End of the Year Reflections: Austin Stawowczyk

Wow. 2017 was a year. A bad one. And I’m not just talking about the overwhelming amount of terrible politics, social changes, violence, and scandals here in the United States. It seems like for most of the people I talk to, 2017 was an equally terrible year for personal reasons – mental health concerns, physical health concerns, trauma and tragedy, uncertainty, and major life changes.

Through all that turbulence, it can be difficult to look back on what is essentially a net-negative and spot the positives. Depending on where you’re at by this point, they can seem almost microscopic. Depending on how far into the ground 2017 has beaten you, you might not be able to see them at all.

I don’t presume to be able to convince you that everything is OK. However, I can offer my thoughts on what those tiny positives might be. For me, they come in the form of music. I suspect if you’re reading this article on this website they probably do for you, too. But here’s the thing – I’m terrible at end of the year lists, and I’m almost never concurrent with anything, so I want to instead shed light on the many, many reasons to keep your ears open as we enter 2018.

Celebrating Our (Unproblematic) Independent Artists

One of the biggest problems in independent music this year has been managing the inevitable fallout from the “rockstar” era of alternative music culture. What comes up must come down, and as we are now seeing an end to at least one era-defining, corporate-sponsored music festival, we are also seeing an absurd amount of that culture’s toxic masculinity, power dynamic abuse, and corruption coming back to bite the people who profited from it so generously less than a decade ago.

If you’re more than an extremely surface-level fan of music, a musician, or an industry professional, the sheer frequency of allegations probably got overwhelming. Sometimes, the news was little more than proof of an open secret. Sometimes, it was legitimately shocking. Whatever the case, 2017 has been a year where we were forced to mentally kill our idols.

But for all of that, there’s been a renewed hope and interest in a new wave of artists who might find a platform in these newly-found absences. In Michigan alone, there are plenty of new and old faces to pay attention to in the underground, and I’d like to focus on some of them as examples of great people making great music.

COMPs

Ann Arbor, as I’ve said in previous articles for this website, is a pretty hard market for indie music. And music in general. And any kind of culture that isn’t aggressively colleged or yuppified. So when I say that COMPs, a power-pop trio from Ann Arbor, is legitimately one of the best bands in Michigan, you might want to check them out. Singer/songwriter/producer Geoffery Webb has somehow cracked the Power Pop Genome and used it to lovingly craft song after song of blissfully-catchy melodies and self-deprecating humor, all wrapped in a minimalist packaging that never fails to let the song itself shine brightly. They gig out often, so keep an eye out for their name on a booking near you.

Listen: “Fast Hands”

Shortly

Also known as Alex Maniak, Shortly has been making “quiet songs” that people are “pretty into” for little over a year and has made some impressive progress while doing so. I could point to a number of events – signing to Triple Crown Records, joining Aaron West on a Pacific Northwest run, hushing an absolutely packed room at this year’s BLED Fest – as evidence that 2018 is shaping up to be her year, but after participating in the recording process for her first EP, I can say with certainty that the best is yet to come.

Listen: “Matthew”, or to the new EP when it comes out

Meanings

Meanings mastermind Billy Pompey is almost always creating music. His personal website is like a compositional and production portfolio with project after project of original music, each with its own stylistic conventions, collaborators, and instrumentation. But out of all the various projects he’s been a part of, Meanings is one where Pompey has pure control over every facet of the music and presentation. Not everyone will necessarily be able to see through the layers of language play, absurd humor, and musical sophistication that often typifies each release, but his latest, [none of the above], seems to be the perfect marriage of these concepts with track after track of diverse and compelling arrangements (and the odd Paper Mario sound effect). It’s challenging music packaged in charming wrapping paper, and those who listen attentively will be rewarded with a surprisingly intimate portrait of an often opaque artist.

Listen: “Strawberry Saturday”

Ness Lake

Former Swordfish frontman Chandler Lach has been writing music under the name Ness Lake for a while now, but in the absence of his former band he’s really gone full steam ahead with using it as an outlet for more mature, nuanced, and difficult sonic explorations. In 2017 alone, Chandler and his various collaborators (including another multi-talented former Swordfish, Kristofer Lane) have put out four releases. Granted, the material is lo-fi and sketch-like in nature most of the time, but this past August’s counting has shown a development of that core sound into something which approaches some intersection between art song and ambient dream pop. Pensive layers of dense guitars and synths mesh together in ways which often obscure and swirl around each other to form a thick veneer of dark, dreamy clouds, on top of which Lach superimposes his characteristically hook-laden vocal stylings. It’s an ear-stretching experience live, and here I would argue that this is where the band shines brightest, but keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming release in 2018.

Listen: “2 nostalgic”

Amessa

Even if you’ve never heard their music, chances are you’ve been to Amessa’s Taylor, MI home for one of their many intimate house shows. But they are also a phenomenal group of musicians and songwriters who specialize in a kind of stripped-down, not-quite-acoustic singer/songwriter style that just kind of works for them. And what makes it work so well is not only their excellent vocal harmonies and instrumental interplay, but the unique friendship and chemistry that each of the members have with one another. You get the feeling that you’re not seeing “a band” so much as Jess Coleman, Amanda Satriani, and Ashley Donaldson making music together. It’s a humanizing reminder that as much as we want artists to grow creatively, they also deserve to grow together as people. And I’m really excited to see how they keep growing.

Listen: “Girl With the Warbys” 

Celebrating the Artists We Discovered

2017 has, for me, been a year of travel. First, moving from my small corner of Montréal back to a small corner of Southeast Michigan to begin my post-graduate school life. Then, on the road several times with my friends in Great Expectations, Shortly, Fallow Land, and Boy Rex. It’s been an adventure in many different scenes and styles of music, and every time I play new shows, I seem to find more artists whose material I admire. In a year where so much is always going wrong, this more than anything else is my big reminder that there are still beautiful things being created everywhere, every day.

Red Robe

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As a musician and music fan, I get bummed out when I can’t seem to appreciate the history of the music I enjoy so much. For as much as classic rock and the current wave of indie music resonate with me, I could never quite latch on to the seminal artists of the late ’80s and ’90s that drew the trajectory of indie and punk music today. When I saw them on an opening slot while on tour with my friends in Fallow Land, Red Robe managed to show me exactly what mattered so much about the Sonic Youths, Dinosaur Jr.’s, and Pavements of the world. With the benefit of hindsight, this Detroit-based band seems to pick out everything which made that era fun and distill it into shorter, more varied arrangements that don’t sacrifice the effect-laden bombast and spaced-out lyrical imagery of their influences.

Listen: Aware With You All

Mandala Eyes

A lot of great instrumentalists, while technically accomplished, tend to publish music which feels more like a study or lesson than an actual composition. Alex Alexander of Mandala Eyes subverted that expectation hard for me when my bandmates in Great Expectations and I played with them in Madison, Wisconsin. Listen to any release they’ve put out and you will have no doubt that Alex can play, but whether on guitar, bass, drums, or any other musical device, their choices are so tasteful and compliment each other so well that even the most repetitive patterns don’t get old. I feel like the kind of payoff I get from listening to their music is similar to what people listen to reverb-y post-rock for, but I like the presentation here better.

Listen: Let Our Minds Be Languageless, Let Our Bodies Be Verbose

Queen Moo / Crag Mask

Though wildly different in style, Connecticut-based projects Queen Moo and Crag Mask are listed together here due to my acquaintanceship with Jason Rule, who is the singer/songwriter in Moo and drummer in Crag Mask. When I hosted Crag Mask in the summer of this year after booking them on a show, I was blown away by their new album’s heaviness and complexity, but also its memorability. It reminded me of Tool, but like, with a singer who is good. And lyrical themes that aren’t the verbal equivalent of wearing a fedora. I put a link to an article I wrote for my personal blog above if you want to read more about just how much I love these guys.

When Jason casually mentioned that his other band was like a fusion of Led Zeppelin and Roy Orbison, I became eager to hear more. After catching them at Metal Frat in Ann Arbor following their Topshelf release Mean Well, I felt they lived up to the comparison. The band somehow fuses more adventurous harmonies of contemporary pop music with the aesthetic of the Golden Age of rock and roll without fetishizing either style. Moo uses the fusion of these approaches as a launching point for musical expression, not their sole defining quality, and that frees them up to contextualize it in the broader scope of punk/indie/DIY by using similar lyrical themes, grungy production style, and playing the same basement shows as any other fun-loving group in this scene.

Listen: Loom and Mean Well

Bringers

I gotta love hastily-booked shows at low-cap bars – they’re the best chance I have of playing with and appreciating a diverse range of talent, all while grabbing a free beer. And on the Chicago stop of my recent tour with Boy Rex, I had just such a chance. Bringers is an electro-pop/glitch/noise/emowave duo from the Windy City whose music manages to be as wholesome as it is experimental. Mary and Paul have a certain musical and performative connection that allows them to seamlessly transition from both ends of the spectrum seemingly at will. Experienced live, it’s like they’re generating the music on the spot, and anything can happen. One moment, they’re creating the most disgusting feedback loops this side of the Mississippi, the next they’re layering feathery synths underneath a quiet song about not wanting to wake the neighbors. I wasn’t sure where one thing ended and another began, but that only adds to this group’s charm and mystery.

Listen: everything they have on Bandcamp

I’d love to chat more about what bands I discovered and which ones I’m excited about for 2018, but I have some friends, some booze, and a game of Mario Party to attend to. Hopefully when you read this, you’ll be inspired to take up the search for yourself, too. Here’s hoping you shut the door on this godforsaken year the right way and in good company.

-a

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