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Warpaint, Or An Experimental Indie Sound

Dominic Davies

Warpaint (Self-titled Album)
Rough Trade Records
Release: 20th January, 2014

It is astonishing that, even well over a decade into the twenty-first century, alternative indie music is still dominated by bands comprised, somewhat relentlessly, of all-male members. There is now a smattering of female vocalists across the more well-known indie landscape, as bands like Daughter and Chyrches follow in the path carved out by more mainstream artists such as Florence and the Machine. However, all female line-ups are still surprisingly rare. Reasons for this are, no doubt, numerous, uneven and varied. They probably range from the same structural discrimination that dominates other industries to a socio-culturally generated female disinterest in the indie sound. As with so many other cultural forms, the emerging moody timbres and themes of contemporary alternative indie music are ultimately rooted both in a tradition of all-male line-ups and the patriarchal societies that gave birth to them. Both lyrically and thematically, they tend to indulge in an emotional despondency that laments the loss of the once-loved though voiceless woman through the eyes of the infatuated male vocalist. The rise in front-women is therefore encouraging, as the lyrical gaze and its silent object (often depicted visually, if elusively, as the figure in the background of the music video) undergoes a role reversal—and, importantly, without succumbing to pop music’s sexualisation of the female body as lyrics proclaiming some sort of pseudo-feminist independence are accompanied by dance-moves that position the vocalising woman in relation to a masculine-, hetero- and often even racial-normative paradigm.

But the female vocalists of these bands still appear in front of male musicians—drummers produce an ostensibly gendered steadiness, or solidity, through the physical aggression of their instrument; lead guitarists claim ownership of songs through the riffs that so often become their defining features. The listener thus hears the female vocalist underpinned by a persistently male musical bedrock. It is for this reason that the view of the stage at Oxford’s O2 Academy on 25th January was so refreshing. Warpaint’s all-female line-up is simultaneously combined with an egalitarianism of musicianship within and between the band’s members: they all sing, interchangeably, both lead and backing vocals. This collectivism is reflected in the unconventional spatial layout of their stage presence that they have chosen for this, their current self-titled tour. Bass and drums are set back, slightly, invoking the traditional priorities of the usual stage layout. But the other two members—at different times guitarists, percussionists, synth-players and vocalists—are set apart to each side, drawing the viewers eyes to the roots of the band’s melodic beats that underlie the haunting vocals emanating from all four corners of the stage. The selection of All We Are, with their similarly unconventional spatial stage distribution, instrumental line-up and weaving soundscapes as the support for the UK legs of Warpaint’s tour is indicative of the self-conscious motivations behind these subversive decisions.

Though Warpaint’s first E.P., Exquisite Corpse (2008, worldwide release 2009), was given a somewhat patriarchal authentication within the industry through its production by the then-Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist, John Frusciante, it was their astonishing first album, The Fool, and the rerelease in the UK of their single, Undertow—still their most famous song—that positioned them on a global stage. Nevertheless, due to one or two line-up changes and other variable factors that always play into the forging of both a new band and its sound, their second and recently released self-titled album, Warpaint, is the first of their L.P.s to be written collaboratively by the band as it now stands. It retains the distinctive sound carved out so brilliantly by The Fool whilst clearly looking forward to the band’s future trajectory—a complementarity that comes through in the live performance of this tour as it meshes the two albums together into a ninety-minute set. The ghostly sounds created by multiple vocalists inflected with reverb-effects overlie sudden shifts in time-signature and dramatically discordant intonations—jarring moments that nevertheless ebb away quickly enough to capitalise on the effect of their resolution. The first single that Warpaint have released from this latest album, Love Is To Die, is emblematic of the band’s ability to marry musical complexity and self-conscious departure from various traditional indie tropes with the sorts of recurring riffs and lyrical generalities that allow for popular accessibility.

Given the subversive nature of Warpaint’s musical intervention, then, this reviewer was in fact somewhat reluctant to begin a piece on them with a comment on gender. There is a danger that by drawing attention to their overt but grungy femininity—manifesting in what is no doubt a self-consciously selected wardrobe of dark, knitted hoodies and floating, dingy materials—Warpaint might be reduced to what is in fact only their most superficial aspect. But to understand the full potential of what Warpaint have to offer, it is probably still necessary to position them in the structural paradigms of the industry within which they are working and the implicit hierarchies of the cultural landscape they are attempting to traverse. Such a move in fact emphasises their important contribution to the carving and honing of a new feminine identity within a saturated and discouragingly postmodern cultural sphere that has the continuous capacity to subsume difference into its overarching normative webs. It is the fact that the gender politics that a band like Warpaint will inevitably initiate is combined with the development of an individual and nuanced—indeed, what NME, and the band themselves, have labelled as an experimental—sound that makes their work so promising.

Warpaint’s new self-titled album, Warpaint, was released by Rough Trade Records on 20th January 2014. Their accompanying tour of the same name will see them return to the UK to play several more O2 Academies across the country on 18th-21st February 2014, again with the support of All We Are.

Dominic Davies is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is the Executive Editor of the Oxonian Review.