Lisabö’s Urban Soundscapes (music and the city)

Even if you don’t understand the Spanish narration/Basque lyrics, take note of the TWO DRUM KITS in the video–hard sound, great music, and most relevant of all, the title of the album is EZLEKUAK (non-cities) a reference (on purpose or not…) to Marc Augé’s essential reading Non-Places: An Anthropology of Supermodernity [here’s a brief review in The Guardian].

This is one of my favorite bands [here are some more song samples on myspace]. They are from the Basque city of Irun and claim as influences such small-label Anglophone bands as Low, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Shellac, June of 44, and Fugazi.

I’m hoping to publish on the band with 33 1/3’s acclaimed series of books on popular music, but since that is incredibly competitive (and since the Basque theme may put the proposal at a disadvantage–despite the increasing focus on books written in a more academic style), I might have to find another venue. Here’s a draft introduction I wrote for a wider audience:

Lisabö’s Urban Soundscapes

Betwixt, between and across the Pyrenees—the mountain range separating Spain and France—there lie the seven lands of the Basque Country, or Euskal Herria as it is known in the Basque language. None other than noted cineaste Orson Welles (the director of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) traveled there in the 1950s as part of a BBC television series titled Around the World. Placing his camera “directly on an international border” of a “little-known corner of Europe,” [link to youtube video] Welles presents us with visual anchors for what have become the standard images of Basque life—an agricultural-based village, traditional berets called boinas, rural feats of strength, and the varieties of Basque ball games from which contemporary jai alai developed. The director films the Basque Country in black and white, adding his own voiceover narration, and he seems entranced by what appears to be an authentic culture—yielding a televised platitude that would make even Anthropology 101 students cringe. But for all his flaws, Welles is right on the money when he remarks: “The people who live here are neither French nor Spanish, Basques are what Basques are.”

Perhaps the most important part of “what Basques are” comes from their language, euskara. In today’s era of international musical commodities—in which many bands on the Iberian peninsula find it easier to make a buck singing in English rather than in their own languages of Castilian (Spanish), Catalan, or Galician, for example—Basque band Lisabö’s decision to sing in euskara sets them apart. The band members themselves have remarked that their rejection of English is a protest “against the English-language monopoly in music and in all areas. A total monopoly in this globalized world where other cultures are hidden from the fucking cultural and commercial monolith of English and the United States.” Lisabö’s appeal goes much further than that, of course. First, there is their difficult heavy rock sound, which draws from both punk and post-punk roots—its weft and wane oscillating between thick, heavy guitar progressions and loosely-knit ethereal digressions. Next, there is the band’s characteristic lyrical intensity, vocals in Basque screamed or whispered against the punctuated meter of a drum kit (or, at times, even two). But there is also the equally challenging subject matter of their songs…

On the stand-out album Ezlekuak [No-Places] (2007), the song lyrics tend more toward an urban sociology, or an anthropology of life in today’s cities. In the process, they stray far from the traditional reliance of the genre on the personal lives and emotions of disaffected youth. In fact, the album’s title seems to be ripped straight from French Anthropologist Marc Augé’s 1995 book Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (or the work of French urban thinker Michel de Certeau, before him)… “Non-places,” as described by Augé are places such as hotels, airports, shopping malls and the like—cleansed and sterile environments which discourage our emotional connections to place. As in much punk and post-punk, Lisabö’s music is full of message, above all, a distrust of the urban- and suburbanization that has characterized the postwar years in both Europe and the United States. But in contrast to groups such as Arcade Fire—whose albums, The Suburbs (2011) in particular, might be seen as supporting an idealized image of a rural past—for Lisabö there is no easy way out of the problems inherent to urbanized modernity.

This isn’t Welles’ traditional Basque country—peacefully nestled in the rolling green hills and arid pastures of northern Spain—but another perspective on “who Basques are.” One of the oldest living languages in Europe, Basque is not a Romance language like (Castilian) Spanish, Portuguese, or French. The Basque people and their language existed long before the Roman empire, and they survived more recent conflicts in a state of relative autonomy if not—some would say—isolation. Throughout the entire twentieth-century Spanish dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-75), euskara was officially outlawed, and even today it is still a somewhat threatened minority language on the Iberian peninsula. Yet with Spain’s post-1975 Transition to democracy, you can now read novels in Basque—like Bernardo Atxaga’s Obabakoak (‘Things that Happened in Obaba’; published in 1989, available in English translation)—and, of course, you can listen to Basque music… really cacophonous and compelling Basque music.

Lisabö’s decision to sing in euskara itself is undeniably a part of who they are, but their music says things that language can’t fully express. These are not easy songs: they are built up through thick sheets of sound, accompanied by a language with which few listeners are familiar, and to top it all off, enigmatic lyrics that pack a theoretical punch (lyrics that are translated into Spanish, English and French in the album’s liner notes). But you don’t have to be a student of anthropology or sociology to appreciate what they’re driving at. At their core these are songs of urban decay and rot. It’s just that they’ve got a bit more edge than the urban realities evoked by Joy Division’s Manchester or The Clash’s essential London Calling. At the end of the last song on the album—“Theory of Tiredness” (Nekearen Teoria), for example, Lisabö’s singers bring the album to a close by belting out the following lyrics against screeching guitars, steadily marching baselines and a chaotic crescendo: “I know perfectly well that this one isn’t the most appropriate hotel. I know perfectly well that traffic never takes a break and that painting falls off the walls. It’s just fear, nothing else. The no-places. (Nik jakin badakit heu ez dela hotelik aproposena. Jakin badakit, nik, zirkulazioak ez duela sekulan atsedena hartzen eta pintura paretetatik erortzen dela. Beldurra da, besterik ez. Ezlekuak).” This is another perspective on “who Basques are.” Basques are also city dwellers, subjected to the same miserable and haunting urban realities as the rest of us, and willing to think, sing and even shout about it—loudly.

The band was founded in 1998 in Irun, a town in the northern province of Gipuzkoa, by members Ivan (drums), Imanol (guitar and vocals), Karlos (base and vocals) and Javi (guitar and vocals). While the band’s make-up has changed over time to include others (such as Aida, Maite, Eneko, Ionyu and Martxel), its sound has remained relatively consistent across its three full-length albums and one EP. These include: Ezarian (LP, 2000), Egun Bat Nonahi (EP, 2002), Izkiriaturik Aurkitu Ditudan Gurak (LP, 2005)—where the group collaborates with a number of other bands who sing also in French, Polish and Spanish—and of course Ezlekuak (LP, 2007). Incorporating aspects of musical styles that have been labeled as punk, post-punk, emotional hardcore and noise, Lisabö’s songs oscillate between heavy crashes and ominous silence, grating drives and melodic progressions, throughout maintaining a consistently high level of intensity. The addition of a second drum set in 2000 notably heightened the aural intensity of their music, which was described in a 2001 music review as “disquieting and threatening.”

On the question of musical influences, Lisabö’s oscillation between driving crescendos and haunting lulls owes a great deal to the legacy of such small-label bands as Fugazi, June of 44, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Low and Shellac—all of whom were singled out for praise by the band members themselves in a 2002 interview. The Ezlekuak album, in particular, is a roller coaster ride that forms an album in the true sense of the word. The eight songs hold together as if a single recording, each tracks bleeding into the next, familiar themes and dynamics cropping up again and again. Holding them all together, lyrically, is their persistent focus on the absence of emotional connections that so often comes with harsh urban conditions. The listener is thrust into a barren musical terrain of lonely crowds, highways and bridges, gas stations and beggars, toilets and television, darkness and death… a land that is so beautifully full of horrors that you can’t bring yourself to leave it.

[see also this essay]

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