading festival the band announced an indefinite break. Fallon’s solo debut, Painkillers, was released earlier this year.

Needtobreathe

Needtobreathe

Needtobreathe

South Carolina’s Needtobreathe were formed around the core duo of guitarist brothers Bear and Bo Rinehart. Continuous touring in the US has been key to their growth in popularity since their self-released debut of 2001. Atlantic Records picked up the four-piece for 2006’s Daylight, but their ascent to arena rockers began in earnest five years later with big-seller The Reckoning. Their 2014 album Rivers In The Wasteland, packed with anthems to fortitude and perseverance, sold by the bucketload, earning them their first Grammy nomination and making the top three in the US.

Needtobreathe have fought hard to shake off their early image as a Christian rock band, but the brothers’ enduring faith and religious background continue to inform their wide-screen sound. Latest album Hard Love sees their sound broadening further with the introduction of electronic elements. However, Bear Rinehart maintains that ultimately it’s defined by long-time inspirations like “old church music and soul and gospel and all that rock‘n’roll stuff that’s got a certain level of swampiness to it”. The arrangements are brighter and the guitars more heroic, as evinced by the seven-minute Clear.

The Temper Trap

Masters of the steady build, four-piece The Temper Trap formed in Melbourne in 2005 and made their reputation on the Australian festival circuit, their appeal defined by robust melodies and the soaring vocal range of frontman Dougy Mandagi.

Switching their base of operations to London paved the way for 2009’s Conditions, a hugely impressive debut whose commercial success was buoyed by a worldwide hit, Sweet Disposition, that also appeared on a couple of Hollywood soundtracks. The band expanded to a five-piece for 2012’s self-titled second album, which was followed swiftly by prestigious live dates with Coldplay and the Rolling Stones, along with appearances at Glastonbury and Lollapalooza and Coachella festivals in the US.

This year’s Thick As Thieves (their first album since the departure of founder member and lead guitarist Lorenzo Sillitto) is a bold showcase for their blustery guitar anthems that, curiously, looks to their debut as a reference fix. “We looked at Conditions and thought to ourselves: what are the things that are really good about that album, that made the fans fall in love with us in the first place?” Mandagi has explained. “We took that and applied it to this album… It’s kind of looking back so we can look forward.”

Frightened Rabbit

Big favourites of Augustines’ Billy McCarthy, this Glasgow-based quintet are fronted by Scott Hutchison, who began Frightened Rabbit as a solo venture in 2003. The band’s growth has been incremental; Scott brought in brother Grant for his first indie release, 2006’s Sing The Greys, and a couple of years later they expanded to a three-piece, with new guitarist Billy Kennedy, for The Midnight Organ Fight. Keyboard player/guitarist Andy Monaghan was on board for 2010’s reflective The Winter Of Mixed Drinks, a record whose sonic surety and bruised emotional terrain (perhaps best heard on The Loneliness And The Scream and Swim Until You Can’t See Land) brought them to the attention of Atlantic Records. The first fruit of that major-label deal was Pedestrian Verse, which broke into the UK Top 10 in 2013.

Latest album Painting Of A Panic Attack is the most dynamic expression yet of their powerfully exacting guitar rock, partly inspired by Scott Hutchison’s conflicted relationship with his adoptive home of LA, especially on Die Like A Rich Boy and Still Want To Be Here. Producer Aaron Dessner, best known as a member of The National, asserts that lyrically, this album is a step above anything he’s written before”.

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