Alt. Sounds takes a look at some of the best music currently being made in cities from around the world – introducing you to some new bands and artists. This week, Tom Watkins takes you through some of the essential sounds currently currently coming out of Istanbul.

There’s been lots of international attention on Turkey of late, for unfortunate reasons.  July’s coup d’etat, successive terrorist attacks across major cities, an increasingly authoritarian government and lazy portrayals of the country’s problems in Western media have all contributed to a demoralised national mood.

So it’s nice to have the opportunity to write about some positive noise coming out of the country at the moment. For those unfamiliar with mainstream Turkish pop music, it’s a pretty homogeneous landscape in which glossy, folk-inflected Eurodance and stolid ballads dominate, with a bit of macho rock here and there; anything outside of these types has little chance of commercial success or exposure. However, the positive flip side of this is that there are some genuinely exciting alternative scenes around the country with bands that are unencumbered by the prospect of wealth or fame, and motivated instead by good music and dedicated local audiences.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been some minor successes. Garage rock trio, The Ringo Jets, in particular have made successful forays into mainland Europe as well as building their profile at home.  The band earned significant sociopolitical kudos in 2013 with their song ‘Spring of War’, a comment on the civil unrest surrounding the Gezi Park protests. Since then their sound has developed beyond its garage rock base to include some psyche wig-outs based around Anatolian rock classics.

The Young Shaven, whose brand of vintage post punk is a lean affair, eschewing the pompous atmospherics of some of the glossier Turkish indie bands and relying instead on angular riffs and the louche charisma of Anglo-American frontman Archie McKay, one-time member of Erase Errata.  The band’s debut EP Venus Was Its Name is clearly a DIY effort, with minimal overdubs, and is all the more enjoyable for it; they sound like a band at ease with their natural habitat of small stages and keen to convey the spirit and vitality of their live shows. Their lyrics, which juxtapose snippets of Istanbul life with oblique turns of phrase in English and Turkish, come across like a T.S. Eliot redraft of Jarvis Cocker at times.  Earlier demos and self-released material demonstrate the band’s knack for hooks, and an enviable ability to combine diverse influences within a signature blend rooted in their own Istanbul experience. The promise of a 7” later this year an exciting one. Watch their recent live session for Ehveniser TV below.

Trio Jakuzi have been making steady gains in profile for the last 18 months, making some prominent festival appearances alongside larger acts and already graduating from the breakthrough spaces to the next tier of venues, such as the 400 capacity Salon in Pera.  Jakuzi position themselves as a chillwave act, but there’s much more than that going on here. Singer Kutay Soyocak croons in a rich baritone dialled in from another era, and the arrangements and production attest to an encyclopaedic knowledge of vintage synth pop and post-punk. Even where it feels that their influences are a little too visible on their sleeve (‘Hic Mi Yok’, with its TB 303 baseline and choppy guitar chords, is pure Orange Juice), it comes across as knowing homage rather than stealing.

Palmiyeler, who also sing in Turkish, have a sound somewhere between Vampire Weekend and The poppier end of Pavement (think Kennel District or Date w/ Ikea). Palmiyeler means palm trees, and the band’s eponymous album captures a sense of laid-back, beach lifestyle. ‘Senden Haber Yok’, the first single from their forthcoming album, meanwhile, is more spaghetti western than tropical and hints at something a little darker to come.

All in all, there are strong signs of a vibrant scene gaining momentum in Istanbul at the moment. In some ways the absence of a saturated market like in London, New York and other more established music capitals has helped the scene to galvanise rather than hindered it, despite the comparative lack of resources, audiences and competition. Izmir and Ankara, and even more conservative cities like Bursa (home of post-punk duo She Past Away), also have burgeoning scenes and great bands.  It’s an exciting time for alternative music in Turkey.

Feature image: The Ringo Jets


Discover more on the VH Alt. Sounds – Istanbul playlist on Spotify.