Thursday, February 25, 2010

Planes Mistaken for Stars

The death of a band is always a major disappointment for fans, but it is much harder to accept when they go out at the top of their game. Such was the case for Planes Mistaken for Stars, whose music became increasingly heavier and more aggressive with each release. The core members of the group, guitarist/vocalist Gared O'Donnell and guitarist Matt Bellinger, formed PMFS in 1997, in their hometown of Peoria, IL, along with bassist Aaron Wise and drummer Mike Ricketts. They started out as a melodic post-hardcore band, submitting their song, "The Past Two," to Deep Elm Records for the third installment of the Emo Diaries compilation series in 1999. Soon after, Deep Elm signed the band, and released the band's self-titled album, which they had originally put out themselves. After Wise left the group and was replaced by Jamie Drier, they released the Fucking Fight EP on Dim Mak Records, as well as a split EP with The Appleseed Cast and Race Car Riot on Deep Elm. At this point, the band still followed the loud/soft dynamic of post-hardcore, though O'Donnell's vocals were much grittier and harsh than most of his peers.

Towards the end of 1999, PMFS and a dozen of their friends made a mass migration from Peoria to Denver, CO. In 2000, they recorded the slightly heavier Knife in the Marathon EP, and subsequently left Deep Elm for No Idea Records, the Gainesville, FL beard-rock label. They put out their first real full length in 2001, Fuck With Fire, and soon after followed up with the Spearheading the Sin Movement EP. Both of these records found the band drifting casually towards hardcore, leaving most of their emo elements behind. However, it was not until 2003, when Drier left the band and was replaced by Chuck French, that they would fully develop their sound. With their new lineup, PMFS went into the studio with A.J. Mogis (Bright Eyes, The Faint) to record their second full length, Up In Them Guts ( a Too $hort reference). This was the turning point in their career, with the instrumentation leaning more towards doom and sludge, and O'Donnell's voice sounding almost like a tuvan throat singer, utilizing various ranges at once. The album was released in the summer of 2004, which set the band off on a relentless tour schedule, opening for a surprisingly diverse set of bands, including High on Fire, Dillinger Escape Plan, Against Me!, and The Ataris. In 2005, they spent most of the year touring the US and the UK, this time as headliners.

There were rumors floating around that PMFS were going to sign with Relapse Records following their tour, but the band decided to go with Abacus Recordings instead. They had originally planned to release their third album on 06-06-2006, but were forced to push recording back so that they could get the producer that they wanted, Matt Bayles (ISIS, Mastodon). The resulting record, Mercy, was well worth the wait. Here, the band had realized the potential that Up In Them Guts suggested, finding the focus needed to balance their ever-increasing ferocity. At around this time, Bellinger quit the band to focus on his side project, Ghost Buffalo, so French moved over to guitar, with Neil Keener joining as the second guitarist. This lineup did not last very long, as the band announced that they were breaking up in July of 2007. PMFS played their farewell show on February 16, 2008, at the Marquis Theater in Denver. French and Keener are currently playing together in the cosmic hardcore band, Git Some. Bellinger is still working with Ghost Buffalo in the Denver area. Ricketts and Dryer moved back to Chicago to form the band onYou, and O'Donnell has been working on his new project, Hawks and Doves. Although it is unfortunate that PMFS disbanded at the pinnacle of their existence, I suppose it is better to burn out than to fade away.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

By the End of Tonight

In the realm of popular music, it seems that the greatest mainstream success is achieved by those bands that are most deeply entrenched in normalcy. While the Nickelbacks and Linkin Parks of the world are selling out arenas with their derivative schlock, there are thousands upon thousands of groundbreaking bands that break up without ever being heard. By the End of Tonight were about as unconventional as a rock outfit could be, which is probably the reason that they spent the entirety of their brief career in relative obscurity.

BTEOT formed in Alvin, TX in 2003 as a four-piece instrumental group, consisting of Stefan Mach and Josh Smith on guitars, James Templeton on bass, and Jeff Wilson on drums. Wilson opted to play a toddler's drum set in lieu of a standard kit, most likely for the extremely tight "pop" that he was able to get out of the tiny snare drum. They produced their first full length themselves, entitled ...In a Letter to the Sandbox. This album was a sloppy, no-holds-barred exercise in spazz-core. Not only does each song sound completely different, but each song sounds different on a measure-to-measure basis. The opening track, "We Are The Cure For Blinking Lights!" misleads the listener with all 4 members screaming over machine gun-blast drums. After this one-minute track, no vocals are heard for the rest of the album.

In 2004 , the band sent their album to Temporary Residence Limited, home of such post-rock bands as Explosions in the Sky and Mono. To this day, BTEOT stand as the only band to be signed by the label based solely on a demo. Temporary Residence picked their four favorite songs from ...In a Letter to the Sandbox, and released them as the Fireworks on Ice EP. In 2005, they went into the studio to record their second LP, A Tribute to Tigers. The band recorded this album live, in order to capture the sheer chaos of their live show. Despite the fact that there were only 5 songs clocking in at just under a half hour, this was truly their landmark record. "Setting Sail In April" spans over 10 different genres in just under 6 minutes, and concludes with a fakeout ending, where one guitar plays with the volume all the way down, only to have the full band come in at full blast for the last 4 seconds.

In 2006, BTEOT released 4 EPs - a solo project by each member of the band, in the tradition of KISS and the Melvins. Just after recording his Imaginary EP, Josh Smith left the band and was replaced by Brett Taylor. The band went on to record a final split EP with fellow experimentalists Tera Melos, entitled Complex Full of Phantoms. These songs were somewhat of a departure from their earlier work, featuring much heavier riffs, more cohesive structures, and higher quality studio production. This split won critical praise from many obscure music publications, but still failed to reach even a moderate level of commercial success. In early 2008, Wilson left the band, leading the band on a year-long search for a new drummer. At the beginning of this year, the band announced on their MySpace page that they had disbanded.

Check out a live performance of "Setting Sail In April" from A Tribute to Tigers here:

Thursday, March 26, 2009


It is very rare for a band to have such an impact on rock music that they end up inventing a new sub-genre. Creativity and ingenuity are hard qualities to come by in an art that has been so historically defined by plagiarism. Tacoma, Washington's Botch single-handedly created and perfected the "mathcore" genre. The band seemed perfectly in synch with each other on their 2 LPs and countless EPs, but their 2002 breakup revealed that each member had the capability to develop their own unique sound, without drawing any direct comparison to Botch.

Botch formed in 1993, when guitarist Dave Knudson and drummer Tim Latona were still in high school. Early on, they spent most of their time attempting to play Helmet covers in their newly-discovered drop-D tuning. These two chose the name by simply opening a dictionary. Bassist Brian Cook and vocalist Dave Verellen soon joined the band, and they played their first show in Verellen's garage on Halloween of 1993. They released a demo tape in 1994 (of which all of the members are embarrassed), and eventually did a mini-tour of Canada, with Verellen's father as tour manager/chaperone.

The band finally got a break when they went on tour with Ink and Dagger and nineironspitfire in 1997. That same year, they played a show in Buffalo, NY with Snapcase for over 1,000 people, which was by far the biggest live exposure that they had recieved. Around this time, they were approached by Hydra Head CEO and ISIS vocalist, Aaron Turner, to contribute a cover of Black Sabbath's "The Wizard" for a 7" series. The band ended up sending him an entire album's worth of songs, and Turner decided to sign them to Hydra Head. They re-recorded these songs with Matt Bayles (ISIS, Mastodon) in Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard's studio in 1998. The resulting product was American Nervoso. While very rough around the edges, this album re-invented hardcore, neglecting the typical "chugga-chugga" riffs for mercurial guitar shredding, and completely abandoning the tough-guy mentality.

After the release of their first full-length, Botch toured relentlessly and released several split EPs with nineironspitfire, the Murder City Devils, Cave In, and Knut. However, it was not until 2000 that they truly perfected the "mathcore" sound, with the release of We Are The Romans. This album still stands as the pinnacle of the genre, and has been emulated by literally hundreds of bands today. Latona's odd time signatures are matched perfectly by Knudson's unprecedented guitar riffs, while Verellen's vicious bark continually increases the ferocity of their songs. This album was beloved in the underground hardcore/metal scene, but went mostly unnoticed in the big picture.

By 2002, all of the band members had been playing with side projects that were becoming more and more serious. They released their final EP, An Anthology of Dead Ends, and decided to disband shortly thereafter. They chronicled their final performance at the Showbox in Seattle on a DVD titled 061502, which perfectly captures the utter chaos of their live show. Since then, Verellen has gone on to play drums in Roy, and is currently singing in the metalcore band, Narrows. Brian Cook is currently the singer in Roy, and plays bass in both These Arms Are Snakes and Russian Circles. Knudson has made the most drastic shift of the group, as he is now the showstopping, finger-tapping lead guitarist in Minus the Bear. The band recently released a statement on their MySpace page, saying: "There is no reunion in the works. As proud as we are of the band and as much as we're still friends, there is no plan to do a reunion. Zero, zilch, nada. However, we do appreciate everyone's continuing interest in the band. Thanks."

Check out the video for "St. Matthew Returns to the Womb" from We Are The Romans here:

Monday, March 16, 2009

The White Octave

Most rock musicians struggle their entire lives to form a band with any kind of relevance, and unfortunately, there is a very low rate of success. You may not know his name, but Steven Pedersen has played an integral role in not one, but four landmark bands. When you have this much music under so many different names, it is easy for some of it to fall through the cracks. While Slowdown Virginia, Cursive and Criteria are his more famous vehicles, The White Octave is the one that tends to go unnoticed.

A forefather of the Omaha music scene, Pedersen began his career with Tim Kasher and Matt Oberst in The March Hares. After they broke up in 1993, they joined with Matt Maginn and Casey Caniglia to form the now-legendary Slowdown Virginia. Every Omaha band from Bright Eyes to The Faint has gone on record as saying that Slowdown Virginia (affectionately called "Slowdown") were the reason that they started playing music. After 2 years of touring, they disbanded, and Pedersen, Kasher and Maginn formed Cursive with drummer Clint Schnase, formerly of Smashmouth (not to be confused with Smash Mouth).

Early on, Cursive drew their sound from the early 90's D.C. scene, only with more heartfelt lyrics than Fugazi or Shudder to Think. Pedersen and Kasher shared vocal duties, with Kasher's melodies and Pedersen's screaming complementing each other. After releasing only one full-length and several EP's, the band broke up in 1998. That same year, they posthumously released their second LP, The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song, on Saddle Creek Records. Cursive's breakup was entirely due to the fact that Pedersen had gotten into Duke University's law school, and had to move to Chapel Hill, NC. It is here that Pedersen formed The White Octave, where he would be the primary songwriter for the first time.

The White Octave allowed Pedersen to expand his sound beyond that of Cursive, utilizing fuzzed-out bass and disrhythmic drums to create a truly bizzare niche. Pedersen's voice has been compared to At the Drive-In's Cedric Bixler more than a few times, and for good reason. He absolutely thrashes his vocal chords on every song, and he is rarely in tune. The band released their first full length, the criminally underrated Style No. 6312, on Deep Elm Records in 2000. From the battered acoustic guitar of opening track "Appeals For Insertion" to the chaotic close of the title track, the album is a flawless work of makeshift post-hardcore.

The band released several tracks on Deep Elm Samplers, as well as a split EP with Sorry About Dresden. In 2001, they released their second LP, Menergy, on Initial Records. The production value on this album was much lower than Style No. 6312, but Pedersen's voice and driving guitar were still intact, accounting for another great record. Around this time, Pedersen had become a lawyer, and he needed to get back to his family in Omaha. The White Octave broke up, and Pedersen went on to form Criteria, who have since released 2 stellar albums that are more in the vein of second wave-Cursive. Of all the bands that Steven Pedersen has been a part of, The White Octave's songs are by far the most sincere and original. This very well may be the reason why it is the most overlooked portion of his work.

Check out their MySpace page here.

Recommended tracks: "Appeals for Insertion" and "Crossing the Rubicon."

Thursday, February 5, 2009


Many great bands have died without finding any kind of mainstream success. There are countless reasons why these bands do not blow up: their sound is too abstract for radio play, they split for personal reasons before they can be discovered, they do not have the means to tour enough to get their name out, etc. However, it is extremely rare for a band to actively reject their one shot at widespread popularity. Such was the case for Mineral, the Austin, TX emo band that found what they were looking for and decided to throw it away once they got it.
Mineral was formed in 1994 by singer/guitarist Chris Simpson. They began as a makeshift version of Sunny Day Real Estate, which was still a bit of a niche sound at the time. Though initially somewhat derivative, they drew from some of the rawer elements of SDRE. The loud/soft dynamic with piercing guitars and driving bass were familiar, but Simpson's voice was much more plaintive than anything you will hear to this day. On many songs, it literally sounds like he is crying while he is singing. The band consolidated all of these things into their first single, "Parking Lot," which finds Simpson gladly accepting his own death: "I wouldn't mind if you took me in my sleep tonight/ I wouldn't even put up a fight." Sure, the lyrics seem a bit melodramatic on paper, but with the full band behind them, the song is an emotional powerhouse.

The "Parking Lot" single got the attention of Crank! Records, who signed Mineral, and sent them into the studio to record their first LP, The Power of Failing, in 1996. This record continued with the sound of "Parking Lot," which they included as the album's closer. However, many of the songs were significantly longer, saturated with extended instrumental sections. The production was very rough, but this only added to the intensity, exaggerating the difference between the pretty, soft parts and the crushing, heavy parts. The band toured relentlessly following the release of this album. During this time, they also released a split 7" with Midwestern emo giants Jimmy Eat World and Sense Field, which increased their popularity exponentially.

By 1998, the band had been touring straight since the release of The Power of Failing. They recieved a great deal of critical praise and built up a buzz that brought every major label knocking at their door. They eventually signed a deal with Interscope Records, but were bound to Crank! for one more record. That summer, they went into the studio with producer Mark Trombino (Jimmy Eat World, Blink-182) to record their sophomore LP, EndSerenading. This album featured much crisper, polished production, which lent itself well to Mineral's beatiful arpeggios and sparse drums. Despite the fact that they were finally about to make it to the big leagues, the band decided to break up before they ever got to work with Interscope. In fact, they revealed that the recording process for EndSerenading was extremely difficult, and they almost did not even complete the album.

After the breakup, drummer Gabriel Wiley formed another influential emo group, Pop Unknown, and later released an EP with the proto-screamo group, Kissing Chaos. He also had a brief stint in a band called Imbroco with guitarist Scott David McCarver. Bassist Jeremy Gomez joined Chris Simpson in his new band, The Gloria Record, which was a more indie-leaning version of Mineral. Since they have also disbanded, Simpson is currently working on an indie-folk solo project called Zookeeper. These bands, though all very good in their own ways, will most likely never generate the kind of mainstream hype that Mineral had, and sadly threw away.
Check out "Parking Lot" here:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

At the Drive-In

Although it is certainly well-worn territory, I feel that it is necessary to discuss the life and death of At the Drive-In, whose breakup was arguably the most unexpected and controversial of the past decade. Despite having spent 8 years tirelessly touring and recording, they enjoyed less than 6 months of mainstream success. The band was founded by guitarist Jim Ward and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala in 1993. Between 1993 and 1997, they gained and lost many members, and released their first LP, Acrobatic Tenement, and 2 EP's: Hell Paso and Alfaro Vive, Carajo! They built up a modest following based on these recordings, but their music did not make it very far outside of Texas. It was not until 1998 that they solidified their final lineup, with guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, bassist Paul Hinojos and drummer Tony Hajjar. Incidentally, this was also the year that they released their masterpiece, In/Casino/Out.

ATDI had always been known for the intensity of their live performances, which is something that they had trouble capturing on their albums. To remedy this, they recorded In/Casino/Out as a live studio album. The result is a positively exhilarating record, recalling the early days of post-hardcore, i.e. Rites of Spring, Embrace. The guitars alternatingly shred and squeal over a frantic, unpredictable rhythm section. All the while, Bixler haphazardly soars in and out of tune, maniacally spouting his cryptic lyrics: "Is this just another life preserver or a bivouac tenure?/ The tropic of cancer answered 'Drink the quicksand'." The album failed to make any mainstream headway for the band, but it led to a deal with Grand Royal Records, the Beastie Boys' label.

After releasing the Vaya EP and a series of splits with Sunshine, Burning Airlines and the Murder City Devils, ATDI went into the studio with Ross Robinson (Glassjaw, Deftones), to record Relationship of Command. This album was significantly more polished, and much heavier than any of their previous work. The lead single, "One Armed Scissor," received a huge amount of radio play. MTV even began heralding them as their new "buzz band." However, after only several months of popularity, the band decided to break up while in the middle of touring, leaving many disappointed fans (including myself) to collect refunds at their local venues. The band cited numerous reasons for the split, including their rigorous tour schedule, artistic differences, and Bixler and Rodriguez-Lopez's drug habits. Bixler later took full responsbility for the breakup, saying that he felt as though the ATDI was holding him back.

These days, Bixler and Rodriguez-Lopez are putting their drug-addled minds to good use, channeling Pink Floyd and Santana with their new prog-rock group, the Mars Volta. They are the only two permanent members of the band, but they often collaborate with various accomplished musicians, including Flea and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. After ATDI's breakup, Hinojos, Hajjar, and Ward formed Sparta, a more straightforward post-hardcore band. They have released three albums that have all achieved moderate success. Ward has also developed a solo project called Sleepercar. Hinojos has recently left Sparta and joined the Mars Volta. The death of At the Drive-In is one of the rare cases where one great band splits off into two great bands.

Check out the video for "One Armed Scissor" from Relationship of Command here:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Death from Above 1979

Maintaining a band is very much like maintaining a relationship - especially when there are only two people involved. From the outset, Death from Above 1979 seemed too good to be true, and as it turns out, they were. DFA1979 consisted of Jesse F. Keeler on bass/synths and Sebastian Grainger on vocals/drums. In the sea of two-member rock outfits that were popping up in the early 2000's, they stood out in many ways. Even though they had no guitars, they were able to shred harder than any band on the indie rock scene. Keeler's chunky basslines somehow managed to channel Kyuss and Daft Punk at the same time, while Grainger wailed and moaned, frantically pounding the drums simultaneously. They were perfect complements to each other. Unfortunately, they were only in synch with each other for one EP and a single full-length.

Keeler and Grainger released their first EP, Heads Up, in 2002, and were eventually signed to Vice Records. At this point, they were still known as Death From Above, until LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy took legal action against them. His label, DFA Records, claimed that they had license to the name. The band's response was to add the minimum amount of characters legally required of them, so they landed on 1979. However, this did not sit well with DFA1979, as you could see on their website at the time, which literally declared a jihad on Murphy, saying, "If I had the resources, I would fly a plane into his skull," among many other things.

With their new moniker, DFA1979 released what would be their only proper LP, You're a Woman, I'm a Machine. The album starts with a screeching synth line, and once the drums and bass come in, it never stops. Grainger's alternatingly sweet and sexual lyrics stand in stark contrast to the sheer brutality of their instrumentals. In "Romantic Rights," he talks about wanting to settle down and start a family, while in "Pull Out"....well, you can figure that one out for yourself. This album, along with their infamy as a two-man wrecking crew onstage, launched them into the hype machine full force. It seemed that every hipster you ran into was talking about them. After their tour ended, they released a remix album, Romance Bloody Romance, featuring remixes by a wide range of artists, including Justice and Queens of the Stone Age singer, Josh Homme.

This was the last that anyone would hear from DFA1979. By 2006, it had been over a year since the remix album dropped, and they were still nowhere to be found. On August 4th, 2006, Keeler announced on their website that the band had been broken up since the end of their last tour. He said that they parted ways because of creative differences. While it is unfortunate that they had such limited productivity with DFA1979, their current projects reveal the fact that they were headed in two entirely different directions. Today, Keeler is one-half of MSTRKFT, the Canadian hipster answer to Daft Punk. Grainger is playing decidedly softer indie rock with his backup band, the Mountains, who recently signed with Saddle Creek Records.

Though we may never hear from Death from Above 1979 again, you can still catch little slivers of their music around if you listen hard enough. You can hear the opening riff to "Romantic Rights" in the credits for MTV2's sketch comedy show, Human Giant. The MSTRKRFT remix of "Sexy Results" was briefly in a commercial for the Motorola Q. Even atari-clash upstarts Crystal Castles lifted the opening synth line from "Dead Womb" as the verse to their track, "Untrust Us."

Check out the video for "Black History Month" here: