Six bands you need to know from Pittsburgh’s thriving DIY scene

Six bands you need to know from Pittsburgh’s thriving DIY scene

By Ethan Beck August 30, 2022

In the history of guitar music, Pittsburgh often feels like an afterthought. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Western Pennsylvania was eroded by the decline of factories and the steel industry, with Pittsburgh’s population halved between 1950 and 1990. During this time there is a huge record of bands traveling to play Pennsylvania’s second largest city with classic defunct venues such as the Syria Mosque or the Electric Banana. But even now that Pittsburgh is a great city for music, the history of music made in Pittsburgh is often lost.

As the city fell into disrepair, there was a surge in captivating punk rock from groups like Carsickness and The Cardboards in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This movement was captured in Stephanie Berros’s 1980 film Debt starts at twenty, which frames the punk scene as a saving grace in a dying city. It is best articulated by Hans Brinker and the Dykes, a band who once sang, “I want Pittsburgh to be fun/ And if it’s happen soon, I may pull a gun/ Because I’m bored, bored, bored.” The 90s saw modest breakthroughs from bands like The Clarks, The Gathering Field, and Rusted Root making beige and tasty pop rock, but beyond the riveting new wave of The Rave-Ups, the best was yet to come.

Over the past two decades, Pittsburgh has become a health and education capital, trading its industrial roots for engineering and other white-collar jobs. What followed is both growth and gentrification in Allegheny County. In that time, Pittsburgh has become a breeding ground for outstanding bands that never seem to escape the three-state territory. Aided by venues such as the Mr. Roboto Project, The Government Center, and the ever-changing collection of home venues from Eden to Cafe Verona (both of which are now gone) near the University of Pittsburgh, a younger group of Pittsburgh musicians has blossomed for years.

From the Oakland University District to Mr. Roboto in Bloomfield, here are some of the bands currently making up Pittsburgh’s best.

“How could I be so clumsy?” reads the chorus of “Dummy” by The Zells, a gritty quintet on one of Pittsburgh’s most exciting labels, Crafted Sounds. The group has learned the lessons of their 90s indie rock and classic punk influences and funneled them into a record that is both familiar and satisfying. Produced by RJ Gordon of Baked and Titus Andronicus, ant farm, their second album, is a captivating portrait of a stalled development, articulating what it’s like to be in your late twenties and enjoy beer a little too much. That aforementioned chorus ends fittingly: “I need to be more careful / So I don’t get fucked all my life / And die a loser.”

If you’re not keen on another Guided by Voices-influenced slacker band, one of The Zells’ best tricks is that they manage to pack at least two dozen great hooks or absorb individual moments into 12 songs. ant farm is immediately varied, ranging from post-punk tinged moments to two singer-songwriter stuff, with the airtight groove of “Truther Uncle” alongside the growling punk clutter of “Payday”. The absolute highlight has to be “Bryan Ray Trout, 1999”, with the perfect line “I wanna talk to her but I’m too fucked up/ Jawbreaker is the good stuff” and concludes with an exceptional sing-along about the titular Mr. Trout – better known as Skeet Ulrich.

When the mr. Roboto Project reopened in August 2021, the DIY space held a series of concerts featuring some of the most interesting bands in Pittsburgh. It was the perfect place for CALYX to celebrate Stay out, their debut album, which was released in February of that year. CALYX, made up of Caitlin Bender, Jon Ahn and Garett Cassidy (the latter two are also in Pittsburgh’s edhochuli), have long excelled at captivating indie punk. The trio played together for almost eight years before they came out Stay outan album that manages to cover a massive amount of stylistic ground in 32 minutes, with each track making a dime before heading in another direction.

“Leslie Plain and Strong” kicks off with acoustic guitars before exploding into a thumping track featuring Cassidy’s maniacal drumming and Ahn’s anchoring bass work. “Spain is fine, but Mississippi is nicer,” Bender sings, describing a slice of life in a small town in the south. The album’s most memorable moment comes on “Krill Grill,” where Bender’s lyrics about narcotic day-to-day jobs are turned into a surprising, infectious hook. “If I have to come back,” the band chants repeatedly until Bender intervenes, “I don’t see myself showing up.”

The first word that comes to mind when describing String Machine is ‘severity’. On their third album Hallelujah Hell yeahvocalist David Beck leads the band through Funeralera Arcade Fire orchestrations, rousing choruses about self-doubt, and Beck’s clear and engaging vocals. After the band’s release in 2019 Death of the Neon and Portrait People’s 2020 release saints-a project that includes members of String Machine members and is equally worthy of praise – Beck stepped back and tried to be more mindful and honest with his lyricism. As a result, String Machine comes into its own, creating crisp indie folk that are light years beyond the auto-commercial folk we’re all used to.

String Machine often stuffs their songs with huge arrangements and big ideas, bringing Beck’s confident lyricism to life with winds, cellos and beautiful harmonies. “Churn it Anew” closes with a guitar solo and a trumpet part before jumping into the piercing suspense of “Gales of Worry”, the album’s lead single. Most of the songs here are upbeat, anxious and anthemic, but the emotional core of Hallelujah Hell yeah comes with “Your Turn”, a confessional acoustic track. Having spent much of the album hiding behind his bandmates’ incredible instrumentation, “Your Turn” is where Beck finally takes center stage, telling the audience exactly what he’s feeling.

Opening up String Machine’s album release show earlier this year, Rave Ami described themselves as “the loudest rock band in Pittsburgh.” It was almost 4 months after they released their third album let it be, a nod to both The Replacements and The Beatles. Rave Ami is a lot like the ‘Mats’ in that they nailed the drunken but awesome live act thing that is hard to achieve. let it be is the kind of loose, jingle, chaotic rock album that can only come from people deeply indebted to Paul Westerberg and a plethora of other punk heroes.

Like The Zells, Rave Ami is the kind of indie rock group with a broad scope that manages to sound a lot more powerful than just a threesome. “Saints On Silver” should be the band’s breakthrough song, an ode to consumerism that begins with a powerful riff and ends with a chorus of double-track vocals and buzzing chiptune synths: “Come on/ You can count on me”, sings frontman Joe Pratski, who lands the ending perfectly. If Rave Ami has proven themselves as one of the best live bands in town over the last ten years, Let It Be’s big hooks and fascinating arrangements prove that they are so much more than just a power trio.

Every song on the weak horse’s debut sounds like it’s bursting at the seams. Hayday, which arrived towards the end of 2021, is one of the most exciting things on record in South Oakland in years. Highlights of the album are ‘Chores’, a deadpan and explosive anthem with thumping, rippling guitars that are both Hayday’s most catchy and funniest song. Sample text: “You look stupid and I’m tired of it.”

But often on Hayday, the funniest moments reveal themselves over time. On ‘Too Much’ a disappointing evening turns into a vague fragment that is almost over before it starts. The same goes for “You Got It Babe,” which sits somewhere between a Daniel Johnston snippet and a broken shoegaze classic. There’s also the tense waltz from the closer, “Grace (Outro)”, which sounds like it’s falling apart before exploding into one of the sweetest love songs on the album. Just like the whole of Haydaythe song ends too quickly for you to start over from the beginning.

Centered around singer Sam Treber’s songwriting, Short Fictions songs often take place in South Oakland basements as Treber freaks out about climate change, being alone, or the ever-changing city he loves. Their debut in 2019, Fate worse than death, took emo themes from the Midwest and combined them with an indestructible optimism. While Treber focuses on looming global warming (“Cities Under Water”), Pittsburgh hero Mr. Rogers has been quoted multiple times and the twinkling guitars and glockenspiels suggest a bittersweet positivity. There’s also “Really Like You,” a straightforward pop rock song about how cripplingly in love can feel.

With recent second attempt, Every moment of every dayShort Fictions infuses their emo with a healthy dose of power pop, emphasizing riffs and choruses in a way their music has never done before. Treber and co. include occasional easycore breakdowns, electro-pop drum machines, and a hardcore-influenced song about class solidarity entitled “The Great Unwashed.” There’s also the sheer grandeur of “Don’t Start a Band”, which humorously recounts the slums of touring and ends with a short guitar solo suggesting early Titus Andronicus.

However, short fictions are at their best when they are at their best. “When I’m Next To You / You’re a breath of fresh air in a crowded basement,” Treber sings over a walking bass line on “To Leave Forever or Die Alone in South Oakland.” It’s one of two songs on Every moment of every day that perfectly replicates the feeling of being in love with an album, mainly about broke, beaten up and alone; the other is “Heather,” with a guitar riff that could be next to Fountains of Wayne’s best. That feeling of hope is what helps drive Every moment of every dayan album that shows a band getting bigger and better, making an album that fits their clear ambition.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: