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As I approach the 20th article on my alt rock odyssey, I find myself up against undoubtedly my biggest challenge to date. Bustling as it is with nigh on 10 million residents, London acts as a melting pot for a wide variety of musical styles and origins, culminating in a an overwhelming orgy of alt rock goodness. For this reason, it was damn near impossible to pick a mere 10 London alternative rock bands from the multitudes of troupes making great music today.
But! Fear not. In the face of adversity, I have once again prevailed to bring you a shortlist of some of the most exciting alt rock bands today, following in the footsteps of many, many great artists from London. The next time you find yourself stressed out on the Tube, studiously avoiding eye contact with all of your fellow passengers and perhaps hopelessly attempting to extricate your face from your fellow commuter’s armpit, relax. Take a deep breath (though preferably not of the armpit in question) and remember this list – and the tremendous quality and quantity of culture living and breathing in the city in which you have chosen to reside.
Sounds like: Villagers, Radiohead
It almost seems as though none of London’s residents actually hail from there – at least if the mass migration of all of my Edinburgh University classmates down south is anything to go by. How apt then to kick off this list with a northerner through and through who moved down to London to find his fortune like so many other musical hopefuls.
Apparently playing music since the age of four and composing it since 14, Lofthouse’s proficiency on the guitar is certainly not in question – neither is the complexity and depth of the songs he weaves. The offering below is slightly reminiscent of Radiohead before Thom Yorke had his head turned by all that electronic technical gadgetry prior to ‘OK Computer’.
Sounds like: MGMT, Portugal. The Man, Cold War Kids
Never straying too far into unfamiliar territory, Gengahr has mastered the trippy-yet-calming musical style that has proved successful for so many of their contemporaries such as Real Estate, Bombay Bicycle Club, Cloud Control and those mentioned above, to name but a few.
That’s not to say their music is derivative or predictable, though. The falsetto vocals and sometimes disturbing lyrics (“Let me in / So I can drink you”, “Maybe she’ll sink / Maybe she’ll fly / I caught a witch that cries all the time”) combine with the happy-go-lucky guitar riffs and upbeat drum patterns to produce unique alt music.
Sounds like: Jane Weaver, Lush, Siouxsie and the Banshees
Novella sprang from the ashes of a non-band named Houdini Kill Sale, which apparently went up in smoke because none of its members had the guts to front it. However, the camera-shy girls did eventually find their inner rock star and Novella was born.
With titles like ‘Don’t Believe Ayn Rand’, the band’s punky political leanings are there for all to see – but don’t worry, such sentiments don’t infiltrate or upset their melodies. Producing walls of electronic sound that are helped along their way with progressive guitars and soothing vocals, Novella is one to watch in 2016.
Sounds like: Two Gallants, Mumford and Sons, Jake Bugg
With a name like that, you might have been expecting some sort of death metal posse or a troupe of ska punks or even a foul-mouthed rap outfit. Something slightly offensive, with a defined edge that would cut your ears if you listened too closely to it.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Though Cat Meat’s music might cut you to the core, the blow will be far more subtle than anything any of the aforementioned genres would produce. They’ve developed a reputation as Britain’s most authentic exponent of Americana, and the stunningly atmospheric effect they produce with the sort of instruments normally associated with hoe-downs will literally blow you away (figuratively, of course. Not literally. Never literally).
Sounds like: Grizzly Bear, Cloud Control
Formerly known as Lulu and the Lampshades, the band played a gig in Paris a couple of years ago, the organisers of which misspelled their name as Landshapes. Being nothing if not easy-going, they decided to take the mix-up as a portentous sign of fate and duly switched over.
They proudly span all genres, lulling you into a false sense of security with twee folksy tracks such as ‘Fire’, before spinning on a dark and downward spiral into the disconcerting tones of harder, more progressive rock on numbers such as ‘Moongee’. The track below, ‘In Limbo’, filmed in Bolivia, probably represents some of their most accessible middle-ground music for the newbie.
Sounds like: Interpol, PJ Harvey, Siouxsie and the Banshees
Another adoptee of the London alt music scene, Nadine Shah was born to a Pakistani father and a mother of Norwegian descent in Tyne and Wear, but moved down to the capital a few years back to fuel her career. Underpinned by her deeply soulful voice, Shah’s music combines irresistibly dark hooks with even darker subject matter to infatuate and entrap in a spidery web of sound.
As an eager speaker on the deep-rooted causes of mental illness, all the trauma, distress and difficulty of the human condition rise up to the surface through each and every one of her meaning-laden songs. For further details on the origins of her music, check out this illuminating interview with The Quietus which shortly followed the release of her delightfully named debut album, ‘Love Your Dum and Mad’.
Sounds like: The Lightning Seeds, Suede, Kraftwerk
Another band who jettisoned their previous moniker of Pete and the Pirates, Teleman look every bit the part of the 21st century hipster intelligentsia – and their music corroborates their image with aplomb.
Their sound has a very retro feel about it (which is, of course, so hot right now), harkening the carefree days of 80s pop as it began branching out into alternative realms. For the most part, their anthems feel softer than a candy floss cloud, but every now and then a percussionist drone or an unsettling lyric has the ability to get under your skin and lay some eggs there.
Sounds like: Bon Iver, Ben Howard, Vancouver Sleep Clinic
Imagine Bon Iver wrote intelligible lyrics to accompany his beautiful masterpieces… then you’ve got yourself Thom Byles. Of course, such a trite statement is entirely unfair to the unique musical sensibilities of Byles, but the resemblance simply cannot be swept under the carpet.
However, it would be amiss not to highlight Byles’ own unique influences and contributions. Born in Essex, raised in Mexico and relocated to London, as a young nipper he absorbed a variety of different stimulus, combining them into a package that is uniquely his own.
Sounds like: Wild Beasts, Alt-J, Anthony and the Johnsons
Better known as Sivu – the literal Finnish translation of his surname – James Page is a 20-something veteran of the bass guitar who played in a multitude of bands until he realised the remarkable power of his own voice. He promptly upped sticks and moved to London (with a brief stint as a makeshift bailiff) and set about weaving ethereal, infectious melodies that linger long in the mind.
He was catapulted to semi-cyber-stardom in early 2013 with the success of the track below, though it’s debatable whether it was the uniqueness of the video itself or Sivu’s voice which garnered the best part of a million views on YouTube. What is certain is that his fantastic song-writing ability and soul-touching voice will ensure those hits keep on coming.
Sounds like: White Zombie, David Byrne, UNKLE, Wax Tailor
Full disclosure: Public Service Broadcasting sound almost absolutely nothing like any of the bands listed above. Why have I named them then? Because they do share one facet of production in common: they all use sound-bytes and samples in their work.
Comprised of the elaborately stage-named J. Wilgoose, Esq. and Wrigglesworth, PSB delve into the archives of the British Film Institute to cherry-pick significant moments from history and construct entire narrations and melodies around them. Sound like an unlikely formula for success? Just wait until you hear it. Their music swings from the upbeat funk of ‘Gagarin’ to Pink Floyd-like prog rock of ‘E.V.A.’ with electronic musings and artificial walls of sound throughout, though the hook is most definitely this absolute gem below. Go!
Clearly, when it comes to alternative rock bands, London is fit to burst. Some of the other excellent artists I was unfortunately unable to accommodate on this list include Belgrave, Post War Years, Flyte, Serafina Steer, Blooms, Pin Tweaks, Sisters, Ben Khan, The Big Moon, Pumarosa, Kelly Lee Owens, Formation, Sexwitch, Findlay, Fiende Fatale, White Ape, Lull, Skinny Girl Diet, Dexters, Cross Wires, Night Flowers, Nimmo and the Gauntletts, Echo Boom Generation, Fever Dream, Sisteray, Heavy Heart, Clubfoot, Tall Poppies and Shopping.
Despite this lengthy list, I’ve barely scratched the surface of London’s eclectic alternative scene.
Are you in a London band? Do you know someone who’s in a London band? Do you know what a band is?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve qualified for our special prize of leaving your own London favourites in the comments section below.