More than words can say

A new generation of bands is doing away with lyrics

I listen to music constantly, become obsessed with particular records and often feel the need to rant to people about them; pieces that, for some reason, I think may affect and change their lives for the better, be it for as little as a minute and 20 seconds. However, I know very little about how music is made or constructed, despite years of expensive lessons on a variety of instruments and a brief tour around Germany with a brass band.
If I were to attempt to make a record, I know that the area in which I would struggle most would be in writing lyrics. How can you be that open about your thoughts and give people the opportunity to ridicule what you're saying? It has always seemed to me a very brave thing to do. And lyrics can put the listener off an otherwise decent tune. Once, I didn't play a record on my radio show because the band kept making references to hanging out in Camden Town. Shallow, I know, but it was annoying.

It is with joy, therefore, that I've noticed that there seems to have been an increase in popular acts that do without words altogether - or whose vocals are muffled, quiet and unintelligible, as if they were trying to tell you something not very important from the other side of a brick wall. In the past, instrumental acts would have been solely associated with either dance music or what is irritatingly referred to as "chill out" but, in the past few years, this seems to have changed, with some instrumentals even getting played on daytime radio.

The increase almost certainly has something to do with the huge success and popularity of dubstep, a genre of dance music that managed to sneak its way into pretty much every corner of the music world, including the UK Top 40. Musicians have since opened up the genre so much that it is no longer distinct and people don't know how to categorise the acts that have sprung out of its ashes.

In the post-dubstep era, people have become used to the idea of watching instrumental acts in much the same way as you would go to watch a band -without feeling the need to get wasted or dance, like you would in a nightclub. You could probably even get away with some beard-scratching. And these acts are performing in venues once reserved for more conventional, all-singing bands, as well as signing up to record labels that would previously not have ventured outside of indie rock.

The instrumental acts that I have been digging most this year vary considerably, from the slightly mystical and hypnotic duo Mount Kimbie to Fuck Buttons, who move rather gracefully from the sort of euphoric, electronic sound that you might associate with being fired into space to something close to thrash metal. Another fave from 2010 has been an indie-rock track by Civil Civic called "Run Overdrive" - you spend five minutes waiting for the vocals and they just don't turn up.

There is an ever-expanding list of instrumental acts, which includes Gold Panda, Four Tet, Jon Hopkins and Forest Swords. Their styles are varied, but what links them is that you really don't notice the lack of words - these people are extraordinarily good at creating pictures out of sound alone and their music is, strangely, all the more beautiful for it. Even the noisy, aggressive acts.

Of course, there is the chance that, as I grow older, I am subconsciously just becoming more attracted to music without vocals. Instrumentals allow you to flood the music with your own story without some young buck trying to tell you his. If this is the case, though, it is somewhat embarrassing and I'd rather you didn't say a word. l

Tom Ravenscroft's radio show is on BBC 6 Music every Friday at 9pm

Fresh sounds from the BBC 6 Music DJ

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

Disney
Show Hide image

Pirates of the Caribbean’s silly magic still works – but Johnny Depp doesn’t

This fifth sequel makes no sense, but my former teenage heart still jumped. It’s Johnny Depp who’s sunk. [Aye, spoilers ahead . . .]

“One day ashore for ten years at sea. It's a heavy price for what's been done.”

Ten years ago, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), having replaced the sprawling villain Davy Jones as captain of the Flying Dutchman, spent his only day on land before leaving his bride, the incumbent King of the Pirates, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), for ten years, to fulfil his cursed fate and bring the dead at sea to their eternal rest. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was sailing away to new adventures, again running after his beloved ship, the Black Pearl. It was 2007, I was 14, and the trilogy I had put all my teenage heart into was ending with the third instalment, At World’s End, on a bitter-sweet and loyal salute to the series.

But whatever the posters said, that wasn't quite the end, and what came after was awful.

First, the third film’s traditional post-credits scene showed Elizabeth waiting for her husband’s return, a ten-year-old boy by her side. She, the King of the Pirates, who in the same movie had just led a fleet to defeat the East India Company, had been sitting on the sand for ten years, raising a kid, instead of sailing, even while pregnant, to save Will like a fictional Ann Bonny? I was furious. Then, in 2011, Disney released On Stranger Tides, a sequel so hideous that even this former fan could not bring herself to like it. Bloom and Knightley had moved on, and without the original lovers’ duo, Johnny Depp’s legendary Sparrow had no substantial character to balance his craziness. Somehow, it made money, leading Disney to plan more sequels. Hence the fifth story, Salazar’s Revenge (Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US) hitting theatres this weekend.

Admittedly, it didn’t take the fourth or fifth movie for Pirates of the Caribbean to stop making sense, or just to be a bit rubbish. After the surprise success in 2003 of The Curse of the Black Pearl (young man associates with pirate to save young woman from more pirates and break a curse, adventures ensue), Disney improvised two more stories. Filmed together, there was 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest (couple’s wedding is interrupted, curse threatens pirate, fiancé wants to save his father from said curse, adventures ensue) and 2007’s At World’s End (everyone goes to the end of the world to save dead pirate while piracy is at war with East India Company and man still wants to save his father, adventures ensue). Chaotic plots, childish humour, naively emphatic dialogue and improbable situations quickly lost much of the audience.

Yet I’ve loved the trilogy for it all: the swashbuckling, sword-fighting and majestic ships on the high seas, the nautical myths, the weird magic and star-crossed love story. Everyone knows the main theme, but there are more hidden jewels to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. “One Day”, the melody to the couple’s last day together, is a beautiful backwash of nostalgia, as they embrace in the froth. Detailed costumes and stylish sets (At World’s End had stunning shots, such as a Chinese junk navigating the icy waters of the world's end) worked their magic every time.

As expected, there's little subtlety in Salazar’s Revenge. It’s over-the-top comedy and loud action, unnecessarily salacious jokes and copied scenes from the original. Its villain, Capitán Salazar (Javier Bardem), is a parody of a nightmare, but then not everyone can convey terror from under layers of CGI the way Bill Nighy could. It is a story of sons and daughters – Turner’s son Henry is following in the family tradition, trying to save his father from a curse – usually the sign that a series is dangerously lurking into fan fiction (here's looking at you, Harry Potter’s Cursed Child). Praised for being a feminist character, the new female lead Carina (Kaya Scodelario) spends half the film being sexualised and the other half defending the concept of women being smart, where previous films let Elizabeth lead a fleet of men without ever doubting her sex.

But the promise has been kept. Exactly ten years after leaving in a flash of green, Will Turner returns and brings some of the original spirit with him: ship battles and clueless soldiers, maps that cannot be read and compasses that do not point north. Zimmer’s theme sounds grand and treasure islands make the screen shine. The Pearl itself floats again, after disappearing in Stranger Tides.

Yet the one bit of magic it can't revive is in the heart of its most enduring character. Johnny Depp has sunk and everyone is having fun but him. Engulfed in financial troubles and rumours of heavy drinking, the actor, who had to be fed his lines by earpiece, barely manages a bad impersonation of the character he created in 2003. Watching him is painful – though it goes deeper than his performance in this film alone. Allegations of domestic violence against his ex-wife Amber Heard have tarnished his image, and his acting has been bad for a decade.

It should work better, given this incarnation of his Jack Sparrow is similarly damaged. The pirate legend on “Wanted” posters has lost the support of his crew and disappoints the new hero (“Are you really THE Jack Sparrow?”). The film bets on flashbacks of Jack’s youth, featuring Depp’s actual face and bad special effects, to remind us who Sparrow is. He is randomly called “the pirate” by soldiers who dreamt of his capture in previous movies and his character is essentially incidental to the plot, struggling to keep up with the younger heroes. He even loses his compass.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is the sequel no one needed, that the happy end the star-crossed lovers should never have had. It is 2017 and no one will sail to the world’s end and beyond to save Depp from purgatory. But all I wanted was for "One Day" to play, and for the beloved ghosts of my teenage years to reappear in a sequel I knew should never have been written. The beauty was in that last flash of green.

And yet the pirate's song sounds true: "Never shall we die". Pirates of the Caribbean has, at the very least, kept delivering on that.

0800 7318496