'Next big thing' might already be here
So it was hip-hop that finally put Pittsburgh on the musical map, of all things. Who saw that coming?
In a few short years, Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller and Girl Talk (OK, the latter leans more toward the electronic dance/mash-up side of things) have made inroads in the national consciousness, without shying away from their hometown roots. Will this continue? Or will the next thing out of Pittsburgh be something else entirely?
Of course, picking the “next big thing” is pretty much impossible. We're not talking about discovering the next Christina Aguilera, either. The odds of finding that particular needle-in-the-haystack are astronomical, and those kinds of pop stars don't generally come out of years of paying dues in local clubs.
Music nowadays has become so fragmented that the whole concept of getting “big” is kind of out of date, anyway. You can be a big deal in techno, for instance, and the average punk rocker or hip-hop head will likely remain oblivious to your existence.
Now, it's both easier to break through and harder. Fans from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can find you with ease — but the same goes for every other band/performer on the planet. Breaking through the clutter is still a struggle.
Yet, there is plenty of talent percolating in Pittsburgh's nightclubs, studios, dive bars, garages, basements, dorm rooms and elsewhere, but it isn't always easy to find. This isn't meant to be a definitive look — there are plenty of bands/performers in Pittsburgh doing really interesting things. Here are a few of them:
If you think metal ought to be mighty, well, you may be in the market for some property in Dethlehem. Sure, the (crumbling, fog-shrouded) castle has seen better days, and may require fumigation, but it's worth it for the view — just imagine the sunsets sinking below Deth Mountain, as your impaled enemies arrayed in the valley below slowly succumb to the gathering darkness.
“RPG-Nerd Metal” pretty much says it all (RPG = role-playing games = “Dungeons & Dragons”). Bloodbeard & the boys have a very specific niche, but it's a sizable one. Adept technical metal with songs about wizards, dragons, hell-beasts and the dudes who slay them. And no, leather pants and T-shirts aren't going to cut it — go chain-mail or go home.
Hard, frenetic, spine-twisting breakcore rhythms and haunting, melodic synth lines, laced with a little brain-eating noise. Dance to this, and you may break a few limbs.
No, this won't be used in a Doritos commercial anytime soon, but Xanopticon has gained respect internationally for powerful, punishing, yet oddly hypnotic electronic sound-art, pushing well past what's traditionally allowable “in the club.” Xanopticon (Ryan Friedrich) is touring with noise fiend-turned-torch singer Zola Jesus, one of the hottest acts of any kind at the moment.
Check 'em out: www.xanopticon.com, Upcoming shows: Oct. 23, Brillobox, Bloomfield.
No, not a pair of banjo-plucking coal miner's daughters from Kentucky, though that likely wouldn't offend them — they simply wanted an old-timey, family-sounding name, like the Stanley Brothers or the Carter Family.
They've described themselves as “Bloomfield Americana,” “Yinzer pastoral,” or simply “just really loud folk-rock,” but recently, the stadium-sized Neil Young & Crazy Horse-like classic-rock riffage has begun to take over. However, strong songwriting — and James Hart and Carrie Battle's distinctive alternating vocals — mean that soulful introspection isn't too deep beneath the surface.
Check 'em out: www.facebook.com/theharlantwins
Black Moth Super Rainbow
Mysterious, spacey psychedelia made with new-tech brains, but an analog heart. Five decades of psychedelic rock — Beach Boys to Bowie to Flaming Lips — concentrated and irradiated until highly unstable, pulsing with weird, hypnotic energy.
People with names like Tobacco and Seven Fields of Aphelion hammer away on vintage synthesizers, anchored to earthbound rock rhythms by real guitars, drums and bass.
Tobacco's heavily-processed, vocodered vocals are a bit of an acquired taste, but the Flaming Lips apparently acquired it, taking them on tour in 20007.
Check 'em out: www.blackmothsuperrainbow.com. Upcoming show: Nov. 10, Mr. Small's Theatre, Millvale.
“I was formed in McKee/Born at Magee/I'm the rotten crabapple that was torn from the tree.” Even in its heyday, McKeesport was a hard place. That hasn't changed much. Mon Valley crew The 58s aren't real glamorous, but they are real in a way that even hip-hop's never-ending parade of haters has to respect. B. White is a better lyricist than some rappers who could afford to buy entire boroughs in the Mon Valley, and the group's hard-hitting, uncluttered beats tend to stick in your skull. Still, seeing these guys on MTV would be as incongruous as crashing one of Diddy's celebrity-packed “white parties” decked out in black and gold.
Check 'em out: twitter.com/The58s
Meeting of Important People
A rock band that writes catchy songs. On purpose, with nary a synthesizer, uncleared sample or dubstep breakdown (ugh) in sight.
Yes, this is a formula that still works. If the Kinks grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, or The Shins could muster a smile now and then, they might sound like this — shiny, sugar-rush power pop with buzzy garage-rock guitars, acid wit and actual melodies. They made their last album, “My Ears Are Having a Heart Attack,” through Kickstarter, with online donations from fans. In exchange, they did things like cooking dinner (fish sticks and mac & cheese) and recorded musical Valentines for donors, which is about as good a business strategy as you're likely to find in the music biz today.
Check 'em out: www.meetingofimportantpeople.com
Wiz Khalifa's hype-man Chevy Woods has his own thing going on and has the connections to make it happen. His flow is a little less laidback than Wiz, but they've got a lot of the same concerns (partying, cars, etc.). Then again, the occasional track like “Be Real” exhibits a skill for storytelling, in its fatalistic tale about the hard-to-resist lure of drugs and guns for the poor and hopeless.
Chevy reps Wiz Khalifa's Taylor Gang and Hazelwood, and isn't shy about it, titling a recent track “Hazelwood.” Think about that for a second. Local rappers, take note — who's going to step up for “Munhall,” “Greenfield” or “Fairywood”?
Check 'em out: www.chevywds.com.
Zombi and Majeure
Once upon a time, the sound of horror was synthetic. In the late '70s, the creepy, foreboding sounds of Goblin and John Carpenter lent an appropriately inhuman-sounding atmosphere to “Halloween,” “Suspiria,” “Dawn of the Dead” and others.
Pittsburgh's Zombi, comprised of Steve Moore and A.E. Paterra, was among the first to sink its teeth into this strange, underappreciated music in recent years — creating creeping, monolithic soundtracks for imaginary films yet to be shot. Electronic-music space cadets and progressive rock nerds alike took notice.
Moore has his own solo projects. So does Paterra, under the name Majeure. The pulsing, mechanical robot-disco of Majeure is influenced a bit more by Vangelis and the science-fiction soundtracks of the early '80s, but somehow ends up just as ominous and massive-sounding as Zombi.
Check 'em out: www.zombitheband.tumblr.com. Upcoming shows (Majeure): Nov. 8, The Shop, Bloomfield.
Mac Miller didn't look like much at first, and a lot of rap-game gurus didn't take him seriously. Hundreds of thousands of albums/downloads later, that's a harder case to make (though haters will try). Beedie grew up with Miller — and looks a bit like him — but has his own sound, his own flow. Like Miller, there's a definite old-school vibe, but it's a bit more about laidback, with Beedie's relentlessly smooth flow lounging atop classic jazz, funk and soul samples. He's also part of Varsity Squad with rapper Jon Quest.
Check 'em out: beedie.tumblr.com.
Pittsburgh Track Authority
There's so much going on in Pittsburgh's electronic/dance music community, that it's hard to know where to start. The Pittsburgh Track Authority is an obvious entry point, smoothly integrating classic Detroit-style techno, deep house, electro and disco into a sound that references the past without getting stuck in the cul-de-sac of any one time, place or genre. Plus, unlike a lot of Pittsburgh-based talent, they're not afraid to get outside the city — past Monroeville even — for dancefloors and destinations beyond.
Check 'em out: www.facebook.com/PittsburghTrackAuthority
Benny Benack III
He's a young jazz trumpeter entering his senior year at the Manhattan School of Music, the latest in three generations of like-named musical stars. His father is a woodwind ace, and his grandfather was the Dixieland trumpeter who strutted the Pittsburgh Pirates to their 1960 World Series victory.
He has won jazz competitions and found his way into ensembles of young jazz stars, like the Gibson-Baldwin Grammy Jazz Ensemble, performing at festivals with stars such as Herbie Hancock and Joe Lovano. Like a John Pizzarelli or even a George Benson, Benack is adding singing to his jazz trumpet work.
He was a performing artist at the International Trumpet Guild Competition in May, before beginning a summer where he did festivals and gigs around the country and in Europe. As school began, he spent a weekend at the Monterey Jazz Festival with the Pittsburgh-centered Center of Life jazz band.
Check 'em out: www.bennybenackjazz.com
Ellwood City-based country band NOMaD — which stands for North of Mason-Dixon — might be on its way to a big national break. The band recently won a national song contest and a $25,000 prize to boot. NOMaD members won the One Track Find competition, sponsored by soft drink Mello Yello, for its video and song “American Boy.” Band members perform the song in the video, posted on Facebook and the band's website, that shows footage of Pittsburgh. “American Boy,” an ode to small-town life, earned the most votes in the competition, which asked voters to pick the song that represents artists who could be the next big thing.
NOMaD is known for its hard-rocking country style. The band released a 12-song album last November that includes the single “American Boy,” along with “City Girl Country Girl,” “New Mexico,” “North of Mason-Dixon” and “Tennessee Skies.”
Check 'em out: www.northofmasondixon.com. Upcoming shows: Nov. 4, opening for John Michael Montgomery at Slippery Rock University.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901. Bob Karlovits and Kellie B. Gormly contributed to this report.