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

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

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times