It's 2014 and high time you got some new music into your playlist -- seriously. It'll help that Phoenix's music scene has plenty of fresh jams and brand-new tunes to offer, as there's an overflow of gifted and prolific musicians cranking out sounds.
Since many local acts will make waves, turn heads, and get listens this year, we're highlighting 14 that you simply must hear. Think of it as a mixtape shared between friends. And it contains talent drawn from the various musical milieus in and around Phoenix -- from up-and-coming rappers to weirdo indie rockers to folk acts found at house shows.
These are the 14 bands you owe it to yourself to check out in 2014.
Celebration Guns' songs take listeners on an ambient indie-pop journey, with fuzzy guitars zigging and intricate bass lines zagging over busy drumming and unexpected turns from a toy piano or xylophone.
Evoking the found sonic objects sprinkled throughout its songs, the foursome (assembled in August 2013 from several dismantled projects) goes against the grain. To wit: The band's most recent album, Quitter, and its upcoming self-titled split EP with fellow locals Twin Ponies are available on cassette tape.
"I think there's a sense of nostalgia that comes with cassette tapes that makes me really appreciate them," says vocalist/guitarist Justin Weir. "It reminds me of a time when I wasn't overwhelmed with a flash drive of 18,000 songs from hundreds of bands I never quite feel connected to. Instead, I had to rely on whatever cassette tapes I could get my hands on, and when every new band sounded novel and fresh and worth holding onto."
Celebration Guns, drawing comparisons to Minus the Bear and Maps & Atlases, hope listeners are inspired to hold onto their music and tunes about awkward dating experiences and lost loves.
"These songs are written by a jaded person trying to find credibility in taking the optimistic approach to life and love and whatever happens between," Weir says, insisting that tones of dating disenchantment are balanced by hints of optimism. And when bells, accordions, and trumpets permeate your melodies, even the most heartbreaking lyrics hit a happy note.
The band, which includes guitarist Chris Blanco, bassist Ryan Miller, and drummer Timothy O'Brien, finds plenty of love, however, when it plays shows in town. Celebration Guns strive to perform in an array of venues, be it nightclub, house show, or Urban Outfitters, and usually on bills as diverse as the collection of musical instruments you'll find onstage during the band's set. -- Nicki Escudero
West Phoenix's Andy Warpigs is on a one-man folk-punk mission to infiltrate and influence every pocket of Arizona counterculture -- and the out-of-control coffeehouse cowboy just might succeed. In 2013, he popped up seemingly everywhere playing acoustic guitar and ukulele with a backing band of whoever happened to be standing around him.
Warpigs' self-described "heavily improvised art-punk music" has made its mark at benefit concerts, art shows, comic book conventions, comedy gigs, literally any venue willing to let him play. He became a mainstay at Lawn Gnome Publishing's Live Music Tuesday, as well as a regular conspirator at Sister Lip's neverending Monday night residency at Long Wong's in Tempe.
His bizarro originals and eclectic covers are meant to reach out and grab "freaks, geeks, punks, nerds, squatters, stoners, and thought criminals," according to the liner notes of his debut album, Folk Punk Yourself.
And after linking with local label 56th Street Records, Warpigs hopes to step up his performance schedule and add songs to his repertoire. Some of Warpigs' original songs include "Drown My Baby" (off his latest album), "Love Is Like a Stabbing Pain in the Dick," and an ode to profanity called "N-Bombs and C-Bombs." At his shows, Warpigs also plays the Ramones classic "The KKK Took My Baby Away" and "Hybrid Moments" by The Misfits. But whether he is singing a cover or an original, it always is in his amazingly soft -- yet intensely punk -- voice.
Warpigs mixes absurd lyrics and silly stage antics with the look of a homeless meth-addict cowboy, and it all adds up to a great show. His eccentricity even has gained the onetime solo artist a respectable backing band, featuring Jelly Roll Jenkin (a.k.a. Jorge Garcia, formerly of Los Fukn Ramirez), Jackson Bollocks of Nerdzerkr, and Justin White, formerly of Andrew Jackson Jihad.
When asked whether Andy Warpigs is the name of his solo act or the entire band, Warpigs says it's both: "It's the same crap that Alice Cooper has been pulling for decades." The musician is unapologetic about his appearance and his music. "I'm not overly concerned about anyone who finds my music offensive," Warpigs says. "Fuck them." -- Jeff Moses
Without a frenzied manic flip side, melancholy is meaningless. Luckily, Tempe's Factories balance upbeat with downbeat on their moody yet delirious synthpop.
Their debut LP, Together (an underappreciated release from 2013), moves through the somber solitude of a Ben Gibbard-like psyche with the sensibilities of Blonde Redhead and Tycho. All three band members, married couple Bryan and Audra Marscovetra (guitar and keyboards, respectively) and beat specialist Mike Duffy, trade vocal duties, further fleshing out Factories' tone.
And the live performance, complemented by colorful fluorescent lights scattered across the stage, isn't so morose that you can't dance to it. It's the nautical broadband of Interpol with enough optimism to keep you propelled.
Tracks like "Zombi" and "Story Like Yours" blend poetry with nuance, to say nothing of the band's wildly popular -- on KWSS FM, at least, which counts to us -- single "Canada," which builds architectural beats (courtesy of Duffy, an actual architect by day) into a nostalgic downward spiral.
This isn't to say the music is emo (or even all that depressing), but Factories' introspective side -- courtesy of Bryan's background as a former English student -- definitely is the band's biggest strength. Yet without that dance-y sensibility, it risks becoming self-centered, a problem many bands encounter by swinging too far to one side.
With so much precise momentum taking them through 2013, this year should be even more robust for Factories. -- Troy Farah
Darkly intoxicating and atmospheric doom-metal concoctions are the specialty of experimental instrumental duo Tempel. A collaboration between guitarist/keyboardist/engineer Ryan Wenzel and drummer Rich Corle, the band mixes such murky heavy metal variants as death, black, and sludge into its sonic alchemy, layering sounds from each genre to create something refreshing and captivating for fans of many types of music.
Metalheads may love Tempel for its double bass and grainy guitar solos, while fans of reggae and hip-hop might appreciate the band's music for its ambient atmospherics, skeletal drums, and chiming guitar embellishments.
Tempel formed in 2003 as a larger ensemble but eventually dwindled to just Wenzel and Corle, and this skeleton-crew approach has proved to be more than enough to maintain Tempel's epic instrumental metal soundscape. The duo digitally self-released its debut, On the Steps of the Temple, in 2012 before getting signed in late 2013 to L.A. metal label Prosthetic Records, which re-released the album in January.
The masterful songwriting achieved the band's vision: to lead listeners on a dark trip through golden skies, over angular mountains, and though twisted brambles to reach the temples depicted on the album's cover art. There's nary a lyric, but the abundance of instrumental character and storytelling in Tempel's music commands its own kind of attention.
The six-song, hourlong album is like the soundtrack to a psychological thriller. Opener "Mountain" has crushing tones, double bass, and beguiling rhythms (reminiscent of vintage Enslaved), while "Final Years" is devoted to melodic, chilling, mournful bliss. And then there is "The Mist That Shrouds the Peaks," which captures the creepiness of Stephen King's The Mist (the novella, not the movie).
Although there's no word yet about its next album, Tempel is definitely a local act to watch and hear. -- Lauren Wise
The Holy Coast
The self-described "electronic shoegaze" created by The Holy Coast might be minimalistic, but it packs an emotional punch. It drives the group's decidedly moody but accessible electronica-powered songs and makes the trio of keyboardist Keith Walker, vocalist/guitarist Brett Davis, and laptop whiz Braden McCall unlike any other band in the Valley.
The Holy Coast is distinctive not only in its genre but also because of the sheer scope of the music, which is grandly atmospheric, and profoundly elegiac, often tackling many primal forces.
It's been said that all art pertains to love, beauty, or death. All three are fodder for The Holy Coast, as tracks like "The Space We Haunt," "Hands Down," and "Until the End" overflow with solemn, wistful feelings about troubled relationships, bad decisions, major regrets, and the beginning and the ending of life.
Heavy stuff, no? Then it shouldn't be surprising that Walker cites the melancholic music of such bands as New Order and Sonic Youth in a video on The Holy Coast's website.
That's not to say that the band's a downer, as hopefulness imbues the music. "Until the End" essentially is about making a new start, a sentiment echoed in its striking music video, which depicts a distraught cubicle drone making a cathartic road trip.
The Holy Coast has been distilling emotions into profound music since its founding in 2012 by Walker, an Irish expat, and Davis. The act started as a duo but later expanded into a trio after recruiting McCall, a member of electro-clash band Dead Wildlife last year.
"[Braden] heard some of the stuff and loved it so he came on board with Brett and I, and the three of us began to dial into the material," Walker says.
And The Holy Coast will continue dialing in 2014, including releasing new songs recorded at Mesa's esteemed Flying Blanket Studios that is sure to be just as poignant and beautiful as their other material. -- Benjamin Leatherman
Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community resident and rapper MC Optimal isn't a new artist. But it's hard to deny that 2014 looks like it's going to be his year. He's recently signed with MURS' 316 label, and his rhymes in a cypher for the popular TeamBackPack site in January signal an artist with more than a little buzz.
Optimal's verses for TBP cypher, hands down the most brutal of the bunch, demonstrate an MC with a firm grasp on violent wordplay and a metaphysical yen. Songs like the gentle "Good Hair" on his SoundCloud juxtapose wildly with his verses. He isn't afraid of poetry, and he isn't afraid to employ some creative destruction.
Optimal, born Guy Goodwin, has been a staple in local hip-hop for more than a decade, coming up from open mics in downtown Phoenix, such as at Majerle's 9 Lounge. It was there he connected with Tempe and Phoenix-based hip-hop artists like Brad B, the Insects, and Foundation. And it was his decade-long connection with "his homie" Foundation that brought Optimal to the attention of Tucson/Los Angeles-based rapper MURS.
"[Foundation] had mentioned my name to him and has always believed that I deserved a shot," Optimal says.
Clearly, MURS agreed. He signed Optimal to his newly minted 316 Label in late 2013. He describes his forthcoming 316 debut, titled Foundation Presents: Optimal, as "high-power," with "a lot of wordplay." Foundation's beats lean toward jazz, something Optimal says feels instinctual.
"Usually, jazz has always been my main foundation to spit lyrics over, due to the '90s East Coast style," he says, noting early inspirations like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, MadCap, Common, and Souls of Mischief. But that doesn't mean Optimal is afraid to branch out, which aligns him with the multi-faceted styles of his 316 label mates Jabee and Cash Lansky.
"Over the years, I've opened my mind to other genres of music," Optimal says. "Basically, if I feel it right away, I'm digging it and aiming to build something with it." -- Jason P. Woodbury
No Volcano is a mere eight months old, but don't let the band's relative infancy fool you. These fellows have been, and will be, around for a while. It's a serious band for serious times, but one of their most endearing qualities is that they don't take themselves as seriously as they do their love of music and local Mexican food.
Never afraid to expose audiences to his fantastic wit and masterful command of both chorus and verse, singer/guitar player Jim Andreas has one of those voices that sticks to your ear like a big ball of wax. He's fronted bands in the Valley for close to 30 years, most notably Phoenix fave Trunk Federation, but also '80s noise punk outfit Bootbeast Carnival. Drummer and fellow Trunk Federation alum Chris Kennedy is one of the most talented musicians here, and his work with No Volcano proves it.
Joined by bassist Jake Sevier, who played a similar role in Letdownright (which featured both Andreas and Kennedy, as well as local mover and shaker Kimber Lanning), and guitar/organ maestro Jeremy Randall (whom you may remember from Colorstore), No Volcano is each musician's best effort to date. The interplay between Kennedy and Sevier, who have been a rhythm section for nine years across multiple bands, is Vulcan-mind-meld instinctual, pounding, and profound.
Although quiet in person, Randall is expertly noisy on stage. He adds serious guitar texture to No Volcano's well-crafted songs, in addition to some killer organ riffs, key to the multi-layered approach both new and old fans will recognize. Adept with both a slide on his finger and a pedal board full of noise makers, Randall's intricate yet deliciously dark and skronky guitar lines weave in and out of an airtight rhythm section and dance with Jim's captivating vocals.
The band, like many of their peers, has difficulty categorizing itself.
"This project, I think we all have wanted it to be a little heavier, more fun to see live," Andreas says, and he's not wrong.
Compared to their previous efforts, No Volcano is much darker, heavier, and grittier. Imagine early-'70s Rolling Stones mixing it up with early-'90s Flaming Lips in a dark alley while, somewhere, Lou Reed smiles like a proud godfather. -- Tom Reardon
Travis James not only doesn't care about convention, he strives to disrupt it as much as possible. As such, the local musician is known just as much around town for his stick-it-to-the-man antics as he is for his raucous punk music.
The frontman for Travis James and the Acrimonious Assembly of Arsonists has committed rebellious acts such as taking over downtown Phoenix for an urban game of Capture the Flag with 100 friends, as well as organizing punk shows at permit-less spots like underpasses and squat houses.
"I prefer to surround myself with, and appeal to, trouble-causing creatures who value reckless abandon over being accommodating for people's sensibilities or respecting surroundings," James says.
Now, he and the Arsonists have buckled down (a bit) to record material for an album scheduled for release this year that's appropriately titled Over Dressed & Under Arrest, on which James promises to have "at least something for everyone to get upset about -- that, and more piano."
James and bandmates Aaron Hjalmarson and Mark Sunman, both of punkgrass band The Haymarket Squares, promise tunes like "Special Delivery," about sending letterbombs to authority figures, and an autobiographical track of James' called "Broken Kids and Bad Friends."
James says, "While I'm not necessarily opposed to the fact most people make boring music and have boring lives, I try to make sure my music and my life make each other more interesting. Otherwise, neither is worth it for me."
When he's not concocting ways to disrupt the live-music scene, James is crafting a 40-minute, 12-song punk rock musical about opposing authority and society scheduled out later this year.
He promises scenes of fire-setting, blood-spilling, "and other assorted bits of charming idiocy reflecting on the psycho-social implications of existential pointlessness."
He's also planning an acoustic punk show in a storm drain this year. -- Nicki Escudero
Isn't music sometimes just about having fun? Although it might be an arguable point in the more cynical circles among us, fun seems the overriding raison d'être within the Tempe music scene and especially with local band Numb Bats.
The post-punk/pop/surf trio, which includes onetime North Dakota members Mo Neuharth and Emily Hobeheidar, will engage even the most austere concertgoer with their cheeky, distortion-filled anthems. Plus, they sell T-shirts emblazoned with their band name spelled out on a doughnut.
Numb Bats don't sound like North Dakota, but they do share the latter band's attitude of wielding both fun and candor in their music. Not only are their melodies catchy, but their lyrics distinguish them with quips like those found on "Angry Woman."
"I got an angry woman / She wakes me up every morning / But I don't want to be woken up / And I don't want to go to work / I just want to do what I want to do," sing Neuharth and Hobeheidar in unison after the song starts with spacey surf-rock riffs and peppy drum beats backed by bassist Isaac Parker.
Hobeheidar and Neuharth may blanch at the comparison, but Numb Bats' dual lead vocals invoke female-fronted indie rock acts like Le Tigre. Sarcastic (but sometimes serious) lyrics and sound effects accompany the fast, ecstatic songs.
Some people might compare Numb Bats to popular pop group Best Coast, but the Tempe band is more versatile than that. With songs like "Fuck It," they make fans out of first-time listeners, from the guitar and bass riffs that cause damage in unison to vocals fighting for space over each other (sometimes incomprehensibly at certain moments) with lyrics like "I don't want to go to pay my bills / Fuck it!"
Here's hoping a full Numb Bats' release comes out this year, since they've been performing new unreleased songs at their recent shows. -- Yezmin Villarreal
Local MC Kyle Collins hit 2014 running. The 24-year-old has a new music video, "Stupid Shit," full of satirical jabs at the music industry and featuring a comedic vibe, and a new mixtape, Sincerely, that he dropped earlier this year.
And with the buzz he's generated lately (not to mention his much-anticipated official album The Manhattan Project later this year), all these projects are expected to be a huge deal, as is Collins himself.
The Office Space-inspired visuals of the music video for "Stupid Shit" provide a comedic angle to a topic that Collins is very serious about: putting stereotypical rap cliches -- such as excessive twerking, guns, and money -- on blast.
Something else he's serious about is making it to the next level of the rap game. Since debuting in January, "Stupid Shit," which features beats crafted by Phoenix hip-hop producer Qux, has received airplay on 101.1 The Beat and gotten love from RapDose.
That's not the only coup for Collins, a member of local pop/hip-hop group Weird Is the New Cool, as he opened for Pusha T earlier this year at Club Red.
Local legend Irin Daniels (better known as RocaDolla or IROC) has bigger and brighter plans for the rising star. Daniels, considered by many the "Dr. Dre of Arizona hip-hop," has had a hand in helping numerous artists (such as Lifted, Trap, and Pokafase) gain success and hopes to duplicate the results by taking Collins to their level and maybe beyond. -- Jaron Ikner
William Currier has a knack for putting things together. The Tempe resident records as Brain A, piecing together bits of lo-fi bedroom pop, hip-hop, and experimental noise uniting the elements in a psychedelic haze. The fusion is seamless, made all the more impressive by Currier's production techniques.
"I have never used a computer yet for any of my pieces," he says. "I play guitar, bass, organ, keyboard, a drum machine, a sampler, turntable, and record the vocals in an assortment of ways."
Currier started out assembling Brain A's pop-art compositions on a four-track cassette recorder before moving on to an eight-track CD-R deck.
The Early Amputees: Volume 1, the first in a series of three "Early Amputees" releases that Currier has planned, demonstrates how his approach works: seven short snippets, opening with "Masters," in which Currier sings cryptically, "No masters / Only servants / Burn the contract and its purpose" over swirling noise. "In Warm," he raps/sings over a stuttering distorted funk tune. "More Chalk" sounds like sludge metal as hip-hop while "Futurists" sounds like a short-circuiting MP3 player or a record played at the wrong speed. Or both at once.
"The overall concept of 'Early Amputees' is rooted in the shortness of the song structures and me testing myself to see how much energy I can channel into a small amount of time," Currier says.
Currier doesn't plan on taking Brain A live until summer, focusing instead on recording and enjoying the freedom offered by Bandcamp, where he publishes his work.
"In the future, I plan on [incorporating] more traditional styles for projects and using more modern equipment," Currier says. "But for this year, it's this solid set of lo-fi treats from my back pages." -- Jason P. Woodbury
Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra
Pop quiz: How many people can you cram on a single stage before its structural integrity is at risk? In true MythBusters fashion, the Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra are in the business of finding out the answer to this question.
Fourteen members make up this local supergroup, including dudes and dudettes from at least 20 other bands, truly defining that "orchestra" portion of the act's name. But they won't be rocking Bach or Wagner. They instead will offer an exotic mixture of world music, electronic dance tunes, funk, prog rock, samba, and, of course, Afrobeat.
As you may have noticed, dancing is not Phoenix's strong point. In fact, most audiences kind of suck when it comes to cutting a rug at shows. Luckily, members of PAO (rhymes with "wow") weave tempestuous and tropical-inspired influences into a potent brew that tends to induce ass-shaking and rug-cutting at their gigs, where dancing practically is de rigueur and crowds are getting larger. In fact, the group's fifth show drew an unheard of 200 eager, disco-ready fans both young and old.
Orchestra members are refining the covers they perform but also are prepping some original cuts for later this spring. PAO strives to bring more than Afrocentric grooves to our dusty, desert sprawl. As their Facebook page states, they are "committed to the global unification of all mammals through musical trance." -- Troy Farah
Chemicals of Democracy
A performance by local hard rockers must be like being at ground zero of a nuclear explosion, thanks to the band's blast of brain-melting metal.
And one of the most satisfying aspects of a CoD show is that you can get a complete understanding of their style, influences, and strengths from just one or two songs. It's just put right out there: an in-your-face onslaught of high-energy heavy instrumentals meet radio-ready rock vocals.
The triple-guitar element brings some of the band's strong influences to light, from the punishing thrash riffs reminiscent of Metallica and the dueling ascending guitars that recall Pantera to the smoldering melodic leads trademarked by Iron Maiden.
However, Chemicals of Democracy brings its own modern approach. Along with the catchy choruses, surprise hooks, and vocals (think Volbeat's Michael Poulsen meets Metallica's James Hetfield), it's easy to see why they've played all over the globe. In fact, the band has gigged alongside Saxon, Sister Sin, and Anvil, to name a few, and has even played two Hammerfests in the UK.
Founded in 2007 by vocalist/lead guitarist Darrin Richards, bassist J.Q., and drummer Greg Paradis, the band went through some transitions and was rounded out to five members in 2012, with Ryan Maloney replacing Paradis on drums, guitarist Sammy Damaxx, guitarist/vocalist Scott Allan, and Darwin Scott replacing J.Q. on bass.
In 2013, CoD released its full-length debut, American Scream, produced by British-based Grammy-nominated producer Chris Tsangarides (Judas Priest, Depeche Mode, Concrete Blonde). While the album is full of energetic hard rock and heavy breakdowns, an element of classic rock is present as well.
The band isn't taking a break anytime soon, as it's finishing it second album and plans to dish out rock 'n' roll ordnance around the world later this year, including a potential tour of the UK. -- Lauren Wise
Leonardo DiCapricorn is one of those clever band names that looks great on a flyer and is catchy enough to stick in your brain. The same goes for the band's music, a pastiche of nerdcore, punk, and rap with just a dash of metal that's both hooky and cute.
There's a geeky spirit running through the band's embryonic sounds, which is fitting, considering that frontman/bassist Damon Dominguez, percussionist Carlos Courtney, and guitarist Brandon Frederickson are former members of Greenway High School's drumline pursuing science degrees at ASU.
They've also been known to dress in nerd-wear at shows: Dominguez stuck out at PHX FMLY Fest earlier this year in his Hawaiian shirt and old-school ball cap. All three bandmates went high-concept and rocked white button-down shirts and ties at a release party for Rubber Brother Records' Puppy Love compilation album, which Leonardo DiCapricorn appeared on.
But the way they dress is only part of their appeal, as the band members also carry themselves distinctly, like confident nerds, and their between-song banter with the crowd is plenty sarcastic and pretty hilarious.
Since its debut last year at a local house show, Leonardo DiCapricorn has jelled quickly (probably because they all live together in the band's practice space). The band has built up a decent repertoire of songs ("Dexter," "Galifianakis," "Angsty Song," "J-No," and "Red Panda") on many geeky, satirical topics that have quickly become crowd favorites, as has their unrecorded "4Loko Dolphin."
The band's goals are modest: getting signed to Rubber Brother Records, recording a seven-song EP, and (per a dare from a fourth roommate) playing at least one out-of-state show. We predict they'll be successful with the latter one, since geeks exist everywhere. -- Jeff Moses
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