A Guide to the Gremlin Mindset, Vol. 1
She moves with a purpose. What a magnificent purpose.
“The Gremlin Mindset” is a term that was jokingly coined by members of the Indieheads Podcast to describe the manic, deranged energy of black midi lead singer and noted short king Geordie Greep, comparing his performance style and diminutive height to the anarchic spirit of the Gremlins. But soon, it became clear that “Gremlin-core” was not just a fun bit, but was actually a perfect genre descriptor for a growing musical movement within the larger 2010s post-punk and noise rock scene. While initially describing a couple of very specific bands, the Gremlin Mindset has grown into something much larger, becoming a catch-all term for any new rock bands that give themselves over completely to the unhinged energy of their performances.
Differentiating Gremlin-core from 2010s post-punk as a whole is a square / rectangle situation: all Gremlin-core is post-punk, but not all post-punk is Gremlin-core. Determining what albums and bands are or are not a part of the Gremlin Mindset is mostly a “you know it when you hear it” thing, but in discussing this movement at length, we have identified a couple of key factors that tend to indicate that a band is Gremlin-core. These are not strict requirements, but the more of these that get checked off, the more likely it is that something fits into the Gremlin canon:
Vocal performance that either sounds like a Gremlin or completely monotone / spoken word: Gremlin-core is almost entirely unconcerned with traditional melody and tuneful singing, you either have to shriek and scream like a wild animal or you have to deliver your vocals without any emotion or inflection, actual singing is mostly forbidden with some exceptions. Very commonly, Gremlin bands will combine this two at once (see: Black Country, New Road).
Guitars that can be described by lazy music critics like myselfus as “angular”: self explanatory, you’ll quickly learn to recognize The Gremlin Guitar Sound™ as you immerse yourself in the Mindset.
Created after 2010: while Gremlin-core often draws influence from older bands like The Talking Heads, only music from the last decade can be officially categorized as Gremlin-core. If your brain hasn’t been turned to mush by your cell phone, you aren’t truly making Gremlin music.
Repetition: rather than using traditional songwriting or catchy hooks, Gremlin songs are often built around repeating the same phrase over and over and over again until the words almost completely lose their meaning and begin to take on the quality of some sort of dark magic incantation used to summon an ancient beast.
Either the song has one consistent, linear groove that builds in intensity (example: “Houseplants” by Squid) or the song wildly swerves from one groove to another as if time signatures aren’t real (example: “953” by black midi).
The band is British - not all Gremlin-core comes from the UK, but an overwhelming majority of it does. Part of this is because of producer and Speedy Wunderground label head Dan Carey, who is the primary architect of the Gremlin sound and is based in London, but also because the mental illness inherent to being British seems to foster the Gremlin Mindset.
While black midi was the band who initially inspired us to coin the term, the Gremlin Mindset was already lurking inside all of us for years and years before black midi debuted their first single, it was just waiting to be let out. Before we can look towards what the Gremlin Mindset has become in the last few years, we must trace its roots and stylistic influences to figure out how the Gremlin inside of us all got fed after midnight. The following list is part 1 of the official guide to Gremlin music, mainly focusing on key Gremlin texts released from 2010 to the release of “bmbmbm” in 2018 (AKA The Gremlin Event Horizon), and a few more sacred texts leading to Schlagenheim in the summer of 2019.
Daughters - Daughters (March 9th, 2010)
In some far-flung mystic Gremlin mountain, guarded by hooded monks with their faces half-melted and tinnitus constantly blaring in their ears, there are shrines erected to the radical scriptures of Alexis Marshall and Nick Sadler. By screeching wail and shrieking guitar, complemented in part by Jon Syverson’s punishing percussion, Daughters’ self-titled record was a pitched-perfect amalgamation of the band’s early years, and a godfathered blueprint to the eventual depravity of the Gremlin Mindset. Marshall’s poetry-by-hellfire figures him more as a cackling gothic minister than musical frontman, summoning simultaneous images of creation and torment, all while Sadler’s unrelenting tones switch on a dime from their signature heaviness to nearly indecipherable walls of textured noise and rhythm. —Dyl
Recommended Tracks: “The Hit,” “The First Supper,” Sweet Georgia Brown”
Scott Walker - Bish Bosch (December 3rd, 2012)
On their 2019 breakthrough single “Sunglasses”, Black Country, New Road’s Isaac Wood proclaimed that he was “modern Scott Walker.” Considering that “Sunglasses” is one of the most important documents of the Gremlin Mindset, I think we should try to connect these dots by looking at Walker’s final solo album before his death in 2019, Bish Bosch. While we debated slotting in his collab album with Sunn O))), Bish Bosch is a more realized work that fits in greatly with one of the core tenets of the Mindset: the art of freeing yourself to the music. Despite pushing 70 when this album came out, Walker’s compositions here are his most wild yet, playing with time signatures, dynamic audio and unique instrumentation in a way many musicians wouldn’t dare.
And when I say unique instrumentation, we mean it as you’ll hear everything from clanging swords to literal farts being used to fill this album’s cacophonous soundscapes. It’s sometimes hard to believe that this is the same guy who made something as traditionally beautiful as Scott 3 back in 1969, but Walker’s descent into the avant-garde from his teen pop origins is just one of many things that make him such a compelling artist, and make him such a worthy entry to the Gremlin canon, as it’s hard to think of anyone who has freed themselves from the artifice of the modern world as much as Walker did. —Matty
Recommended Tracks: “‘See You Don’t Bump His Head’”, “Corps De Blah”, “Epizootics!”
Savages - Silence Yourself (May 6th, 2013)
Having a fully-formed sound and vision on your full-length debut is something most bands fail to achieve, so the fact that Savages managed to break out with not only a unique sound, but with one of the best rock records of the last decade is a truly impressive feat. Like a bat out of hell, from the moment that Silence Yourself announces itself with the blistering opening track “Shut Up” the four-piece punk outfit was off to the races, blowing listeners away with their incredibly tight grooves and the undeniable, swaggering presence of their frontwoman Jehnny Beth. So many of the bands in the “post-punk” revival wave feel like hollowed out copies of more interesting bands to come before them, but Savages is exactly the opposite: while they clearly draw stylistic influences from the punk bands who came before them, the energy the infuse into this style is completely new and exhilarating.
To be a good Gremlin-core band, a solid rhythm section is absolutely crucial, because you need a really solid foundation to ground the anarchy that comes from the vocals and guitars, and the duo of Ayse Hassan on bass and Fay Milton on drums are better at doing exactly that than almost any other band on the planet. The basslines on songs like “Shut Up”, “City’s Full” and “Husbands” are all absolutely FILTHY, and by putting the bass front and center and letting it carry the momentum of the song, Ayse gives guitarist Gemma Thompson and Jehnny the freedom to completely let loose and go Gremlin Mode, especially on lead single “Husbands.”Jehnny rides the hurtling forward momentum created by that descending bassline and uses it to go completely nuts, repeating the “Husbands” hook until she drives herself into complete hysteria while the song continues chugging along. Silence Yourself doesn’t fully reinvent the post-punk wheel, but when you have this much raw, undeniable energy combined with this much technical precision, you don’t need to: just let the bangers speak for themselves. —DJ Horse Jeans
Recommended Tracks: “Shut Up”, “City’s Full”, “Waiting For A Sign”, “She Will”, “No Face”, “Husbands”
Guerilla Toss - Gay Disco (December 3rd, 2013)
At this point in their career, Guerilla Toss have largely progressed out of whatever hallmarks Gremlin music may have, but when you dig back into their career, it comes reeling back in with immediacy. Perhaps no album of theirs better gives you their brand of the stuff than Gay Disco, a marathon sprint through the kind of squirrelly noise rock the band threw out for half a decade until naturally landing on the much cozier end of the Gremlin rock-to-dance punk-to-synthpop pipeline. To describe it best, it lies somewhere between “technicolor freakout” and “easy migraine inducer”, the perfect kind of thing to get you amped up even if you have no idea what frontperson Kassie Carlson’s shouting all about here. Like any other Gremlin rock record, it’s all about the energy at the center, propelled by drum thwacks, chintzy synths, and a guitar that wants to do anything but play a traditional method. It’s a noisemaker that somehow turns out a consistent groove, something that can be really rewarding if you wanna dance and give yourself a headache at the same time. —Rose
Recommended Tracks: “sugar better”, “gay disco”
Liars - Mess (March 24th, 2014)
Visions of haunted industrial raves long since passed, their gripping bass rips still holding the ghosts of ravers captive inside empty rotten factories. The two-decades long career of Liars is founded upon a mishmash of sonic graffiti, nightmare punk designed to overwhelm and consume listeners whole, all while pushing the margins between danceable synth anthems and crushing noise rock. In the grand scheme of their discography, Mess at first sounds like another pitstop in a storied legacy, another descendant of the band’s transcendent output from the early aughts, yet just beneath this surface lies a frantic descent into a colorful, terrifying, moshing underbelly. Andrews’ despondent vocal performances immediately contrast with the kinetic energy of Aaron Hemphill’s percussion & synthesizer work, a blaring cacophony ready to switch paces from song-to-song, eager to make a listener lose themselves at any moment. —Dyl
Recommended Tracks: “Vox Tuned D.E.D.,” “Pro Anti Anti,” “Mess On A Mission”
Girl Band - Holding Hands With Jamie (September 25th, 2015)
Batshit with bravado, Kafka running naked and screaming through the night, transmissions from the blank Gremlin planet coming back with sentient static. Girl Band has already etched themselves a nice little legacy in the current crop of post-punk revival acts with a signature unhinged sound unlike any of their contemporaries, due in no small part to Dara Kiely’s nightmarish, surrealist lyricism and wailing, sometimes incomprehensible vocal performances that sound as if they’re being recorded deep sleep paralysis. That’s not to discount the rest of the group’s individual contributions to the Gremlin canon either — Adam Faulkner’s war drums pound away with flourishing intensity; the ominous, incessant marching of Daniel Fox’s bass punctuated perfectly with the swelling hellworld emanating off Alan Duggan’s lead guitar. Holding Hands With Jamie is a foundational Gremlin text, not least because of the album’s centerpiece, “Paul,” a perfect thesis statement in paranoia, terror, abstract intensity, and losing oneself to the brainworms of our modern catastrophe. —Dyl
Recommended Tracks: “Paul,” “Pears For Lunch,” “Fucking Butter”
Protomartyr - The Agent Intellect (October 9th, 2015)
Among the number of bands with disaffected frontmen that got swept into prominence during the big post-punk boom of the mid-2010s, there’s a case to be made for Joe Casey being the most disaffected of all. Carrying the persona of a drunk uncle railing in philosophical tirades against the displacement and disillusionment of Post-Industrial America, Casey’s vocal style takes on precisely two modes: near-monotone rambling or cutting bellows whenever the intensity is demanded. The band backing him is just as vital for painting his scenes of abuses of power and the downtrodden — Greg Ahee’s screaming stabs of guitars and Scott Davidson’s groove-focused basslines weaving and tangling overtop one another, while Alex Leonard’s propulsive yet unusually complex drum parts make the whole thing hit like an avalanche.
Any of Casey & Co.’s albums could debatably be called the most Gremlin-oriented, but The Agent Intellect hits the sweet spot right in the center of Protomartyr’s venn diagram of sounds, precisely between the band’s early tendency to fully lock into rhythms and the bolder ambitions of their follow-ups. What results is a thoroughly bitter cavalcade of human misfortune and misery, an album whose bite only grows the longer the band dwells on any given riff or repeated hook. From the incessant dismissive refrain of “That’s not gonna save you, man” on “Dope Cloud,” to the minutes-long builds on “Pontiac 87” or “Why Does It Shake?” hovering around a single set of repeated lines, The Agent Intellect zeroes its focus in on the core tenets of the Gremlin Mindset to explode those very concepts outward in a tangible frustration that can overflow at any moment. The hypnotically pulverizing forces of the album are enough to suck any Gremlin-prone listener in, spitting out a beast snarling, ready as Casey is to gnaw away at the privileged and corrupt. —Natalie
Recommended Tracks: “Pontiac 87,” “The Devil in His Youth,” “Why Does It Shake?”
The Drones - Feelin Kinda Free (March 18th, 2016)
Up until their hiatus after this record, The Drones had arguably a longer career than nearly every other band on this list, in some ways being the progenitors of a lot of stylistic tics that later appeared in their own Australian music scene. None of those other bands had Gareth Liddiard’s voice, though. He performs with a gnarled and venomous sort of bark, an easy centerpiece for the blues-tinged punk rock that held up the group’s sound for their entire career until this point. Feelin Kinda Free, however, is a pivot.
While the band continues to bash out the mournful tones of any guitar record they could have made in the past, many of the musical elements here are distorted through the lens of the kind of technology found in electronic music, with guitars made to feel like synthesizers, live drumming locked into a motorik haze that makes it feel machine-driven, and sampling distorting the lens of what can really be a “live” performance on record. It’s arguably some of the furthest stuff from the core sound and tenets of Gremlin rock, but still manages to capture that demented tone at the genre’s center quite well, thanks to Liddiard’s lyrical ability, which allows everyday inhumanity feel fully titled into the catastrophic. He manages to write about terrorism and white supremacist cultural hegemony with the same sort of disillusioned bite that’s required to handle the information overload and dread that comes saddled with thinking about those sorts of things for too long. It’s a pivot for the band and Gremlin rock as a whole, but when you look at it long enough, it all starts to fit in quite cleanly. The disagreeable tone is just the same as ever. —Rose
Recommended Tracks: “Taman Shud”, “Boredom”, “Shut Down SETI”
Priests - Nothing Feels Natural (January 27th, 2017)
It's a longggggg movie
A long, long movie, and you are not you
You are not you
You are not you
You are not you
You're on Wheel of Fortune
You're on Wheel of Fortune
You're on Wheel of Fortune
You're on Wheel of Fortune
Since its release in 2017, the title of the Priests album, Nothing Feels Natural, has become more and more resonant with each passing day. Things have never felt less natural. Gremlin-core is a genre that is not usually didactic or explicitly political as much as it represents an emotional, existential response to the increasingly bizarre and alienating experience of living in our current dystopia. Rather than a band like IDLES whose political lyrics are very surface level and direct, the political strain of the Gremlin Mindset opts for a more tongue-in-cheek, abstract approach, confronting the absurdism of late stage capitalism with an equally absurd lyrical and performance style.
Born out of the Washington D.C. DIY scene, Priests are one of the bands that best exemplifies this approach, combining an accessible mix of post-punk, surf rock, and dance punk with lyrics that are as incendiary and provocative as they are disaffected and detached. Nothing Feels Natural is not a rallying cry for specific political action, it is a temper tantrum, a primal scream / dance party that reflects the mix of emptiness and rage that comes from being completely repulsed by the world you were born into and also feeling completely powerless to do anything about it but yell and thrash your body about. Laying out the frustrations of America’s archaic two-party system on “Pink White House”, lead singer Katie Alice Greer describes the political process as “A puppet show in which you’re made to feel like you participate / Sign a letter, throw your shoe, vote for numbers 1 or 2”. Released in the infant days of the Trump administration and initially hailed as one of the first official pieces of Trump-era art along with contemporary albums like We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, the feral anger of Nothing Feels Natural is not the “return of punk” that some #resistance liberals thought the Trump presidency would usher in, but rather a boiling point moment where an already disillusioned youth was given yet another slap to the face. As they so poetically put it in their 2014 song “And Breeding”, “Barack Obama killed something in me / and I'm gonna get him for it”. —DJ Horse Jeans
Recommended tracks: “Appropriate”, “Jj”, “Nikki”, “Nothing Feels Natural”, “Pink White House”, “Suck”
Warm Bodies - Warm Bodies (April 1st, 2018)
I swear, Olivia Gibb gets possessed by the spirit of a Gremlin whenever she performs. Her vocal style can range anywhere from desperately pained pleas to inhuman shrieks, and she throws her entire body into it like she’s actively being exorcised. And that’s before you even get to the music of Warm Bodies itself: a demented subversion of hardcore surf punk skirting at the fringes its members’ corporeal limits, ensuring each aspect of the music is at its most feral at all times.
On their self-titled debut, the Kansas City weirdos never let a second of their work lose sight of the prime tenants of proto-Gremlin rock. Gibb’s lyrics, beneath the piercing whines that render the sounds more vital than the words, often break bodies down into the most primal, grotesque, oozy elements. Flesh is reduced to a base signifier of morbid decay, skin-eating diseases and maimings come casually and often, and sex is positioned as a form of physiological revolt via animalistic or subversively taboo acts. At any moment on Warm Bodies, it feels like Olivia Gibb or any of the band’s bodies can fall apart in the next second. But that just pushes the group to give their all to the extremes of the album even more. After all, if everything that holds us rigid is on the verge of collapsing, might as well scream like our bodies are melting on the spot. —Natalie
Recommended Tracks: “I Need A Doctor,” “My Face Fell Off,” “I’m A Dog”
Lithics - Mating Surfaces (May 25th, 2018)
When I try to summarize the specific instrumental blend of post-punk, math rock, and dance punk that the dancier subsection of the Gremlin Mindset specializes in, Lithics are the band I often point to as an example that helps people understand exactly what this wave is all about. Their sound on Mating Surfaces reminds me of many of my other favorite bands in the scene — Squid, Savages, Dry Cleaning, etc — while also blending those styles into something that feels both emblematic of this larger scene but distinct to them and them alone.
The consistency can make this record feel a little samey on first listen, but the more I’ve dug into it the more I’ve fallen in love with the specific style this band has crafted and how great their chemistry is as a band. The vocal style is much more understated that most of the bands in the Gremlin canon, closer to Courtney Barnett or Florence Shaw of Dry Cleaning than any of the wildest Gremlins lead singers of this list, but Aubrey Hornor’s minimalist approach to the Gremlin vocal delivery really works, and additionally lets the incredible musicianship of the other members shine. The way the drummer Wiley Hickson and bassist Bob Desaulniers are constantly operating in perfect lock-step on this album is the key to how these bands can make strange compositions and weird time signatures go down so smoothly. The sharp, sometimes grating, but always somehow still catchy licks from guitarist Mason Crumley are like the textbook example of what the Gremlin Guitar Sound ™ I mentioned in the intro sound like, and in general this band is a real benchmark in quality to what I look for in this seemingly ever expanding scene of artists. —DJ Horse Jeans
Favorite Tracks: “Excuse Generator”, “When Will I Die”, “Boyce”, “Be Nice Alone”, “Flat Rock”, “Edible Door”, “Dancing Guy”
Surfbort - Friendship Music (October 26th, 2018)
While this band is a little more traditional and straightforward in their punk rock style than the other canonical Gremlin bands, the free-wheeling energy and the fiery stage presence of lead singer Dani Miller made them immediately jump out as a band to watch when I saw them open for IDLES in 2019. The musical motifs and song topics of Friendship Music are mostly already well-tread territory in punk music, but their unique ability to seamlessly shift from hard edged punk riffs to melodic sections and catchy hooks within the same short songs and the width of different styles they manage to cover in the album’s 17 tracks adds up to much more than just another punk album. Those wild mood swings are on display from the very start of the album, with the opener “High Anxiety” starting off with a musical panic attack, only to switch into a shoegazey stoner rock chorus a minute later. There's a loose, off the cuff feeling to this whole album that certainly isn’t new to punk music (prioritizing political message and feeling over technical ability is the entire foundation of the genre after all), but this album manages to combine that sensibility with a kind of genre agnosticism and a surprising gift for catchy melodies that feels distinct to the 2010s. Plus, Dani Miller says “weeeed” in the exact same vocal inflection as Stephen A Smith, which rules. —DJ Horse Jeans
Recommended tracks: “High Anxiety”, “Slushy”, “Pretty Little Fucker”, “Trashworld”, “Dope”, “Burn”, “Hillside Strangler”
Pom Poko - Birthday (February 22nd, 2019)
It’s my firm belief that Gremlins and Gremlin music can come in all forms and subgenres, so long as the Mindset is there. And, in this case, that extends to the most unhinged art punk that’s unconcerned with traditional melody. Norwegian four-piece Pom Poko’s debut album Birthday proves that it fits into the Gremlin mold right out the gate with “Theme #1,” a slow-build of an opener that reveals it’s been cloaking an inhuman sprint the second its guitars and drums blast off into the stratosphere. All the while, Ragnhild Fangel’s alternating deadpan and jagged sing-song vocals repeat only two lines, including one that may as well be the band’s mantra: “Sublime, sufficient.” It’s a trick the band knows they can pull off well enough to do it again later with even more chaos on the fittingly titled “Crazy Energy Night,” this time with a breakdown that sees guitarist Martin Tonne’s colorfully gnarled guitar wind around barbed trills while drummer Ola Djupvik assumes the role of Animal as if directed by Joe Dante.
But even when the band eases off the gas, their Gremlin sensibilities never waver. Whether it be Fangel always imbuing her wholly unique vocal style with a serrated melodicism, or the joyfully sanguine body reflexivity on “My Blood,” or the dark narratives about stalking or running from vague unseen forces on even the most cheerful-sounding songs, Pom Poko always take whatever option allows them to throw disarray into established forms. And that’s the mentality I take on whenever I revisit this album. When I listen to Pom Poko, I want to unleash the most feral artistic side of myself, the type that wants to express myself in the messiest and brashest way possible. I want to shriek along, I want to thrash as violently as my body can allow, I want to throw all sense of tonality in my voice out the window. To repeat, to myself, unyieldingly, bracing for everything around me to explode: “Sublime, sufficient. Sublime, sufficient.” —Natalie
Recommended Tracks: “Theme #1,” “Crazy Energy Night,” “Day Tripper”
Show Me the Body - Dog Whistle (March 29th, 2019)
In true New York punk fashion, the trio of Show Me the Body are eager to spit in your face and light your pants on fire just for fun, just because it’s something to do. Combining droning noisiness with aggressive swagger, Dog Whistle doesn’t just wear its influences in its sleeve but fully takes control of their reins, seamlessly transitioning between head-bashing post-hardcore, ear-shattering noise rock, and poignant spoken word poetry. Fronted by Julian Pratt’s snarling, monotone vocals and antagonistic lyricism, the group revels in a gothic murkiness, flanked on both sides by Harlan Steed’s paranoid, ever-increasingly distorted basslines; and Noah Cohen-Corbett’s looming crashing drums. The result is an album easy to separate from the rest of the gremlin pack, the five-story cave troll crashing down the castle gates. —Dyl
Recommended Tracks: “Not For Love,” “Madonna Rocket,” “Arcanum”
black midi - Schlagenheim (June 21st, 2019)
And now, we’ve finally arrived. If all the albums we just talked about prior were Phase Zero of the Gremlin Mindset, this is where Phase One truly begins on black midi’s damn near perfect debut album. Much like Walker, the members of black midi were on a traditional music path before they formed their band, as all were attendees of the famous BRIT School whose alumnus includes Adele, Rex Orange County, Amy Winehouse, FKA twigs, and many other singers and musicians who would later find pop stardom. While all the members, especially drummer Morgan Simpson, could have probably made a good living as reliable session musicians, they instead took their own path playing small venues like the Windmill Brixton as they began to jam and piece together the songs that would make up Schlagenheim. They moved with a purpose.
Whether it's cuts like “Near DT, MI”, where you’ll hear bassist/vocalist Cameron Picton going through an exorcism as he references the Flint Water Crisis or “Years Ago” where guitarist/vocalist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin turns the distortion all the way as he screams in broken Polish, this is a band that, above all else, believes in total and complete vulnerability in performance in all its freedom and frights. But of course, the main attraction of black midi is vocalist/guitarist Geordie Greep, the Gremlin to beat all Gremlins. Throughout this LP, you’re in constant amazement that a human man can sound like this. But boy, this is as real as it gets.
While there’s plenty of examples I could choose, the most essential document of the Gremlin Mindset to me remains the pseudo title track of Schlagenheim, “Of Schlagenheim.” Hypnotizing and sprawling across its first 3 minutes, the track suddenly drops you from the ground you were standing on before bringing you back to Earth with a drum hit that sounds off like a gunshot as Greep literally screams (according to the liner notes): “Scrap poff puff poff bluah bla / Scre poff pef a hé n'a ne ne ne n'a o! / [unintelligible screams].”
Above all else, the Gremlin Mindset stands for letting yourself [unintelligible screams] because that is the only rational reaction you should have while living in modern late stage capitalism where the dissonance of living is deafening. While it is difficult to forget about the circumstances we are forced to live under, the Gremlin Mindset offers up a different path. Let go and move with a purpose.
What a magnificent purpose.
Recommended Tracks: “953”, “Speedway”, “Near DT, MI”, “Of Schlagenheim”, “Ducter”