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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.