Making A Scene - Bristol
By: Daniel Griffiths
Bristol, United Kingdom
Ah, Bristol... The counter-culture capital of the UK. A place where graffiti art and music go hand-in-hand. A place where punks and hip-hoppers get along so well they've created entirely new genres together. Probably the only place in the south of Britain where a music scene is spurred on by political tensions—the financial and social inequalities caused by Margaret Thatcher's policies in the 1980s—rather than the latest fashion trend (yes, I'm looking at you, London).
Which is why you'll have to endure me gushing praise and adoration on the bands that have made Bristol so unique.
In truth, it's an odd thing living in Bristol and being a music lover. The music scene is actually fairly hard to find. (When you have an artist as enigmatic and omnipresent as Banksy, music seems to take a back seat to art.) Nevertheless, it's here if you look hard enough for it. The underground DJ scene is absolutely thriving at the moment and there are a few great bands making a splash. They follow in the footsteps of Massive Attack and Portishead who pioneered the "Bristol sound", characterized by slow, almost hypnotic grooves to draw the listener in—a groove that prevails whether the band are serious noise merchants or slightly classical and melodical.
Fuck Buttons, who fall into the noise merchant category, seamlessly mix hypnotic grooves and beats with the elongated song lengths found in the post-rock movement. They've taken the melancholic atmosphere that characterized the Bristol sound and run off with it to the extent they sound like Sigur Rós on ecstasy.
Next up are Gravenhurst. Again, the melancholy is ever-present here, but instead of being influenced by electronics, a healthy mix of shoegaze and folk are the order of the day. The sparse arrangements, minor chord structures and melodies hark back to the early 1990s with slightly less haunting vocals than, say Beth Gibbons. When listening to Gravenhurst, one can't help but get lost inside those dark, inviting melodies.
Another band who sound like they should've been around in the early 1990s are Ilya. Rather than taking certain elements of a past Bristol sound and twisting them to suit their own ends, Ilya sound as if they could have been present back then, though they've only been around since 2004. It's all down tempo grooves with evocative string/horn sections that allow the listener to sit down, relax and inhabit the music.
But here I am discussing young, fledgling bands of Bristol's music scene as if they're the only bands that the city can look to. I suppose this is a problem with having a music scene that was distinct and very much a product of it's times: one sees it as a momentary event, a point in time that cannot possibly continue into the present. The Bristol sound was so unique to the music industry, providing the counterpart to the far more positive Britpop movement, that with bands taking their time between albums, anyone who wasn't connected to the scene could have perceived it as a momentary flash in the pan—one that didn't keep going any further than, say, 1997. With the pioneers of the Bristol sound missing in action, it didn't seem like there was a thriving music scene. And though this really isn't the case, one could be forgiven for believing it. Walk around the city today and while everyone knows of Portishead and Massive Attack, outside of a core group of fans, other bands don't appear entrenched into public consciousness the way groups in other cities seem to be. In fact, if one steps away from the counter-culture centres that inhabit large areas of Bristol, you wouldn't even know of a Bristol sound. You would think there would be a great deal more promotion of the bands that put Bristol firmly ‘on the map', so to speak.
Which brings us to those pioneering bands. It seems right to start with Portishead, given their most recent success of Third. Who would have thought a band could be away for so long and then out of the blue come up with an album that mesmerizes the listener on every spin? Third managed to put the band back into the game, reinvigorating them and inspiring them to want to record more frequently (which is never a bad idea with Portishead). They're not just a big band in the Bristol scene; they've become one of Britain and the world's most loved bands, as the universal critical praise heaped on Third shows.
And then there's Massive Attack. Whereas Portishead appear to be the lost sons of the Bristol sound, Massive Attack are the rebellious twins. They've even gone into self-imposed exile from Bristol, refusing to play the city's premier music venue due to its past links with slavery. And their attitude is no wonder, given that they were born out of the turbulent times of Thatcher's 1980s Britain, in an area of Bristol full of racial, political and economic tensions. (Seriously, read up on that part of Bristol's history, and the pre-Massive Attack band, The Wild Bunch. It's an incredibly interesting read that will really give you a feel for why the Bristol sound is so distinctive.) Any music lover must have noticed the promotion and anticipation of Heligoland, the first Massive Attack release since 2003. Maybe people are expecting incredible things because a) It's Massive Attack and b) Third was so good that surely Massive Attack can create something as near life-changing. The build-up just goes to show how important Bristol bands were—and still are—in alternative music and popular culture.
So, there's my guide to Bristol's music scene. I haven't even gone into the DJing side of things; the oldies have Smith and Mighty, Tricky, Reprazent and Roni Size, and my jungle-loving friends at are always going on about the thriving scene in the present... Maybe we'll need a Part II?