Mourning [A] BLKstar
The digital clock in our Corolla meanders toward midnight on a cold Wednesday as we skid along the border of Ohio City and Detroit-Shoreway. We eventually land at the rehearsal space for Mourning [A] BLKstar. A ground-level door creaks open. We are beckoned.
Inside, the members of the group are arranged cozily against a brick façade. Instruments splay out around them. A few friends join in laughter and conversation. A woman knits gently throughout the night. RA Washington, the de facto leader in a democratic and horizontally structured band of Cleveland artists, leans back: "So how do you want this to go?"
It's been a year of uncertainty and pain, but, as we look ahead to a fresh spin around the sun, there's reason to be hopeful, not least because of Mourning [A] BLKstar, the most important band in Cleveland right now.
The story begins with the death of David Bowie in January 2016, an event that kicked off a yearlong storm of innovative musicians passing into the next world. Later that week, Washington was kicking around some beats in the studio. He asked James Longs and LaToya Kent if they'd like to sing on some of his tracks. (They ended up singing on all the tracks.)
"The chemistry was pretty evident," Washington says. Other musicians pointed it out in the studio, too: There was something special here. And so the trio formed a band on the spot, built on the foundation of that first day's rough mixes. Right away, during an early rehearsal, Kyle Kidd joined them to add her vocals to the mix. The band became four.
Peter Saudek joined on drums later in the year, and a rotating horn section complements the band onstage now and then.
As the year has gone on, the band's shows have been picking up bigger and more engaged crowds. Scene was picking up signals this past summer, fervent rumblings among the music community that Something Different Was Going On Here.
"I'm a visual artist, and I'm kinda burned out on it," Longs says. "So this was an opportunity to investigate a new form of art, a new discipline."
There's a purity to what Mourning [A] BLKstar is doing – a will to let the cards fall as they may and to see the beauty in that action.
For many, the introduction to this band came this past spring, when the first single hit Youtube and Facebook: "Field N***as, My Heroes." It's a bold song, unlike anything that's come out of Cleveland in years. The video conveyed an esoteric arrival; these four musicians are seen walking through a sparsely wooded grove, clad in exotic threads and burning sage among the trees. A manic beat spins through the natural setting, as Kent's vocals spell out a message about the past and the future. One minute in, the song shifts dramatically. The beat becomes more immediate, and the video flips over to a catacomb of rusted steel. The piece ends in black and white, with the three singers facing away from the camera for a full minute of airy tones.
It's an arrival. More signals followed.
"The subject matter of the songs is – I hate to say 'politically charged,' because that throws it into a category, and it limits the mind and limits the conversation," Longs says. "But it's conscious-based."
Kidd mentions how the three singers in the band each came from different backgrounds, while originating in the same city's artistic scene. She's a jazz and gospel singer, for instance, who is finding herself broadening her perspectives on what vocals can be. With Washington at the helm, she says that she's grown into her own as an artist willing to both stand out and fit in among this eclectic group.
"It's raw like Cleveland is raw, and it's real like Cleveland is real," Kent says. "It's honest. We're not hiding our emotions. We're not hiding ourselves. We're very open in being ourselves within the music, onstage and off-stage." She adds that the band touches on most genres of Cleveland music from the past several decades; indeed, the underground is well represented with Mourning [A] BLKstar.
And that's sort of the thing here: More than any other band in a good long while (Pere Ubu, maybe? 9 Shocks Terror? This Moment in Black History, more recently?), MAB captures the vibe of Cleveland in a time of cultural growth.
"We have a very renaissance sound, and Cleveland is in the midst of a renaissance," Kidd says. "You can compare it to the Harlem Renaissance. There's a sound, an essence, about that time. We have created a sound that you will be able to identify with the renaissance of Cleveland, the transition, the rebirth. I think that's the beauty of our band."
The band's first album, BLK MUSAK, will drop sometime in early spring on Blue Moon Records. This is the first time the label is pushing a project with vocals. And with an eye on the future, Washington says the second album is already done (and recorded by Brian Straw). MAB is already working on their third album.
"We just want to keep it moving," Washington says. "This is a punk rock town, and, you know, it's very rare for bands that are coming from an African-American heritage to be able to cross the river. You know what I mean? We don't take it lightly. Pretty much the culture and the way the world feels now is that people are looking for answers and they're looking for places where they can actually be genuine. For some odd reason, the combination of folks in what we're doing kinda provides that.
"And I think that it has something to do with the fact that it wasn't planned. It was authored by something else." —Eric Sandy
They're both guitar players and songwriters who have been making music in the Cleveland scene for many years. And as long as Tim Parnin (Cobra Verde, Sweet Apple, Chuck Mosley) has known Chris Allen, he's been encouraging him to explore his rock side. Decades later, the pair finally spent a couple of years writing songs for what would eventually become their first album, Stranded In The Future, which will be released in the spring under the banner of Falling Stars. "It's funny — this seems way overdue," Parnin says. "We've hinted about it in the past, but have always both been busy with our own bands." Once they were able to set aside time for recording, things came together quickly. They laid down basic tracks during three productive days of recording at Mitch Easter's studio in North Carolina. Easter engineered the sessions with Don Dixon producing and mixing the songs. For those familiar with Allen's normal work, both as a solo artist and with the band Rosavelt, it's a slight departure — a purposeful move that both were excited to make. "You've been around the block, I've been around the block — let's see if we can find some new streets to hang out on," Allen says, remembering the initial conversations he and Parnin had at the Happy Dog discussing the potential project. "If we couldn't do that, we were never going to spend the time recording it." Tracks like "Down and Out In Ohio" and "Behind The Blinds" crackle with a fresh energy and plenty of guitars while songs like "Losing Without You" and "The Lonely Keep In Touch" demonstrate the depths of sonic exploration that the pair weren't afraid to indulge. It's an engaging listen that longtime fans will enjoy and they'll probably attract some new ears as well as they begin to play live shows together in the new year. — Matt Wardlaw
Thaddeus Anna Greene
This year, the band released a handful of singles that led up to an EP release in September. The prime example of what these guys are up to these days comes in the title track: "Bleed." A laid-back, hammer-on bluesy riff lifts up singer TJ Maclin's soulful and mournful vocals. There's a sadness in the tune, but the delivery is uplifting — and it makes for some real choice music while cruising around the city. Taken as a whole, Thaddeus Anna Greene's 2016 stuff is exciting as hell. "We went through a lot to create [those singles]," frontman TJ Maclin says. "From recording an entire album and living in a studio for five days only to never hear anything from those sessions, to quitting music, to finally going in the studio with the mindset to record Bleed. The vision for our latest work was to create something that breathes — something visceral, ya know?" Even the casual listener will pick up on that. These are full-bodied tunes that pair catchy refrains with extended musical interludes and fills. "We all are avid students of music," Maclin says. "It's sort of a gift and curse, because it can be safely said that we can't listen to music recreationally; there's always a lesson, a jewel, something to learn from someone else. Our songwriting style is an amalgamation of our individual musical backgrounds. That's the best part about this band, each one of us brings something vastly different than the other, yet we speak the same language in a musical sense." Here are Maclin's parting words as we look ahead to a new year: "Expect growth, expect new sounds. Do not categorize us, because if you do, we'll frustrate you. We refuse to be boxed in." Check them out Jan. 13 at the Grog Shop with Marcus Alan Ward. — Sandy
Like the incidental snags of a kneading cat's claws, Amy Shoff's poignant, witty lyrics expose a hidden snarl beneath the cuddly exterior of Heavenly Creature's indie rock. In "Snow," a track from their 2015 EP Your Record Collection, Shoff sings a clever quip about the woes of going stag: "The guys are outside, stupid pride won't let them say they're chilly/their girlfriends stay inside, they all drink wine and say they're silly/but I am neither guy nor girlfriend/and I'm not sure where to go stuck here in the goddamn snow." Fans of the Vaselines, Bikini Kill, and R.E.M. (Shoff's biggest inspiration) will find Heavenly Creatures the perfect combination of rock 'n' roll power and twee charm. Demonstrated by the band's appointment to several prominent opening spots this past year (including playing with veteran acts Dressy Bessy and Skating Polly), Heavenly Creatures have already established themselves as one of Cleveland's go-to indie rock groups. In 2017, the band will follow Your Record Collection with a new EP entitled The Summer Will Kill Us All. Named after the many hurdles the band faced while trying to record (including RNC-related delays and previous drummer Sydnie Barnette's move to Oregon), the EP features newest member Kristen Burns on drums, Thomas de Cárdenas on bass, and Shoff on guitar and vocals. "Kristen really transformed the songs and made them stronger, and we're really excited to get [them] out into the world," Shoff says. The band hopes to begin work on a full-length almost immediately following the EP's release. If you haven't seen them yet (or even if you have), catch them on Jan. 5 as part of the Grog Shop's Free Weekend. —Bethany Kaufman
Shades of Paul Westerberg cruised through Cleveland last May when newly formed Part-Time Lover dropped Brains Out on the Table, a lively four-song EP that prompted perked up ears from westside to east. It's a breezy, borderline psychedelic collection of tunes that blends the old and new spheres of rock 'n' roll handily. Bringing together members of Prisoners, Coffinberry and Goldmines (more on them in a bit), Part-Time Lover hit some really mesmerizing notes right as summer was unfolding along the north shore. "The band was basically Mandy [Look] and I wanting to do something together musically," singer and guitarist Jason Look says, "and I also had songs that needed an outlet. Roseana [Safos] and Pat [O'Connor] were the first two people we thought of for a rhythm section, and luckily they both agreed to do it." Lucky, indeed. Here at the Scene offices, we've been spinning Brains since those halcyon summer nights. To hone in on what makes the EP so great, cue up "Living in the Past." It's a sprawling, sunny-meets-edgy collage of haunting images and messages. Clocking in at seven minutes, there's a lot of material to soak up. The song dovetails into an extended, dreamy jam at the end, a perfect example of how they've tried to stretch their artistic legs with the project. "The 'outro' on 'Living In The Past' was written because I wanted to leave the song open ended," Look says. "If the song were to be on a full length in the future, I wanted to have the option of maybe writing another song that could come out of it, out of that end progression. Maybe it was a half-cooked idea but I think it works." We agree. Now, the band is working in the recording studio (again with producer Brian Straw). They're hoping to release something around March, and they're booking shows in anticipation of that. Don't miss 'em. — Sandy
New Moon Rising
We've really been digging New Moon Rising, one of Cleveland's busiest young bands this past year. Right before we began work on this list, the band dropped the second of a three-EP series — Surreal, a dreamy and jammy little stash that'll keep you warm in these cold months ahead. Like the first EP, Pura Vida, frontman Terry Campbell envisioned the seeds of a chilled-out, folk rock album with a pop songwriting vibe. He brought the new material to the other guys — guitarist Evan Stone, bassist Justin Chambers, drummer Steve Deurlein — and, together, the band watered these tunes to full realization. "We will just keep playing the shit out of these new songs until all the pieces start to come together." he says. "I think we work really well together as a band, and I am always impressed with what the other guys come up with when I bring a song to them. A lot of times the song will evolve in a way I never could have imagined because of what each member of the band brings to the table." You can hear that sort of process in tunes like "Over Me, Over You," which could easily work as a solo acoustic trip in some westside coffeehouse, but, here, New Moon Rising flexes the full-band muscle and treats it to a patient, ascending musical narrative. "With every new body of work, my goal is for it to be better than the one before — always trying to evolve," Campbell says. "Really my main goal is just to make music that feels good and sounds good. We also want to create something that is somewhat unique or different, something that sets us apart from other bands and sounds." Little touches like the backing vocal washes on "Surreal" get Campbell and Co. closer to achieving that goal each time they hit record. We're excited to see what comes next. Expect another EP within the next six months. — Sandy
You may have seen Ricky Hamilton play with the Nico Missile, Pig Flayer, and Ma Holos, but it's one of his most recent musical exploits that's gaining exceptional traction. Fascinating, which performed its first show less than a year ago, has already produced not one but two sonic offerings. Dice Game, which received a proper release in September, was a partnership between Hamilton's own Quality Time Records and New York's Greenway Records. "Quality Time Records was started to put out music that otherwise would remain in obscurity," he says. "We have come to describe our sound as gutter pop. It's grounded in the principles of other labels such as Sarah Records, K Records, and Postcard Records, with an emphasis on cassette culture and community building in our hometown of Cleveland." The label has released material by Goldmines and Pack Wolf among other locals. Fascinating's second album, Picture This, is poised for release in early 2017. Like a powerline in a puddle, the band's fuzzed-out garage rock sends an attention-seizing jolt to all who tune in and runs in the same vein as Yuck or Titus Andronicus. The current lineup features drummer Marty Brass, bassist Carter Luckfield and guitarist Adam Spektor. Original guitarist Alfred Hood left to focus more on his own band, the Venus Flytraps. Fascinating will embark on a crusade of the South this winter, with additional spring dates in support of the new album. Later in the year, the band will record yet again. —Kaufman
Hopefully you've seen Austin Charanghat perform many times over the years. The blues guitarist is a staple at bars and clubs all over Cleveland (and the world), slinging Delta vibes and songs both traditional and original, performing under the moniker Walkin' Cane. He recorded a new album a few months back with longtime songwriting partner Chris Allen, as well as Dave Morrison and Fred Perez-Stable. "Nobody really knew the songs," Charanghat says. "I had a good idea of what I wanted, but everybody helped themselves to each tune, and it turned into something pretty interesting." Keep your eye out for an impending release — not only of that album, but of the other projects that Charanghat keeps tucked up his sleeve. "I have a good feeling about this record," he says. "I think it's the best one I've done." As one might be able to glean, Charanghat stays busy and performs in a number of different bands and outfits here and there. (He just wrapped up his annual stint with the Ohio City Singers, a fun little band that brings original Christmas tunes to Cleveland each winter.) Looking ahead, Charanghat's got trips on tap to New York City, Detroit, Chicago and Australia, where he'll return to the Blues on Broadbeach Festival. Charanghat is one of Cleveland's hallmark blues musicians, and he serves as an excellent ambassador for the city wherever he travels. And why not? He's got the best job in town. "I just want to make records and hang out with friends," he says. Check walkincane.com for his full schedule; January 2017 is looking pretty full already. — Sandy
Fuck You Pay Me
Formed by local underground vet Tony Erba, FYPM exists at the nexus of punk, hardcore and thrash in a city not exactly unfamiliar with those scenes. The band tracks the trajectory of previous Erba-fronted outfits like 9 Shocks Terror and Gordon Solie Mother Fuckers, but here's the thing: FYPM is happening right now, and they're kicking ass up and down the I-77 corridor. "It's nothing more than a chance for me to spew invective while winking at the audience while playing vicious yet somewhat catchy punk-informed hardcore," Erba says. "At least that's what my take is on the band; who knows what the peasants think." The band's next album, Dumbed Down, will drop in March. Expect a good deal of national touring, including a West Coast run, shortly thereafter. (The band received a grant from the local Panza Foundation, which will help fund their journeys across the nation.) And then? "I guess we'll keep writing songs," Erba says. "The next record will be called Colony Collapse, and I want to continue progressing in reverse or 'de-volving.' Each record should be a bit simpler, faster, catchier than the last — instead of the exact opposite, which is what always seems to happen with bands." Can't argue with that; the music scene around Cleveland borders on the soft and heady all too often. With something of a homebase at the venerable punk joint Now That's Class, FYPM maintains the hardcore vigil for the Cleveland set that doesn't mind the occasional brick of firecrackers being thrown into the crowd. "We do what we do with sincerity and work ethic and decent tunes and jumping around like morons on stage, and hopefully people come out," Erba says. — Sandy