Over more than a decade, the band’s post-punk sound has transformed from the outer-limit experiments that followed in the immediate aftermath of punk’s sudden notoriety into something subtler and more varied: No Wave to New Wave.
Belgrado has never made the kind of records that feel like a trip to the musical thrift store. Every change has been earned.
Sure, their outstanding new album Intra Apogeum has the preset drum beats, funk-thickened bass, tinny keyboard arpeggios, and shimmering guitar chords of the early 1980s pop artists who now stand metonymically for that confusing period in history.
But Belgrado isn’t interested in indulging fantasies of a simpler time. Because that’s not what the early 1980s were.
The band takes the concept of alternative culture seriously.
Although none of Belgrado’s four members – Patrycja Proniewska (vocals), Jonathan Sirit (drum machine & synthesizer), Fernando Marquez (guitar & synthesizer), Louis Harding (bass) – are Spaniards, they are so deeply invested in Barcelona’s legendary anarchist underground that they might as well be.
Even when their songs sound like the sort of fare that Tops of the Pops featured in the early 1980s, the band is rooted in the struggle to dissolve the boundary between aesthetic and political novelty.
Music isn’t an end in itself but a way to begin conversations about economic and social ends. This is signalled, in part, by the attention Belgrado pay to how they look.
The graphic design of their releases – spearheaded by Sirit – hearkens back to the heyday of Modernism, when even small typographical decisions felt momentous.
Their videos are even more complicated, evoking that era indirectly by recreating the sensibility of early MTV, when even mainstream acts let directors run wild with references to cinematic history.
The one for “Nie Zapomnę”, Intra Apogeum’s third track, is filled with the kind of overdetermined symbols favoured by the Surrealists, who were themselves powerfully influenced by Sigmund Freud’s approach to dreams.
Here, though, there doesn’t seem to be a key to the code, a perception reinforced by the fact that only a fluent speaker of Polish can understand the lyrics. Even if we take the time to translate them, it’s hard to see an obvious connection between them and the images on-screen.
Asked a number of years back why she decided to sing exclusively in her native tongue, Proniewska explained that her words are the product of automatic writing, which is extremely hard to do in a foreign language.
While the lyrics on Intra Apogeum might initially seem more accessible than those on Belgrado’s previous releases, they are no easier to pin down.
The effect Belgrado’s lyrics create is consistent with the early 1980s music the band invokes. Often simple, they nevertheless gesture towards the sublime, like the self-consciously Romantic aesthetic of goth artists.
To my mind, though, they come closer to the spare stream of consciousness developed by New Order’s Bernard Sumner, which repeatedly conjures the impression of deep significance without conveying a coherent message.
This is no agitprop.
If that seems like a strange way for committed anarchists to communicate, maybe you’ve been spending time with the wrong political crowd.
Political freedom that results in cultural bondage isn’t likely to last. The point of throwing off the chains that bind us is to make it possible to experience as wide a range of sensations as possible.
At least, that’s the sense I get from Intra Apogeum. This is music that remembers how important it is to disengage from the rule-bound world. That’s why it repudiates didacticism.
For anyone who was alive and listening to popular music in the early 1980s, Belgrado calls to mind the bleak times when the superpowers were willing to flirt with mutually assured destruction, and almost every experience seemed like a degraded version of what had been possible fifteen years before.
Because the songs on Intra Apogeum have a light touch, these grey-scaled memories are given a new coat of paint. We remember how bad things seemed back then, but also how dreams of the future made life more bearable.
Photograph courtesy of Andrew. Published under a Creative Commons license.