Don’t you love the British press? I think they’re so cute, I just want to eat them up with a spoon. Every year New Music Express, that esteemed bastion of music journalism, latches onto a promising new band, much like a young adolescent might become infatuated with the cool kid at school. After receiving such lavish praise in their homeland, these bands inevitably flee to the bigger, more commercially viable US of A, leaving NME with its tail between its legs and a single tear trickling down its cheek. Never fear, though — a new, even more exciting band seems to be blooming just below the horizon, and, alas, NME has found yet another marvel of innovation, allowing them to practice their sycophantic posture yet again.
This past year, The Darkness have been christened the saviors of rock, much to my utter disgust. Although it’s true that this band proceeds with a very lighthearted approach to their retro-classic rock by way of Queen, Van Halen and Iron Maiden, I still cannot excuse shtick-y music that defines itself through its satirical audacity. The bandmates insist on donning the famous catsuits and tight trousers of ’70s and ’80s arena bands and also sport the long, luxurious and downright repulsive hair of those groups as well. But this is all fine, since even the White Stripes and the Strokes have tooled their image in order to attract attention to their music. My problem lies in the actual sound that this band hopes to resurrect. Singing primarily in the genre’s standard falsetto, the operatic vocals of singer Justin Hawkins hoist the band’s conventionally dramatic melodies, but even this is excusable. I cannot, however, turn a deaf ear to the insipid guitar solos. The nimble fingerwork of the same Hawkins (his brother Dan plays rhythm) never expresses anything beyond his astute grasp of scale structures.
Sheer agility means nothing in rock music, a form of expression that actually considers incompetence a virtue. By concentrating exclusively on speed and fluidity in their music, The Darkness merely imitate a tired archetype in rock history. Speed alone can be used to convey amazing emotion. Take, for example, those monsters in the thrash-metal band Slayer. Their music is dark and ugly and completely terrifying, so unrelenting speed only raises the level of the music’s hysteria to unbearable heights. I need to experience apprehension and knee-jerk revulsion to my rock music, because otherwise I’d just be lulled to sleep.
So, which contemporary guitarists do I revere? I tend to gravitate towards those that specialize in what perpetually venerable rock critic Lester Bangs called “horrible noise” and what the pompously stately Robert Christgau deemed “skronk.” This music’s volatile inconsistencies refuse to bend to the predictably safe sounds that our ears have been spoon-fed for the last 40 years. In short, it’s innately passionate and inexorably graphic — and that’s rock, baby.
With this in mind, my runner-up is Nick Zinner of the Brooklyn-based Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He steadily squeezes out some unbelievably inventive noise from his Fender Stratocaster. Arming himself with several amplifiers and a legion of pedals, Zinner can incorporate some truly abrasive lead guitar reminiscent of mid-’80s Sonic Youth. Then, just seconds later, he washes the acid away with some soothing shoegazer guitar straight out of My Bloody Valentine. Channeling Jackson Pollack’s aggressive approach towards his canvases, Zinner completely brutalizes his guitar. One minute he is carefully strumming his strings rhythmically, and then, before you even get a chance to blink, he has begun to virulently pummel each and every one of his frets. Not once, though, does he take more than three steps in any direction during any song. The severe emotion in his playing defeats any mode of physical expression outside the boundaries of his immediate shadow.
The best guitarist I have ever laid eyes upon is Jack White of the White Stripes. Laugh if you wish, but this only means you have never seen or heard him play outside of the confines of your stereo. I’m not a religious man, but watching Jack White play guitar from a distance of 20 feet in Chicago on this past New Year’s Eve made me a believer in the power of blues guitar, and this happened a scant five months after he had actually fractured a bone in the forefinger of his fretting hand. For the last few months I have tried to make this case to numerous people who have scoffed and smirked while I told them this, but my vindication arrived through the surprisingly enjoyable forum of the most recent Grammy Awards. If you saw the White Stripes tear through “Seven Nation Army” and “Death Letter,” you could not possibly have neglected to notice Jack White ignite the stage. Do not be fooled–those giant white lights were not illumination devices. Actually, Jack White detonated an atomic bomb hidden inside his guitar, and what we saw was the subsequent flash from that explosion.
His riffs borrow heavily from the rhythmic inflections of Chicago blues master Buddy Guy, but he holds a secret weapon in the form of a metal slide that he keeps on his pinky finger. This nifty little tool allows him to insert little squeals of noise impulsively, as well as permitting him to play ear-piercing frequencies that fall just shy of the upper boundary of canine pitch. As White slides effortlessly up and down the neck of his guitar, emitting bundles of implausibly aligned notes, one cannot help but gape and drool in awe.
It is much easier to believe Zinner’s vigor because his records typically showcase his talent, but this is only because White’s records never definitively capture the overwhelming energy of his live performances. The White Stripes last album, Elephant, is dense and exhilarating, but the profound triumph of their live concerts dwarfs it in comparison. If you would like to experience complete ecstasy through such boisterous clamor, go see the White Stripes in concert. You truly have to see it to believe it. See The Darkness for all of their mediocrity and ditch them in the shadows like a good teenager.