The state of modern rock music is something that is well overdue for discussion. Hell, it could be the subject of a 50,000 word thesis by minds much greater than mine, or a begrudging ramble by a father who can’t believe that ‘they don’t make music like they used to anymore’ as he listens to his old Zeppelin records for the hundredth time.
The state of today’s music industry is reminiscent of a line from an old Bob Dylan song… ‘the times they are a changin’. Gone are the days of the five-piece juggernauts who sex, drug and rock’n’rolled their way around the world in the glory years of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Gone are the stadium-filling rock bands, whose shattering guitar solos, thunderous drum beats and screeching vocals inspired generations of musicians for years to come.
The musical landscape in 2018 paints a very different picture, Ed Sheeran just finished selling a concert ticket to one in every twenty-odd people in Australia, Triple J’s hottest 100 was topped by a Kendrick Lamar song with the charming message of ‘b**** sit down, be humble’, and as of this week Imagine Dragons holds three of the top four ‘hot rock’ songs on the Billboard Rock Charts.
Thankfully there is hope for the genre of rock, although possibly not in the form of the full scale bands that many have come to know and love for decades past. No, instead we are entering the era of two-piece bands spearheading a much needed revival of rock music, with sounds that defy the logic of what has come before them.
Royal Blood – (Heavy Rock/Alt Rock/Garage Rock)
The British pairing of Mike Kerr (Bass/Vocals) and Ben Thatcher (Drums) make up the entirety of the monster that is Royal Blood. Bursting onto the scene in late 2013 on the back of single ‘Out Of The Black’, the bands sound riddled with heavy bass driven riffs began distorting speakers worldwide, and the world listened inquisitively.
What makes Royal Blood’s sound so intriguing is the fact that it is made with only two instruments… drums and bass. The deceptive tone comes from Kerr’s signature mix of guitar and bass amp switching, octave pedals and short scale basses, which have created the sound that has begun to shake rock to it’s core.
The band has even earned credit from the likes of rock hall of fame member and guitar virtuoso Jimmy Page, who described the experience of hearing them live in an interview with David Renshaw of NME.
“They’re such fine musicians. However long the set was, I could have heard twice as much. Their album has taken the genre up a serious few notches. It’s so refreshing to hear, because they play with the spirit of the things that have preceded them, but you can hear they’re going to take rock into a new realm”.
In a 2017 interview with Joel McIver of Music Radar, Kerr spoke openly about how the band’s signature sound came about.
“Before I played bass, I used to play keyboards through loads of amps and pedals and made these mad keyboard sounds through all the equipment I had, so I just plugged a bass in and started messing around with that. And then suddenly I started making this really big sound with guitar amps and bass amps”.
“Even just putting one amplifier at the other side of the room and switching between the two suddenly felt 3D, as if there was more than one person in the room. I’ve always done that, so when it came to the bass, I worked out that you could sound like three people just by turning an amplifier on and off”.
The formula has worked so far for Royal Blood, with two albums now under their belt, multiple festival tours (including headlining the current ‘Groovin The Moo‘ festivals) and a current tour of Australia which graces Melbourne in early May, the band looks to be going from strength to strength as they spearhead the two-piece rock movement.
Hockey Dad – (Surf Rock/Garage Rock)
Hockey Dad is the collaboration of Zach Stephenson (Guitar/Vocals) and Billy Fleming (Drums/Vocals), the boys who have been mates since childhood grew up two doors from each other in Windang, NSW. Formed in 2013, it took until late 2014 and the ‘Dreamin’ EP for Hockey Dad to gain some nationwide recognition and regular airplay on youth broadcaster Triple J.
The band’s surfy charm in the years since has endeared them to legions of Aussie fans, who have watched the band grow tonally through their ‘surf pop’ based debut album ‘Boronia’ , into the garage/grunge infused sophomore record ‘Blend Inn’ which was released earlier this year.
Tonally, Fleming’s hard-hitting drum sound allows a base for Stephenson to work off, with his catchy riffs spawning from a rig comprised of pitch shift and octave pedals ran through a combo of bass and guitar amplifiers, as Stephenson described in a discussion with Enmore Audio.
“My signal chain is pretty standard I think. Octave and compressor pedals first, then drives and delays after. I don’t really use many modulation effects live so it’s pretty straightforward”.
“I run my guitar signal through a guitar and bass amp together. With a few octave tricks it seems to do the job well enough”.
These tricks definitely have managed to ‘do the job well enough’ for the boys from Winding, with Blend Inn debuting at #6 on the Aria Charts, as the bands popularity and stature in the Australian music scene steadily grows.
The Black Keys – (Blues Rock/Garage Rock/Alt Rock)
This article wouldn’t be complete without The Black Keys, the brainchild of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney who have mixed gutsy blues rock with mainstream success for almost two decades in a way that few have emulated since.
Bursting onto the scene in 2002 with the groundbreaking debut that was ‘The Big Come Up’, The Black Keys quickly gained a cult following through the early stages of the decade, with their quirky look and gritty sound winning over crowds all over America.
The band slowly built a solid following and became a household name, but 2013 would mark the beginning of mind blowing mainstream success for the duo, with the breakout track ‘Lonely Boy’ invading speakers worldwide. The song currently has just shy of 80 million view on YouTube, whilst the album ‘El Camino’ went on to become a grammy winning album for best rock album in 2013.
Auerbach and Carney may be the purist and most achievable incarnation of what a two-piece was designed to be, two friends who jumped in a basement with some cheap recording gear, a drum set and some fuzzed out amps and worked it out. Sure, there sound has expanded and changed throughout the years, including adding some touring musicians to help fill out there live sound, but in large they have stuck by their roots and along with The White Stripes in the early 2000’s, helped to lay the blueprint for two-piece bands to be commercially accepted.
The Common Formula
Thanks in largely to the continued advancements in all things gear based in music it is certainly achievable to start a viable two-piece band without much/any experience. Applications such as Garage Band make recording a possibility that bands of yesteryear could only dream about, and with the steady flow of readily available second hand gear floating around the likes of Gumtree it won’t cost you the earth.
There are some key bits of gear that will get you closer to the sounds of the three bands mentioned a lot quicker and easier than others. For instance, Hockey Dad and Royal Blood are both avid users of ‘POG’ pedals, which are class leading octave pedals with a stellar reputation and a truckload of functionality for experimentation.
Thankfully these bands are generally pretty open about the gear they use, and with a bit of digging around the internet it’s possible to piece together your own rig to experiment with.
So if you’re a guitar player, chuck your best mate on a drum kit and start making some noise, you never know what the results could be, as it appears that two-pieces could be the way of the future for rock music.