S-21 | photo by John Vettese for WXPN
The Key’s Year-End Mania: Yoni Kroll’s favorites from the Philly DIY scene
Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2017 incredible. Today, Key contributing writer Yoni Kroll highlights the best of the Philly DIY underground.
You know what really grinds my gears? Those people who go on and on about how, “There’s no good music being made anymore.” You know who they are: all they want to do is tell you about how music ended in the 60s or the 70s or the 80s or … well, I can’t imagine anyone would say that about the 90s. But it’s a possibility. Anyway, they’re wrong. They’re quite wrong. And you know how I know that? Cause here’s a list of some of the best DIY music to come out in Philadelphia alone just in 2017.
So read it, check out all the bands listed, and the next time somebody tells you that there’s no good music anymore, show them this list and laugh in their face.
There was so much good music released this year that I broke it down by physical format. If I was truly going all out, I’d probably include a bunch of demos, though really the only one that actually matters is Mint’s brand new one that was put online just a couple weeks ago. They’re noisy and weird and make me want to shake my butt. Mint is just one of the most exciting bands happening in Philly right now and I can’t wait to put them on my best of 2018 list this time next year.
7″s and EPs:
The HIRS Collective — How to Stop Street Harassment 7″ – How can this band keep on getting better? I really don’t understand how HIRS does it but almost a decade in and they continue to not only reinvent themselves but also the punk and grind genres. The prolific band’s third release this year is ten tracks of absolutely punishing punk, all on the topic of ending street harassment and rape culture. Take note: not only has HIRS grown from two members to many – thus the new moniker – but in March they’ll be going on tour with the brilliant Screaming Females and New Orleans’ Thou.
Nightfall — Deadly Game 7″ – You might not be totally familiar with all the terms used to describe Nightfall – What’s the difference between Finnish and Swedish-style d-beat, anyway? – but if you like catchy, angry, LOUD music and you’re not already acquainted with these shredders, do yourself a favor and check them out. While they put out a split with the equally talented Dronez last year, this is their first solo release since 2013 and it’s a great addition to the Philadelphia punk pantheon.
Pollen — Fear of Another War 7″ – To say that West Philly’s Pollen are loud is doing them a bit of a disservice. The hardcore punk quartet are quite possibly the loudest band in the city. It’s awesome. Their most recent release picks up where last year’s self-titled EP left off, delivering seven excruciatingly noisy songs in the vein of Discharge or Extreme Noise Terror.
While I love seeing Pollen play live because of that volume and how overwhelming and almost claustrophobic it feels, listening to their recorded output, headphones instead of earplugs, is just as solid an experience.
Psychic Teens — Hex EP – If you’ve liked anything this post-punk outfit has done over the past six or so years, you’ll love this new 12”. I know that sounds like some kind of informercial, but it’s true! Psychic Teens has become one of my favorite bands and Hex is another great release by them, a solid mix of the noisy indie of their most recent LP Nerve and their earlier, more goth sound.
S-21 — Operation Menu 7″ – It’s always sad when bands break up, especially when they’re going out on the top of their game. That was the case when S-21 came to an end this past September. While they had only been around for a couple years, they made a huge impact on the Philly scene both musically and as a band mostly made up of women, including three women of color. Just looking around their last show at the First Unitarian Church in September you could feel just how important this band was to so many people there. It was amazing.
S-21 might be gone but they left us with one last release: the Operation Menu 7”, just recently released on Slugsalt and World Gone Mad. From the description up on the band’s Bandcamp: “’Operation Menu’ continues the band’s message, addressing issues of U.S. imperialism, intergenerational trauma and genocide, toxic masculinity, and loss of language and culture through assimilation.”
The three pummeling hardcore tracks on the 7” might not make up for the fact that S-21 is no longer, but they are a perfect testament to what might be one of the best bands to ever come out of Philadelphia. Oh, and as an added bonus: twenty percent of all sales of the 7” will be earmarked towards non-profits benefitting immigrants, displaced people, and refugees.
Machine Gun – S/T 7” – No frills hardcore with members of Dark Thoughts and Low Charge. How no frills, you ask? It’s so no frills that they managed to cram 10 tracks into less than 10 minutes. You know what you’re getting with tracks like, “Snake In The Grass” and “Final Warning” and if you’re not excited about that than I don’t know what to tell you. This is some powerful, aggressive stuff and it’s also very, very fun.
Blank Spell — Miasma LP – I already reviewed this one! Take a look over here.
Haldol — The Totalitarianism of Everyday Life LP – Haldol is the hidden gem of Philadelphia punk and this album is one of the best things you’ll hear all year. Part gothy post-punk – think Killing Joke and the like – and part disorientating death rock, like something that would have come out of LA in 1982. You take that catchy, interesting music and add in some equally good lyrics touching on politics and societal dread and you have yourself a great album.
Sheer Mag — Need to Feel Your Love LP – What can be said about Sheer Mag that hasn’t been said before? I’m constantly excited by Sheer Mag and all of their successes so far and this LP just adds fuel to the fire. If you haven’t listened to Sheer Mag before then I don’t know what your problem is. But if you need to know what they sound like ahead of time, it’s a bit 70s AM gold and a bit Thin Lizzy all hanging out in a West Philly basement with a bunch of drunk, fun-loving political punks. They’re fantastic and so is this new album. Check it out.
Stinking Lizaveta — Journey to the Underworld LP – More than two decades later and Stinkin’ Liz is still rocking. The three piece West Philadelphia doom metal band – drums, guitar, and upright bass, dubbed “beard metal” in some alt weekly article years ago – has been nothing but consistently awesome throughout the years. This new album, the first since 2012 and the ninth overall, is certainly no exception to that rule. While it’s not reinventing the wheel, when your sound is as strikingly original as Stinking Lizaveta’s you don’t need to do anything but keep on putting out high-quality records.
Taiwan Housing Project — Veblen Death Mask LP – If you’re not familiar with Taiwan Housing Project, it might be difficult to imagine what a band that has shared bills with everyone from the Dead C to Loren Conners to Lydia Lunch to Pissed Jeans sounds like. Are they absolutely wild and weird like Lunch? Heavy and droning like the Dead C? Do they have brilliant solos like the avant garde guitarist Conners? Or are they a really fun, churning spectacle of a band, like Pissed Jeans at their best? Taiwan Housing Project is all those things and then some, as they prove over and over again on Veblen Death Mask.
This band is one of the best things going on in Philadelphia right now and I see them perform as often as possible. At a recent show opening up for No Age at Everybody Hits they played a bunch of new songs and it was beyond amazing. I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Irreversible Entanglements – S/T LP – Irreversible Entanglements seemed to appear out of nowhere. I remember seeing them on a couple lineups last year and maybe a couple more since then – though painfully few in Philadelphia – but they flew under most people’s radars until this album dropped in September. And that’s despite the fact that the vocalist on this self-described “liberation-oriented free jazz collective” is Camae Ayewa aka Philadelphia’s best export Moor Mother, who spent much of 2017 on tour throughout the US and Europe.
That constant time spent on the road is probably the main reason Irreversible Entanglements hasn’t made as thunderous a splash as they should have. This release, their first, is one of the most amazing things I’ve listened to all year. The band started as a three piece with Camae, saxophonist Keir Neuringer, and bassist Luke Stewart getting together to perform at a 2015 event put on by Musicians Against Police Brutality. Later that year they went into the studio to record what would become their self-titled album, adding Aquiles Navarro on trumpet and Tcheser Holmes on drums.
This album is as beautiful as it is painfully honest, a heady mixture of toe-tapping jazz and fist-in-the-air politics. You hear Camae’s poetic vocals rise up above the steady swell of drums and horns and bass and it all sounds so necessary, especially now. This is by far one of my favorites this year and I urge everyone to give it a listen.
Enamel — Complete the Lie cassette – Enamel was a fantastic hardcore band from West Philly who sadly just broke up not too long ago. But before they came to a close, they finally put out their long-awaited full length, Complete the Lie. This is a fantastic and super catchy album and while nothing will compare to the energy of seeing Enamel live, I think this is a rather solid substitute.
Luxe — Demo cassette – If you’ve been to a hardcore show in the past decade (or more!), you might have noticed that while the audience tends to be generally diverse, the bands have remained overwhelmingly white, male, and cisgender. Luxe is the opposite of all that. A quick look at their lyrics – side note: I love it when bands put lyric sheets in their albums or up online – gives you a very good idea of what they’re all about.
From the song “Worried/Worked”:
You say you don’t care that I’m queer yet you
Are you worried
That I’m gonna
Treat you the way
I’ll treat you the way
The same way that you treat
This is aggressive, no punches pulled hardcore and it’s FUN.
Plastic Ivy — No Easter Morning cassette – West Philly’s Lira Landes has been making minimal electronic music for a number of years now with Plastic Ivy being the latest iteration. The one woman minimal electronic project is composed of synthesizers, rhythm machines, guitar, melodica and voice and it manages to both be quite interesting to listen to while at the same time making you want to dance. It is, as explained on her Bandcamp, “… a sonic environment like a place where glaciers go to die.”
No Easter Morning came out a month after a sold out show at Johnny Brenda’s opening for vaporwave heavyweights Blank Banshee. The record release show was held at Lacquer, a really neat new warehouse space in Southwest Philly that Landes helps run. Ever the multitasker, she also did the art for the cassette, a minimal design that works perfectly with the music.
Solarized — Thermo Dynamics of Life cassette – I can’t wait for Solarized to finally put out a full length. I really can’t. But until that finally happens, I’ll have to stay satisfied with their tape series, the second of which came out this past April. For a band that reminds me so much of old Ebullition acts like Swing Kids or Yaphet Kotto as well as Philadelphia legends Ink & Dagger, Solarized still manage to do something unique and exciting.
So much of that is due to lead singer Alex Smith, who manages to take his lyrics about queerness and Afrofuturist science fiction and make it not sound like he’s trying to preach politics at you. For the sake of journalistic integrity, Smith is also a writer here at The Key. But Solarized is not a solo singer songwriter project and good lyrics alone do not make for a good band. Thankfully behind Smith you’ll find an incredibly talented and inventive band, one that can take his ideas and meld them with their own to create a nuanced sound that is both experimental in nature but also, you know, really rocking hardcore punk.