It’s Not Immaterial: New Wave’s Struggle for Relevance Among an Evolving Audience

By: Diana Forgione

May 31, 2017

Black marble 

Black marble 

Formerly Brooklyn-based musician Chris Stewart of Black Marble played at Boise’s Neurolux this past Thursday, revitalizing the eternal desire for Dark Wave/No wave to continue existing in today’s world.

The genre of New wave has long been credited for inspiring continuously evolving divergences from the influential effects of the post punk scene in the late 1970- to 1980s. Regions in America, Germany, Japan and the UK brought forth new variants of what the term “Wave” meant.  Emerging from those cultivating off-spurts and expressions were Electro-wave, No Wave and Dark Wave.

These variants took social commentary of what Punk and Prog music created and what in eventuality became New Wave; disconnection.  No wave became a nihilistic statement on the falsehood of anything new or different, considering at the time that the Vietnam War ended with weighing culpability and grief. It was coined an “avant-garde” of the time period. From that movement artists like Malaria, Alan Vega, Lizzy Mercer Descloux, and Swans came forth collecting heterogeneous fragments from disco, blues, funk, punk, and new wave.

Dark Wave (Coldwave) was another offspring from New Wave, often derivative of a subculture embracing and reclaiming isolation, loneliness, and degraded ballads. The music inhabits a space between what we consciously think and our subconscious. Much like Ian Curtis heavily influencing vocal style and effects from his band Joy Division that would eventually inspire The Cure and The Smiths.

Dark Wave was a highly gothic synth based electronica music as well, the best way I can describe it is as if some force pulled Frankfurter down into the eternal abyss and it became one of David Lynch’s singers in Club Silencio. Artists in this time frame, like Norma Joy, Killing Joke, Tones on Tail, The Wake, Suicide, Toto Coelo, and however you want to categorize Oingo Boingo, capture this essence of both high performance and social dread.

This subculture continued to reinvent the term New Wave by definition - a new movement or trend, especially in the arts. The categories seem esoteric when many of the bands cited here are in a constant debate as to which sub genre they originate from; However, all of these musical styles fused whether it was out of nihilism or eccentrics.

When it comes to the revitalization of these three genres in the music world, Black Marble was once a huge influence in both the Brooklyn and Los Angeles scene, bringing No Wave and Dark Wave back to the surface along side artists like Cold Cave, Dirty Beaches, Wavves and Nicolas Jarr. Black Marble’s music replicates what Joy Division and John Carpenter’s 1980’s synth scores immortalized. Black Marble is polished. Watching them live sounded exactly like their recorded albums; It's Immaterial, A Different Arrangement, Weight Against the Door. It’s a near replica of the time period, but unfortunately, that’s all it really has going for itself. It gives audience members the ability to relive the ideals of this music over thirty years ago, which in its own quality is an achievement, but, as a long time Black Marble listener, I don’t believe the words that Chris Stewart sings anymore. He has little to no essence to himself over his vocal effects and lacks the bite behind the apathy that made this music mean something.

When I spoke to Chris Stewart that Thursday night, the conversation began with him asking me why I moved to Boise from Los Angeles. I stated that I felt for myself that after three and a half years of trying to make my film career work, it had become toxic for my creativity, that eventually the city reflected networking and no time, and here I had the cheaper rent - less misplaced hustle. That I had found a community and time to grow through fluxes and blocks of creativity in a fashion I was okay with. His response was “So kind of like a retreat?” He then proceeded to tell me that Brooklyn was too expensive and that Highland Park in Los Angeles was his affordable retreat. “It’s so cheap in L.A.” he said.  When I think of New wave, I don’t think of a retreat in gentrified Highland Park. The performance and conversation begs the question; without the underlying motivation for the genre, is it now purely aesthetic?

Birthed out of the Internet age, Future Funk, Cyber punk, and Vaporwave have taken on meme and me_irl culture to become a universal language of aesthetic. It brings the means of production to an anonymous online public that has free rein to determine the emotional meaning of the content. The anonymity allows creation to take from past and new media generating a new avant-garde, and one that is changing at a fast pace. The new will be old as brands change to new appeals, the music or sound clips will take on a new meaning; either one of nostalgia or of contemporary value. This grants artists the ability to constantly change their identity as they develop their online presence.  Because of this movement, J-pop and K-pop have found their way into Hip Hop, New wave, Jazz, and Funk disparages. Its ever-evolving form has continued to create and allow space for disenfranchised or marginalized groups to take part in. With the escalating political climate, these emerging sub-genres resemble aspects of socialism in the form of modern art,  creating space for a revolution.

In a time of cultural-musical upheaval, (in part pioneered by New Wave's computer age successors), why look back or stand still for a Joy Division regurgitation in an open aloha shirt which only serves as easy listening at best, and at worst reinforces the white male domination of the genre? Without creating a space for culturally diverse participation, a genre will become so homogenous as to wither under its own xenophobia. With so many options now available, it seems in portion, tripe to try to reinvent the classics. If the objective of New Wave is to reclaim identity then why has this genre been and continues to be predominantly dominated by white men?

Alex Zhang Hungtai (formally known as Dirty Beaches) sampled and reinvented this music (even covering a Suicide song, a group that is often cited as a heavy influence for Hungtai), pioneering a new audience and revitalizing the original listeners with a newly evolved form of the genre. Zhang Hungtai, now an ambient artist, made the decision to move on from the Dirty Beaches persona to pursue scoring films and work on new collaborations with improvisational jazz musicians on Soundcloud. He sampled from Asian films and musicians like Les Rallizes Dénudés as well as portions from the 1976 film New Fist of Fury with Jackie Chan. In a statement made on his blog, Hungtai acknowledged the struggle of being an artist on visa papers and how this played a huge part in leaving Dirty Beaches behind him:

“We left Honolulu and set sail for San Francisco. Things quickly fell apart, once I crossed that border into Canada and tried to come back to the US, that was the end of that dream.  Papers, visas, legalities, and realities.  What could've turned out from that dream, I don't know.  All I knew was that it was over.  Fast forward to Shanghai, fast forward to Montreal, fast forward to Vancouver, fast forward to Berlin, to Lisbon, and now here I am, back in the USA.  Ten years from one dream to the next.  At one point I could've been a good husband in Vancouver.  I could've been an artist in Paris or Zagreb.  I could've been a recluse living in the outskirts of Reykjavik.  I could've been a father in Berlin.  But that's not how life works. I simply forfeited any chance I had of making those dreams into reality. Maybe subconsciously I'm afraid that the rug would be pulled from underneath me again. More papers, visas, legalities and reality scenarios.  Afraid of investing time in friendships and relationships because it can all disappear at the snap of a finger once that visa runs out, or some ill-fated joke God decides to play on me again. Losing everything once was enough, I thought.”

Another artist, Nicolas Jarr, took inspiration from these genres as well as his own French-Latin background, creating space for people of color in this resurfacing genre. He first emerged in the underground electronic club scene. His album Space Is Only Noise and project Darkside were unquantifiably innovative within  No Wave and Dark Wave with his seminal studio recordings, but not to mention the fact that he was playing dark piano ballads at speeds of 64 beats per minute live. Jarr made two songs where he sang in Spanish, "Mi Mujer" and "El Bandido,” not intending for them to be released. He changed his mind in 2010, as he felt the songs were his way of answering what he deemed as exploitative sampling of Latin American culture by white European DJs.  Jarr stated in an interview with Pitchfork in 2016, “I feel an affinity with the political aspect of dance music—maybe it can increasingly become a place of protest”.

A genre’s capacity to include a diverse range of cultural identities means that more voices can interpret themselves in a unique way sonically, which helps the music from becoming stagnant. If we are going to be stimulated about the revitalization of classic genres, shouldn’t it be to create space for musicians of marginalized communities to breathe new life into the ideals and concepts of the music? Black Marble is best listened to while in kickback mode - when no one’s watching them. They don’t seem to feel the social dread, nihilism, or strife that originally defined the music. For Nicolas Jaar, Alex Zhang Hungtai, or even Choir Boy among others, sounding like Joy Division was a pit stop on their creative journey, but for Black Marble, it's the destination.

Editor’s Note: If you have the hunger to see the progress of real innovations in Dark Wave/Punk on a local level go to Brat Tail’s next show. It’s a true fucking experience.