As is common knowledge to all music historians, punk changed everything in the mid to late-1970s. This iconic era, which breathed new life into the music industry, has been well-documented over the years, but a more lasting affection has arguably been held for the wave of artists which came immediately after punk. Bands such as Siouxsie & the Banshees, Wire and Magazine in the UK and Talking Heads and Television across the pond, cultivated a style of music which incorporated the angst and aggression of their punk predecessors but with an artistic flair and verve which would lay the foundations for what we now refer to as ‘Alternative’.
If punk bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash broke down the door, the post-punk bands rushed in behind and filled the space. While punk’s DIY sound was styled around its anti-fashion aesthetic, post-punk was subtler in expression with an emphasis on experimental, angular sounds and structures. While the majority of this crop of artists was pulled from the traditionally fertile soil of New York and London, a handful emerged from somewhere altogether less familiar. The punk and post-punk scenes of Scandinavia were brimming with bands which brought a new intensity and antagonism to a culture typically associated with bland folk music.
As in the UK, punk emerged in Sweden as a volatile reaction to a stale political culture and a contagious sense of hopelessness among young people. In the early 1980s, the nuclear power debate split the nation. The political elite waited with its finger on the button, but left-leaning Swedish youths felt the nuclear issue represented a wider disregard for a nation which future generations would grow up to inherit. From this divisive political melting pot emerged a string of punk bands rebelling against what they perceived to be a decadent elite class. Ebba Grön is the most famous and influential of this group, along with Asta Kask, Charta 77 and KSMB.
Later in the decade, the path of Swedish punk shifted towards hardcore and ‘crustpunk’ with an increasingly anarchistic flavour. Under the influence of Black Flag and Dead Kennedys from the U.S., bands such as Mob 47 released tracks with titles as provocative as ‘State Violence, State Control’, ‘Why Must They Die?’ and ‘Stop the Slaughter’. Refused continued this trend during the 1990s and earned critical acclaim for their 1998 album The Shape of Punk to Come, which Kerrang! featured among their 50 Most Influential Albums of All Time in 2003. Around the same time, radical political dissent and abrasive instrumentation combined within the ‘trallpunk’ genre, based around the Kafé 44 club in Stockholm. Trallpunk became hugely popular for a time in the late 90s, based on its skippy drum beats, more conventional hooks and familiarity with the skate punk scene popularised by Blink 182 in the U.S.
After the turn of the century, post-punk in Sweden became more diluted, still promoting a left-of-centre political sentiment but increasingly communicated in vague terms, such as on The (International) Noise Conspiracy’s 2007 single ‘Smash It Up’. Other pop-punk bands such as The Hives and Backyard Babies borrowed the sound and style of earlier generations and re-targeted it, with reasonable success, at a more mainstream audience.
Half a decade later however, Sweden’s post-punk movement is going back to its roots. Along with a handful of bands from nearby Denmark, guitar music in Sweden has returned to its more aggressive, nihilistic past. Nottingham’s Bodega Social plays host to two of those bands this month, Stockholm’s Holograms and Copenhagen’s Iceage. The latter released their debut album New Brigade in early 2011 to a largely positive reception. Described as “refreshing, extraordinary” and “seductive”, the album earned a ‘Best New Music’ accolade from Pitchfork and appeared on numerous ‘Album of the Year’ lists last Christmas. Holograms have won similarly high praise for their energetic self-titled debut released earlier this year on Captured Tracks. Arguably more accessible than Iceage’s dark, industrial refrain, Holograms make use of muted synthesizers to add an electronic tint to their rasping guitar hooks.
These bands represent an exciting return to the abrasive, mechanised sounds and fierce political mantras of the traditional Scandinavian post-punk bands. More importantly, their emergence reflects the changing political and cultural climate in northern Europe and the role that independent music plays in responding to those changes. While ABBA will undoubtedly continue to be the biggest name associated with Swedish popular music, the post-punk bands which have shaped the nation’s underground scenes over the last thirty years continue to provide a firm and aggressive resistance to dominant pop culture and regressive political attitudes.
Jack is listening to Andy Stott – ‘Luxury Problems’