For what seems like the umpteenth time now in the last few years or so, the attention on rock by the music community has drifted towards a currently not-so-insignificant scene in the United Kingdom. Call it post-rock, post-punk or any other reductive subcategory, one thing that is certain about this scene (which includes the likes of black midi, Squid and Black Country, New Road just to name a few) is that it’s built up from subversion. It feels especially important to point out Black Country, New Road, a band whose newest album from last month has probably gotten more heads to turn toward this community than anything has before. In any case, all of the groups previously mentioned share the commonality of a long time spent in the underground followed by an explosive period of recognition. As for the emergence of the UK band caroline and their debut self-titled album, a similar result seems to be on the horizon.
Despite the consistency of this kind of progression within the scene, there is something about caroline’s materialization that still feels surprising and even unsolicited, as if every other group in the community were given clearance, and caroline were the only one that had to sneak through the gate. The irony should not escape anyone that the community itself could really be defined as a collection of elusive creators. Regardless, caroline seems particularly committed to keeping up a certain illusory veil. Whether it be the secret concerts, the apparent lack of a wide fanbase or the fact that there is very little in the way of information available about them, this approach has seemingly paid off for them as they have recently signed with independent powerhouse Rough Trade. It also doesn’t seem accidental that they chose such an innocuous name to build their music around. Anyone trying to look up caroline on the internet is far more likely to find a person’s name or a certain Neil Diamond song before they find an insulated post-rock octet from the British Isles. Just look at the interface for the band’s website, with its calm imagery mirroring their album cover dominating the entire screen and all the important links sequestered away to an unnoticeable corner. It’s clear that the branding of the band hinges on one thing alone: the music itself.
The music of caroline takes the model of acquiring conventions and then deconstructing them that the band’s aforementioned contemporaries have become acclaimed for and pushes it further than anyone else — to a point where it becomes hard to pinpoint what conventions they even started with in the first place. The album practically exists as one act of deconstruction strung out over 47 minutes. It begins about as innocuously as one might expect, with the introductory song “Dark blue” playing out one chord progression over its entire run time. The song’s only focus is to build, adding swelling strings and a steady rhythm until it hits a relative maximum, at which point it will fall back to earth. Something about its approach harkens back to the sound of early Bowery Electric, a time when post-rock had barely been named and people were just starting to realize how far beyond guitar-driven music artists could go. The words “I want it all” and “So I tell them” are repeated over and over again like a mantra for juvenile melancholics. One thing shared across the album’s tracks is the ability to express as much as possible using as few words as possible.
“Dark blue” already feels way different than anything else within contemporary rock, and yet it is by far the most familiar song on the entire album. The distinction here is that it at least feels appropriate to call it a song. Every other track on the project gives the impression that the band was just progressively trying to one-up themselves in terms of experimentation. One could simply slap on the avant-garde title over the whole thing and call it a day, but that would ignore the way it totally subverts the DIY underground aesthetic — an aesthetic that most certainly includes the UK scene they originated from — that still strongly persists while other more classic variations of rock have petered off. For example, the following track “Good morning (red)” — which is perhaps the only other track that mirrors some of its predecessor’s accessibility — starts off sounding as though Duster tried to make a folk lullaby. However, it becomes apparent that the band is just trying to build a false sense of security, as roughly halfway through nearly all of the instrumentation cuts out. All that’s left is a slow bass line intermittently interrupted by disjointed patterns of random notes that appear and disappear almost simultaneously. The band utilizes this technique all throughout the record, allowing these pockets of musical noise to materialize out of nowhere, almost like a bubble hanging in the air, waiting to release from its self-containment. This total embrace of ephemerality is part of what makes caroline feel so distinguishable within the current context of rock.
As more bands and artists follow the common urge to institute new definitions of what rock (and by proxy guitar-driven music in general) is, caroline feels uniquely suited to the task of ignoring this urge altogether. Their ethos seems built to traverse the territories beyond what the horizon can offer. No, while everyone else moves laterally, trying to find any unexplored crevices that they add to their musical manifest destinies, caroline floats upwards, traveling between the places that exist in one moment and are gone in the next.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.