7 Bands To Watch
Vermont's most noteworthy new groups range from "front-porch Renaissance" to hip-hop
THE MIDDLE 8
The sweet, rootsy sound of Burlington's The Middle 8 is winning them new fans every day. The band's name comes from the pop term for a section of a song that is neither verse nor chorus -- in many ways a fitting descriptor for a band that defies easy categorization.
Led by singer-songwriters David Stockhausen and Daniel Bowles, The Middle 8 craft thoughtful Americana with evocative hooks. Their influences range from rock and pop to old-time country, but it's their unique take on these traditions that make them stand out. Fleshing out their ranks are upright bassist Tyler Bowles, drummer Jeremy Gantz and multi-instrumentalist Michael Duplessis; in any given Middle 8 tune, you might hear trumpet, trombone, accordion and lap-steel guitar. This unique instrumentation is always well placed and complimentary -- a testament to the group's musical maturity.
Dan and Tyler's sister Ariel is not a part of the live band at the moment -- she's gone off to college in Chicago -- but her vocal and instrumental prowess is prominent on their forthcoming mid-December sophomore CD, Lubec. Here's hoping she'll re-join the team on school breaks and holidays.
According to Duplessis, the group may go international. "We've got some friends in Ireland, and we're trying to get the money together to go over there and play a few shows in the spring," he says. With any luck, The Middle 8 will earn a place in American music history alongside greats such as Gram Parsons and Uncle Tupelo. They've got a running start.
THE JAZZ GUYS
They might not have "that swing," but Burlington rock oddballs The Jazz Guys can still cause a dance-floor frenzy. Lovably nutty and ragged around the edges, the core of the band came together in 1998 while attempting to make the best out of a highschool classroom assignment. The fledgling musicians composed a "rock opera" about a band they called The Jazz Guys, and the name stuck.
The band revels in left-of-center fun; their live shows often feel like a rowdy slumber party. Though they're sometimes compared to early Kinks and even the Pet Shop Boys, the group has stumbled across a sound all its own: a highly caffeinated rock 'n' roll with slacker leanings.
Fronted by twin brothers Herb and Maarten Van der Poll and augmented by guitarist/vocalist Max Schwartz and drummer Frank Zamiello, these fellas have sketch comedy skills, too. Bassist/vocalist Herb describes his band as "a cross between an overstimulated 8-year-old and a has-been rock star," and claims their sound falls somewhere between "The Beatles and Mozart."
Schwartz clarifies the group's credo: "Being a Jazz Guy isn't just about playing Jazz Guys music with three other people," he says. "You have to be thinking on the Jazz Guys wavelength."
Angelica Blackthorne and April Wilderness may seem out of step in a town filled with DJs and jam bands, but the duo's "front-porch Renaissance" is as bewitchingly captivating as a solstice moon. Formed in 2002, Blackthorne Wilderness settled into regular appearances at The Radio Bean in Burlington -- a venue well suited to their blend of traditional folk and Old English balladry.
Interestingly, this style of music isn't so unusual on the other side of the country; San Francisco is currently home to a plethora of "free-folk" acts that eschew modern production styles in favor of old-time songcraft. Here in Vermont, Blackthorne Wilderness are something of an anomaly -- sure, we've got bluegrass pickers, but none of them dress like handmaidens from five centuries ago.
The duo's debut release, Orpheus Swoons, lacks studio polish, but it more than makes up for recording deficiencies with haunting harmonies and intriguing guitar interplay.
Blackthorne recently had a son, so the band is taking a temporary breather. But don't expect them to stay away too long. "We're aiming to play live again by February," says Wilderness. "I'd love to record another album as well," she continues. "Our influences are really varied -- the next one will be more medieval, less Bill Monroe."
Straight out of Essex, Vermont, The Loyalists are taking the local hip-hop scene by storm. The three-man, twentysomething crew has been making music together since they were 15, and it shows. Their debut disc, Moodswings, is so well crafted it hardly sounds local; the beats are huge, the scratching tight, and the rhymes could compete with most national releases. The Loyalists pride themselves on self-sufficiency: The album was recorded, engineered and produced in their home studio.
Members E-Train, TouchPhonics and Framework are all accomplished turntablists -- they honed their skills in Boston clubs throughout 2001. When TouchPhonics finished up recording school in Massachusetts, the trio reclaimed Vermont as its base of operations. A background in record engineering may explain why Moodswings sounds so professional, but The Loyalists' precision raps have as much to do with their impact. Word is getting out about these guys -- a gig this week with respected underground rapper Immortal Technique confirms their growing cred.
What's next for these young DJs, rappers and producers? "We've got another album coming in Febuary," says E-Train, "and then we're gonna try to book more shows out of state -- places like New York and Boston." With skills like theirs, The Loyalists are sure to win respect wherever their travels take them.
CHARLES, DEAD OR ALIVE?
Vermont has birthed a few three-piece post-rock groups in the new millennium, but Charles, Dead or Alive?'s dynamic crescendos and cascading melodies set them apart from the competition. Their music resembles mini-symphonies -- waves of delayed guitars crash over a propulsive, insistent rhythm section, resulting in sonic movements that grow from a whisper to a scream.
Hypnotic, wordless music works for Charles, Dead or Alive? --named after a 1969 cult film from Switzerland about a businessman who throws it all away to live with a young bohemian couple. The band features Gahlord Dewald on bass, Nate Plasha on guitar and drummer Joe Paul Slaby (he's also drum tech to the stars, currently maintaining the skins for Tool). Formed in 2002, the group has kept the same lineup since its inception. Last year they released a three-inch CD on local imprint Icebox Records, and it's been a strong seller.
What does the future hold for Charles, Dead or Alive?? In addition to an upcoming one-month residency at The Waiting Room, the members are writing new material and making reference recordings of their work. "We've got a pretty busy December," says Dewald. "We're trying to put together a Christmas-themed performance at The Waiting Room; we're hoping to play The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky." Not the Church Street version.
Burlington's Lobot are throwbacks to the early '90s -- the days before nu-metal reduced hard rock to manufactured angst and utter predictability. This crew of tattooed miscreants doesn't simply sneer and pose, however: Lobot use melody as well as tons of effects pedals to create swirling, psychedelic layers of sound. Carrying the torch for bands such as Jane's Addiction with swagger, style and a shitload of volume, the group's playful sense of humor and commitment to full-throttle rock makes them pretty unique in these parts.
Named after a minor character in The Empire Strikes Back, Lobot scored with its debut album. Espionage Music to Fuck To is chock-full of lysergic riffs and powerful vocals -- a balls-out attack that aims for the arenas. Singing drummer David Wendell claims their music truly belongs "embalmed in Mason jars on dusty shelves in abandoned, foreboding haunted mansions," but this listener could just as easily picture it blasting from an airbrushed Mustang.
Besides "enlightenment and individual superpowers," the band's plans for the future include recording a follow-up disc in early November, and an election-night free-for all at Club Metronome with fellow freaks The Dirty Blondes. Lobot are playing their first out-of-state gig soon -- in the Big Apple, no less. Might as well start at the top.
MANIFEST NEXTO ME
In 2001, Manifest Nexto Me were rising stars on the college circuit, packin' em in at The Radio Bean, Nectar's and the now-defunct Valencia. At the time, the group played user-friendly acid-jazz with MCs -- not exactly the most original concept, but one that moved quite a few copies of their debut CD, Victim Oblivion.
Fast-forward to 2004: Manifest Nexto Me have re-configured their sound, dropped their jazz-influenced guitarist and are creating more ambitious music. Combining downtempo DJ flavor with garage-rock spirit, the band now brings a darker tone to its jams -- still beat-heavy, but with a more psychedelic atmosphere. Even the hip-hop influence has been modified; monotone chants and ethereal vocal sections are replacing the rhyme-over-a-beat approach.
"We have to thank the college kids and hippies for getting into us when we started," says vocalist/keyboardist Mike Morelli. "But our influences are more like Radio-head, DJ Shadow and classic rock than Soulive, Disco Biscuits and The Roots."
With the addition of former viperHouse drummer P.J. Davidian, and an effects-layered, dual-keyboard sound, Manifest Nexto Me are getting into a whole new bag. "It's something like Sonic Youth and Mos Def doing [Miles Davis'] Bitches Brew," says Morelli. The group will document their new sonic explorations in the coming weeks, and aim to release a new disc by the New Year.