The Fourth Wave
Every person enjoys different kinds of music for different reasons. Some music is best listened to with eyes closed and head reclined, ready to soak in every note. Other music is more simplistic and best serves as a backdrop to set the mood. Ska is best listened to on the dance floor, as it has a driving, energetic rhythm that makes it ideal for dancing. The tight, percussive chords from the guitar give a bouncy energy to the music that can have the power to compel even the most timid of concert-goers to have a go at flailing their limbs about in a cathartic flurry. From their beginning the dance moves that were paired with ska were very simplistic, making them easy for anyone to pick up. While the dance has evolved along with the music, (and is now referred to as “skanking” by many in the ska community) the characteristic alternating arm swings remain, and still make the dancer look just a bit ridiculous.
Ska originated in Jamaican dance halls in the 1960’s, resulting from a mix of American R&B and jazz with various Caribbean musical styles. The Skatalites are one of the most influential bands from this period, backing up the top Jamaican singers including Toots and the Maytals and Bob Marley and the Wailers. They were an extremely tight band, as many of the members grew up together playing and learning music at a military-style boys school. The majority of the Skatalites’ recordings were done in only one take, with the singer recording on a separate track so they could do as many takes as they needed. These early recordings defined the sound of ska and were successful inside and outside of Jamaica’s borders. From ska came reggae, the next big musical movement to come out of Jamaica. Young Jamaican gangsters, known as rude boys, began to play ska records at a slower speed because they thought that dancing at a slower speed made them look tougher. This behavior inspired musicians involved in the rude boy culture to adapt their music to the new trend, though ska did more than inspire the music of reggae.
Ska made its way to England in the 1970’s and created a second wave of ska there. Immigrants to England from Jamaica brought with them their love of ska and shared this with the English natives. The music that resulted became known as 2 Tone, and mixed elements of punk rock and new wave with the original music of Jamaican dance halls. Many of the 2 Tone ska bands took a strong active position against racism, and used some of their songs to voice this opposition. They also adopted the fashion of the rude boys of Jamaica, wearing nice suits with ties and hats. Among the leading bands of the 2 Tone movement were the Specials, the Selecter, and Madness.
In the 1980’s, American bands took notice of second wave ska bands and adopted the style for themselves. In a little more than twenty years the American-inspired Jamaican music of ska had made its way back to the country where some of its roots lay, although sounding as if it had gone through a twisted game of telephone. This third wave in America was more varied than the second, with the genre of ska punk (or skacore) being innovated and lead by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Ska punk, as the name implies, emphasizes the punk element much more than the 2 Tone movement did.
By the early 1990’s, ska bands were achieving mainstream success in America. The first among them to do so were the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in 1994 with their album “Question the Answers,” which reached gold status. Many other bands followed this trend and enjoyed huge commercial success, though this only lasted until the mid-90’s. By the end of the decade many were declaring the genre of ska to be dead, as the general public seemed to have lost interest in it. While ska has been dubiously declared “dead” in America since the late 90’s, it is actually still alive and well, having started a new fourth wave. This fourth wave, like the ones before it, is introducing many different elements from other genres into ska, once again transforming its sound.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were one of America’s first ska bands and they opened the gateway that joined ska and hardcore punk together. Their sound is much rougher and grittier than second wave ska because of their punk influence. Their career followed the curve of third wave ska and the top of this curve was their 1997 album “Let’s Face It.” This was their first and only platinum selling album, and also yielded a number one single, “The Impression That I Get.” Despite being at the forefront of the ska punk genre, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones show a bit of restraint on this album, starting with three tracks that stay mostly within the realm of ska. They deliver tight, precise guitar chunks on upbeats, catchy horn riffs, melodic, syncopated basslines, driving drum grooves, and with just the perfect amount of organ mixed in. There is almost no trace of their hardcore punk influence until about thirty seconds into the fourth track, “The Impression That I Get,” where a distorted guitar slides down into a thick, crunchy power-chord and Dicky Barrett (lead vocals) lets out a loud, gravelly scream.
The next track, “Let’s Face It,” is a tribute to the English ska bands of the 1970’s. This song deals with the issues of racism and intolerance and the lyrics bear some resemblance to those you might hear on a track from the Specials. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, while still paying homage to their second wave predecessors, manage to give this song a vital twist. They brilliantly sandwich a screaming, distorted, wah-pedal guitar solo between two halves of an up-beat anti-hate ska song. This beautifully shows the duality of emotions that are present when dealing with the issue of intolerance. While their message in the song is one of love and tolerance, the anger and hatred felt against those who continue to spread racism and intolerance is reflected in the aggressive, warped guitar solo.
While the album starts out relatively tame, the punk influence becomes more noticeable as the album progresses. The last four tracks of the album show almost no trace of the typical rhythmic qualities of ska, but they still incorporate the horns in a way typical of the style. It is as if the Mighty Mighty Bosstones are slowly weaning the listener off of the safe, warm, fuzzy feeling of ska and introducing them to the darker and dirtier sound of punk. The second to last track, “Desensitized,” open with someone saying “you gotta ease up…I can’t fuckin’ hear anything,” followed by “what the fuck!” as a piercingly loud scream comes from a guitar amp and morphs into the short solo that opens the track: a moment that solidifies this as not just a ska album, but a punk album as well. In both ska and punk music, tracks are typical shorter. Both styles are about high-energy, and this is not conducive to extended songs. This album is a shining example of that, with the average track length coming in at about two and half a minutes.
This punk mentality and approach stuck with much of the ska in America after the Mighty Mighty Bosstones popularized it, though much of the country’s interest in ska would fade by 2000, only three years after the release of “Let’s Face It.” Formed in 2002, Streetlight Manifesto never saw the glory days of ska in America itself. However, Tomas Kalnoky (guitar, lead vocals, songwriting) formed and led a ska punk band, Catch 22, during the height of the third wave. He left this band in 1998 after only one studio album, which he later re-recorded with Streetlight Manifesto. Kalnoky obviously brings this influence with him to Streetlight Manifesto, and their style is heavily based upon third wave ska bands, though they also draw upon many other influences and further expand the boundaries of ska, much like their predecessors the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. This is evident on their 2003 release, Everything Goes Numb.
Typical of most ska bands, Streetlight Manifesto has a horn section. Theirs is slightly larger than most however, featuring alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, trumpet, trombone, and in a few instances tuba and clarinet. This instrumentation is more akin to one you would find in a small chamber ensemble rather than a ska band, and the band uses this to their advantage. The horn section of Streetlight Manifesto serves a slightly different purpose than that of ska bands before it.
Typically, the horns would serve as an accompanying or rhythm instrument in ska, and may have occasionally had an important melody or two. Streetlight Manifesto’s horns go beyond this role, and will often play extended sections where they are featured. The arrangements for the horn section are also much more complex, with layered harmonies and intricate contrapuntal melodies. Take for example the track “If and When We Rise Again.” There is a long guitar build-up to a horn introduction, and then the horns state the melody, complete with harmony. The horns are featured for about 40 seconds after this intro before the vocals enter, which is not typical of any other horn break in ska. Kalnoky is not as reliant upon typical pop formulas for his songwriting, and he draws very heavily on classical and other instrumental music in his writing.
In a direct nod to one of classical music’s better know figures, Kalnoky uses the chord progression made famous in “Pachelbel’s Canon” in his song “We Are the Few.” The horn melodies in this song also contain fragments that are reminiscent of a classical etude, though they are not played with the gracefulness that is typical of that style. The track ends with another tidbit of classical theory, as the band fades and only Kalnoky and his guitar can be heard. Here he uses a suspension that most music theory students learn in their first class on harmony.
Despite the abundance of classical influence upon Kalnoky’s writing, the aesthetic of Streetlight Manifesto’s music is very much in the vein of punk. While no one can compare to Dicky Barrett’s throat full of rocks, Kalnoky’s vocals are still gritty and raw in their own way. The vocal chants and screams led by him throughout the album have a powerful impact, making the listener feel the music in a visceral way. The opening track, “Everything Went Numb,” is driven at points by this call and response, with the lyrics “Ski mask / Check! / Sawed-off / Check! / Guilty conscious, fear of death / Check, check, check!” These same raw, nearly screaming vocals are also present, and much more prominent, on the album “Goodbye Cool World” by Bomb the Music Industry!.
Bomb the Music Industry! has a history similar to Streetlight Manifesto’s in that both of their leading members came from prominent third wave ska bands. Jeff Rosenstock is the leading member of Bomb the Music Industry! and had started a ska punk band in 1995, the Arrogant Sons of Bitches. This band achieved some success in the ska punk scene, touring and playing shows with Catch 22 (post-Kalnoky) and the Toasters. Their break-up came in 2004, and from the ashes of the Arrogant Sons of Bitches rose Bomb the Music Industry!. As their name implies, they are anti-music industry and record labels, recording and distributing all their music themselves. This do-it-yourself approach to music is one that can be connected back to third wave ska’s punk roots in England.
The third full album from Bomb the Music Industry!, “Goodbye Cool World” was released in 2006. Musically, this is one of the most diverse ska albums to be released. While still clearly containing many of the hallmarks associated with ska, “Goodbye Cool World” feels free to wander around and explore many different styles. Rosenstock incorporates synthesizers and a drum machine on this album, both to varying degrees of success. The first track alludes to the album’s diversity, opening with a sample of a man yelling “Let the great experiment begin!”
Experimentation involves dealing with the unknown, and the results may not always be totally satisfactory. Some tracks on “Goodbye Cool World” benefit more from the addition of electronic components than others. For example, the track “5 Funerals” uses the synthesizer in a very tasteful way. It opens with an intro featuring the synthesizer, first repeating a low, fuzzy sounding melody, and later entering with higher pitched chords on the off-beats, imitating an organ that might have been heard in some second wave ska bands. The synth also has a similar melody in the outro.
“Sorry, Brooklyn. Dancing Won’t Solve Anything” is a track that, unfortunately, falls on its face. If the intended effect was to make the listener laugh as the song played, then this track accomplishes its goal. This song draws a bit from reggae (the tempo is slower), and the drum machine and synth seem wildly out of place on it. In other places on the album they are blended in much more with the other instruments; here they stick out like a sore thumb and do nothing but distract the listener. The track ends with a huge, thick chord with vibrato from the synth that eventually devolves into banging on the keyboard, which if Rosenstock had been doing throughout the whole song might have made it blend better.
Whereas many ska bands that had come before him wrote lyrics inspired by perceived political or social injustices, Rosenstock’s lyrics are more personal and are often autobiographical. Because of this, his lyrics are often about musicians, bands, and the music industry as well. One example of this is the song “My Response To An Article In Alternative Press,” in which Rosenstock screams and vents his anger at musicians that are willing to sacrifice parts of their music for the sake of fame. The most important line of the lyrics is the repeated chant of “S-A-F-E / You play it safe!” Rosenstock has a very fitting voice for the style and particularly this song, and is yelling equally as much as he is singing. He is often out of tune and has terrible tone, but his voice is never lacking emotion.
The most personal lyrics on “Goodbye Cool World” are in the song “King of Minneapolis Pts. I & II,” and they recount an alcohol-induced, potentially fatal, mental freakout. Musically, this is one of the best tracks on the album. It experiments with some different time signatures, something that is not often seen in ska, but works in this song. This song beautifully flows from one style to the next. The beginning has a poppy, up-beat feel, which shifts to straightforward punk rock on the bridge. The bottom drops out of this and leaves only acoustic guitar and voice, which carry the song to its conclusion as they are eventually joined by the rest of the instruments.
Throughout the history of ska, it has always adapted to new environments and absorbed parts of them. To claim that ska died in the late 90’s is akin to saying that rock died in the late 60’s, when it merely branched off in many different directions. Like the bands of the first wave, who mixed American and Carribean music, and the second and third waves, who mixed punk and ska, bands of the fourth wave of ska will continue to create new combinations of possibilities for the genre, and will continue to reach new audiences because of this. With their embrace of technology and the internet, Bomb the Music Industry! is demonstrating that ska actually has even more potential to grow now than it did before. Streetlight Manifesto may also soon join them, as they have voiced their discontent with Victory Records (their label) and have directly told their fans via their website to boycott all of their products sold by Victory or in record stores. With these two bands being major players in the fourth wave and both being extremely anti-record label, it seems as if ska’s future is not on the shelves of a record store, but mostly likely between the ones and zeroes of the internet.