Alternative to what?
The concept of “alternative rock” has become something of a joke among music fans these days, the standard comeback being “alternative to what?” Further complicating this problem of definition is mainstream corporate radio, which has worked hard to co-opt and market alternative rock for the mainstream CD-buying public. This process has been so widespread that it is beginning to feel as if there’s a simple response to the “alternative to what?” question: namely that alternative rock is the alternative to good music.
Phrenik (www.phrenik.com) is a local act that is firmly positioned in the hard-alternative category and, as such, brings up many of the issues associated with both alternative rock and corporate radio.
On a bill including Circle of 5ths and Soulmotor, Phrenik ran through a full set last weekend at the Boardwalk in front of a mostly teenage audience. The effect was akin to seeing a large-scale rock show transplanted to a smaller venue. First, the audience was warmed up with a hip-hop trio, which allowed the band a few moments to compose itself backstage. Unlike most rock acts in town, which tend to wander about onstage for a few minutes before they actually begin playing, Phrenik’s members mounted the stage all at once and in darkness, picked up their instruments and kicked into their set like rock stars.
The effect of this—and the effect of Phrenik’s entire set—was that of a professional alternative-rock band punching out a high-quality set to an enthusiastic audience. The lights, sound and audience response all coalesced into a solid show, one that left the audience thirsting for more.
In a musical environment ruled by corporate radio, it may be a backhanded compliment to note that Phrenik could be imagined playing the same set on a national stage with much the same results. The success implicit in this also underscores the fact that the band’s sound is perhaps too familiar at times. dB’s vocals are solid enough, Amp’s guitars are melodic and driving, and the rhythm section (Doug on bass and Joel on drums) holds everything together nicely. But the end result is so KWOD-friendly as to seem hollow (a fact further exacerbated by the band performing in front of a Budweiser sign all night and thanking the beer giant twice for its corporate sponsorship of the band). With support from KWOD and 98 Rock, it’s quite possible Phrenik will go far. But ultimately, I’d like to hear them take their talents to the next level, by breaking the tired alternative-rock mold in order to build something new out of it.
This is a difficult subject to address, if for no other reason than because doing so means becoming entangled in the sticky relationship between art and commerce. On the one hand, Phrenik should be congratulated for achieving corporate sponsorship, for building a solid fan base and for playing music that is perfectly suited (both in terms of style and quality) to corporate alternative radio. On the other hand, it ultimately can feel like cookie-cutter radio rock with limited musical substance. It is rock as business and business as rock. Either way, one thing is certain: Phrenik is really good at what it does.