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The PJ Tatler

Bryan Preston


May 6, 2014 - 3:00 pm

It has been just about four years since British band Bastille formed and started storming the music world. They started as a six-piece but soon dropped the violinist and cellist, which is a pity. How huge might their biggest hit to date, “Pompeii,” sound if it had serious strings to go along with the monastery vibe in its towering vocals?

In the few years Bastille has been around and whittling themselves down to a four-piece, the two years they have been recording, they have produced one EP, Laura Palmer, and one full album. But that one album is incredible.

The aforementioned “Pompeii” was not the first single release from Bad Blood, but it has been the most successful release to date. It hit number 2 on the UK charts last fall, and number 5 in the US, helping Bad Blood to strong sales in both countries. It also helped Bastille rack up nominations and awards. It has pulled over 90 million views on YouTube. “Pompeii” is that song you keep hearing just about every time you turn on the radio.

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Dive deeper into Bad Blood, though, and “Pompeii” isn’t even the best song there. Neither is the title track. The best track has to be “Icarus.” Or maybe “Things We Lost in the Fire.”

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The first time I heard “Pompeii” I thought Baltimora was back from the musical grave. But Bastille are much, much better than that one-hit wonder.

Unlike most pop of all decades, Bastille’s work  so far has a lived-in feel to it. They’re new but they sound like they’ve been here before. There is a retro synth feel to their sound, and a dash of wit and wisdom in their lyrics. In “Pompeii” the singer tastes the end of the world all around him:

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above

Yet after admitting that the victims may have deserved their fate — “We were caught and lost in all of our vices” — he still asks himself, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” Good question.

Bastille’s members are young — singer Dan Smith is 27, keyboardist Kyle Simmons is 26, drummer Chris Wood is 28 and only bassist William Farquarson is 30 — but their lyrics carry a sense of history. It’s not every band that turns out a track about the destruction of an ancient city or a mythological figure. Kansas treated the myth of Icarus in “Carry On Wayward Son.” The Call is a bit closer to Bastille in sound, and treated the death of a city in the 1980s with “The Walls Came Down.”

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That song propelled The Call to a kind of underground stardom through the 80s into the 1990s, but they never broke out of that into the mainstream. The success they deserved constantly eluded them.

A couple of years after The Call dropped Jericho, a European band struck a global nerve with a song that was immortalized in one of the best videos of the age — A-Ha’s “Take On Me.”

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And at around that same time, an Irish band that had already established itself in New Wave dropped one of the greatest rock albums of all time, The Joshua Tree. U2 had already been around for a few years; War was already one of those albums everyone had at least heard of, and Live At Red Rocks was already a hit. “Pride: In the Name of Love” from The Unforgettable Fire album established them as a band that did a bit more with its music than most. Joshua Tree launched U2 to the edge of space.

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30 years later, U2 are rock billionaires and still the top rock act in the world. One secret to their success is their ability to write soulfully without alienating anyone. They’re deep, yet vague, serious yet unspecific. Another is their adaptability. Their sound has always grown into the times. Another is their creativity. Among U2 only Dave “The Edge” Evans can read a sheet of music, and as a guitarist he is far from the skillset of an Eddie Van Halen, yet U2 can pull off sounds that more musically gifted acts can’t touch.

U2 named themselves after a Cold War spy plane. Bastille took their name from the day of a prison’s revolutionary fall, and the date of singer Smith’s birthday — July 14th. Both names seem easy and even shallow, yet suggest something more.

It’s easy to overanalyze why a particular band’s music works for you and another’s doesn’t, and as a political writer I’m definitely prone to overanalyzing. Bastille seems to have a few things in common with these 80s bands that may be their sonic forefathers. They write with the sense of history of both The Call and U2. Their songs go places that most pop acts don’t, but the aforementioned do. Sonically, Bastille and A-Ha could easily share the same stage, though Dan Smith’s voice quality and control put him leagues beyond Morten Harket, Michael Been and even Bono (but maybe not early Steve Walsh). Had Bastille kept the violinist around they might have even come off with an arena rock feel along the lines of Kerry Livgren’s prog rock forerunners.

Bastille has a very, very long way to go before any comparison between them and Kansas and especially U2 should be taken seriously at all. After one album and into recording their second, they’re not there yet, though have already tasted more success than The Call and “Pompeii” stands a chance of sticking around like “Take On Me” has. But as debuts go, Bastille’s has been one of the more successful in a while. The depth in their writing and the qualities in their sound suggest that Bastille won’t fall anytime soon.

Bryan Preston has been a leading conservative blogger and opinionator since founding his first blog in 2001. Bryan is a military veteran, worked for NASA, was a founding blogger and producer at Hot Air, was producer of the Laura Ingraham Show and, most recently before joining PJM, was Communications Director of the Republican Party of Texas.

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"It’s easy to overanalyze why a particular band’s music works for you and another’s doesn’t."

Generally I like pop music as much as anyone I guess. One thing I need is a sense that every musician is equally valued rather than "just enough" background noise. I hate drum machines. I hate lead guitar session guys who are treated like a tin can.

The other are original arrangements of songs as opposed to going for a sound. A "sound" produces one-hit wonders, arrangements keep you coming back for more.

It seems it's all a delicate balancing act of a perfect storm of technical talent, song-writing ability, a really good engineer and producer. The deal-breaker in all that today as opposed to yesterday seems to be the fact that albums a long time ago were made by really opinionated and frighteningly talented teams who would spend months in the studio on one album. Today they don't have that kind of time.

And the songs are made for headphones not speakers. In the case where songs ARE made for speakers, there's this weird addiction to heavy base for the last 20 years I've never understood. Synth is okay if it's there for a reason. If it's used to save time and effort it tends to show that.

Reading books by 2 engineer/producers who made "Rumors" by Fleetwood Mac and a few Beatles albums was enlightening. A band going into a recording studio without some really smart sound/arrangement guys is a problem.

Too many solo acts act as if their voice will carry the day. Others understand you need a complete team. To me that's the difference between the rather empty music of Whitney Houston and Adele, and the much more refined sounds of Diana Krall and Amy Whitehouse. It's no coincidence that at the beginning of her career Krall dragged a legendary producer out of retirement, or that Linda Ronstadt's old retro albums of '40s songs were powered by a great arranger while Carly Simon's similar project "Torch" fell flat because of a lack of arrangements. Studio recording is a team sport.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
U2 named themselves after a Cold War spy plane.

Do you know that for a fact? The reason I ask is that I don't know but had always had the theory that it was sort of a pun on "You too". I imagined that someone in their early days had thought they were awful and told them to eff-off and that they had replied with a polite "You too!" then decided that this would make a better band name than what they had been using; it was just a bonus that U2 was also the model of a spy plane....

...It turns out we're both wrong. According to the Wikipedia page on U2: "Steve Averill, a punk rock musician (with The Radiators) and family friend of Clayton's, had suggested six potential names from which the band chose "U2" for its ambiguity and open-ended interpretations, and because it was the name that they disliked the least."

So the name wasn't a response to a snarky critic or a deliberate salute to a plane.
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
That's cool. Thanks. Of course, it is Wikipedia. so tread with caution. ;)
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Of course, it is Wikipedia, so ignore it.

42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
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