Punk in 2016: Not Dead But Not Going Anywhere

I wrote this thing a while back on a different blog, I need to test some format stuff so it's here now!

To claim that ‘Punk Is Dead’ is pretty ridiculous, despite what some delusional elitists would tell you. Rather than imagining the physical embodiment of punk rock as an old man who’s apparently been on his death bed for decades, I think it’s more accurate to depict our old friend Punk as a burnt-out 30-something year old. He’s not quite fallen into the trap of middle aged living, but he’s seen better days and spends a bit too much of his life remembering the good old times. And that’s his biggest problem. He’s never going to relive those fond memories, everybody around him realises that and secretly wishes he’d just concede that his constant nostalgia is getting a little pathetic.
You get where I’m going with this? As a genre, punk’s been horribly stagnant since the turn of the 21st century, and if this year’s any precedent we shouldn’t be expecting much else soon. While the punk ethos has been present all of history, the sounds we call punk rock developed in the mid 70’s by bands such as The Clash and The Sex Pistols, who rejected the mainstream appeal of their contemporary rock counterparts and instead skewed into more angry and rebellious instrumentation and themes. In the 80’s, we saw the rise of the hardcore, which saw the sound turn increasingly aggressive with a heavy focus on political disdain and the D.I.Y ethic, which oversaw the establishment of labels tailored exclusively for the hardcore scene with Dischord and Epitaph being two particularly good (and still active) examples. And of course, in the 90’s punk achieved it’s mainstream potential through bands such as Green Day and The Offspring, who infused the energy and passion with a heavy influence on melody, giving birth to modern pop punk in all its glory. Sorry for the amateur history lesson, but it leads perfectly into the point I want to get across.
What new directions has punk been heading in the past decade?

Fugazi’s The Argument (2001) superbly mixes the anger of punk with slower and noisier instrumentation.

The answer unfortunately just isn’t clear, and if 2016 was any indication I doubt we’ll know any time soon. We all know what a good punk record sounds like, and bands can replicate that sound in a unique way, paying homage to the classics while making a record with a distinct identity. The issue here is that there’s  a severe lack of artists willing to stray too far from the perceived meta of what we all know the genre sounds like, without experimentation away from what we conceive as traditionally punk rock. In fact, I’d argue that the last truly innovative punk band was Fugazi, who released the majority of their LP’s in the 90’s. What veteran Ian MacKaye and Co. were able to achieve with Fugazi was something we can only wish will be replicated; the band managed to take the punk genre into new territory, blending hardcore with elements of noise, indie rock and even art rock into a brilliant and shockingly consistent discography that can easily be identified as punk, through both sound and ethics.
We’ve seen a lot of rehashing in the meantime, which isn’t an inherently bad thing. There are plenty of fantastic contemporary punk bands, and anybody who says otherwise has their eyes and ears planted firmly in their own ass. 2016 alone had it’s fair share of solid punk records that would do the old guard of the 80’s proud. But again, is that what we want from such a tried genre? Youthful and passionate albums such as Beach Slang’s A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings and White Lung’s Paradise are undoubtedly fantastic releases, but neither are anything we haven’t already heard. Comparing these two records to anything released by the melodic hardcore wave of the mid 90’s is fairly routine, and while that doesn’t take away the fact that they’re stellar punk albums, it’s just not particularly ambitious (though they certainly weren’t trying to be anyway). In addition, the ancient punk outfits from the 80’s and 90’s that are still plodding along aren’t helping change this benchmark. We saw a few comebacks and releases from some old heroes, and I think it’s naive to expect veteran bands like NOFX and Descendents to change their sound at the twilight of their careers, so we can respect that they’re still managing to release solid punk records at the age of 50. But it’s absolutely getting tiresome to hear the same sounds with the same themes that they were performing in their teenage years. With that in mind, I’d like to draw attention to some punk artists who do a fantastic job of challenging the norm.

PUP’s new record The Dream Is Over was a highlight for punk in 2016.

I think it’s fair to think of artist Jeff Rosenstock as one of the leading figures in modern punk. With his former band Bomb The Music Industry!, Jeff brought a fresh take on pop punk complemented with some honest and introspective lyricism. Since then, Rosenstock’s two sensational solo albums We Cool and 2016’s Worry have been some of the more interesting takes on the punk mentality. In his lyrics, he takes on the position of a punk entering middle age, coping with his friends outgrowing the lifestyle, getting married and giving up the dream. It’s brilliantly unique for a punk artist to show such maturity, especially when we have geriatric bands like the Descendents still releasing songs about high school crushes. Alternatively, we still have groups like Andrew Jackson Jihad who bring an incredibly unique style to traditional punk instrumentation, but lack the consistency to really break the mould. This year, they offered The Bible 2, which was just lacklustre compared to their more ambitious projects of the early 2000’s. However, I’d say the real crowning jewel for the genre this year was Canadian outfit PUP’s second full length LP The Dream Is Over. PUP takes some interesting influence from contemporary indie rock to piece together an fiery and incredibly enjoyable album. It’s nothing that’s going to reignite the genre, but any fan of punk can appreciate the fantastic effort put into this record.
So what’s next for the scene? Who knows.
As long as we’re still getting consistent releases from talented bands, punk won’t be going anywhere. Regardless, it’s probably unfair to rip on punk for a lack of ideas when the whole rock genre has been in the same stagnant situation since the mainstream breakthrough of indie rock in the early 2000’s. All we can hope for at this point is that at the very least, punk stays in its consistency, but it would be lovely if a band could come and bring new life to the genre, maybe even usher in a new era where bands dare to do something original.