The DIY Deep Dive is a space to showcase impressive DIY touring artists who are in the very early stages of their career. These artists may not always have the most glitzy or refined recordings, but their underlying talent shines through their budget. To qualify for this column an artist must have less than 2000 social media followers and preferably be independent, while displaying the talent and creativity of acts much larger. Think of this as a column for early-adopters: get in on the ground floor with these artists and help them get to the next level.
Here are five very small artists who have released music in the last year that left a big impression on us, and one bonus album, our Subterranean Super-Cut, for those of you who crave really underground music.
The Sonder Bombs – Modern Female Rockstar
“I don’t wanna be your merch girl, I wanna be your goddamn idol,” front-woman Willow Hawks declares on the cheekily named “Title”about halfway through an album that is equal parts bubblegum pop sensibility and fiercely unapologetic lyrics. Hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, The Sonder Bombs do their best to supplant and overturn everything you know about pop punk on Modern Female Rockstar, inverting the one-sided good-guy/bad-girl trope so common in the genre to provide a much needed counterbalance in perspective.
Where the album truly shines, though, is Hawks’ ability to avoid pigeonholing her lyrical character to create a nuanced emotional palette. Often she seethes with indignation, daringthe listener to underestimate her on songs like anthemic closer Twinkle Lights, but she doesn’t shy away from dipping into more vulnerable territory on the mid-tempo Something I Said and the slow-burn Dimly Lit. Hawks’ powerhouse vocals carry the album through each peak and valley effortlessly, dropping to low croons before climbing to a resounding bellow with just enough rasp to convince you she absolutely is the rock star she claims to be without ever jeopardizing the sing-along quality of each and every song. Modern Female Rockstar is a non-stop joy ride from start to finish, a high-energy soundtrack to the dismantling of the musical patriarchy.
Charles Walker – Whole Again, Split w/ Ben Trickey
Though not as prolific a locale as Austin, Texas, or Nashville, Tennessee, or even Muscle Shoals, Alabama – Boone, North Carolina has the sound of a place where good country music could grow. That is where self-described “sad-twang” singer and prolific songwriter Charles Walker built his brand of alt-country/emo crossover that sits somewhere between the drawl of Southeastern era Jason Isbell and the depressive introspection of Turn Out the Lights era Julien Baker. In what may surprise some and validate others, these two styles meld seamlessly in Charles Walker’s two 2018 EPs Whole Again and a Split w/ Ben Trickey.
Whole Again leans harder in the alt-country direction, led mostly by acoustic guitars and embellished with beautiful string, horn, and vocal arrangements to complement Walker’s heart-felt, confessional lyrics. The EP sets the tone early and keeps riding it with stuck-inside-on-a-rainy-day melancholic lines like “I know you don’t hate me/Sometimes I wonder when I’m walking home”, “How you feel when I speak means a lot to me”, “I know what I did was wrong/That’s not the kind of thing you say when you love someone”, and the anguished cry of “How many God/How long must I suffer/I Just want to feel whole again.” Walker doesn’t deviate from the introspective gut-punches on the much more indie-rock Split w/ Ben Trickey, leading in with Crutch, a song that hits that perfect balance between sonic nostalgia and lyrical immediacy, crescendoing with the resolved group vocal “If there is hope left it evades me now.” With two solid EPs now under his belt, Charles Walker is an artist to keep an eye on going into 2019.
Shin Guard – Cerebral
Screamo is probably the most unfortunately maligned genre-tag of the last 20 years, known more as dismissive boomer-speak for anything with harsh vocals than for its actual body of work. While the emo/posthardcore crossbreed has always had a niche audience in part due to its actual content, it’s hard not to think that part of its relegation to obscurity has to do with the unwarranted negative associations accompanying its unfortunate moniker. Fortunately the plight of the genre itself didn’t stop Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Shin Guard from releasing one of the most inventive screamo records in years at any level this last Fall.
Listening to Cerebral it’s almost unfair to limit its scope with a genre-tag. The album pulls sonic inspiration from all over the alternative spectrum, swelling into grandiose post-rock builds, delving into shoegaze-adjacent fuzz rock, and at one point, on penultimate track Intact, incorporating a banjo into what could best be described as post-hardcore without making it a gimmick. Lead vocalist Owen Traynor convincingly pulls off every contemporary vocal style sans rapping, once again without slipping into the realm of schlock: crooning on the emotional build of Intact, belting on the sing-along chorus of Cross Country, descending into primal screams on Carabosse, delving into several extended spoken word pieces including opener Forlorn, and even trying an ethereal, floating falsetto akin to Justin Vernon on the shoegazey Recant.
As if the sonic diversity wasn’t enough, Cerebral’s album composition is also top notch, comparable in musical scope, though in a different style, to The Hotelier’s 2015 classic Home, Like No Place is There. Each track maintains its own distinctive personality while each consecutive musical experiment contextualizes the next like progressing chapters in a novel. All in all Shin Guard’s debut LP stands as one the biggest hidden gems of the 2018 album crop: an impressive art-rock piece that should serve as the foundation for a newly blossoming band already flirting with greatness.
Appalachian Doom Gospel – Little Blue EP
Award winning newspaper columnist Brian O’Neil once called Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “the Paris of Appalachia.” One county over from Appalachia’s crown-jewel in the slightly more rural Butler, the seven-piece folk/country outfit Appalachian Doom Gospel are doing their best to prove O’Neil’s point with their debut Little Blue EP. As soon as guitarist/vocalist Zach Reed slides into the opening riff of Untitled (Grandma’s Song)it’s as if he transports the listener straight to a spontaneous community jam around a backyard bonfire. That’s not to say that the Little Blue EP feels unrefined, quite the opposite, but that for its 13 minute duration Reed immerses you in something so rustic, so old-timey, and so patently southern, that you won’t believe it came from the foothills of Andrew Carnegie’s city of steel.
Appalachian Doom Gospel is one of those artists that writes deceptively complex music. On first listen it is the overall vibe, carried by Reed’s smoky baritone and a group harmony ensemble courtesy of Cody Clark and Laurel Wain, that catches your attention. Only after a few listens does it truly become apparent that there are sevenpeople playing on these songs, creating an intricate web of acoustic and steel guitars, trumpets, washboards, assorted strings, and percussion all playing off each other like a well-oiled machine. This depth gives the EP continual replay value and makes each consecutive listen a sort of discovery venture, revealing new facets to the songs that may not have jumped out before. Overall, Little Blue EP is a solid debut that we can only hope is the first of an illustrious career.
Qajaq – A Canopy Above Our Endless Sky
“They’re tearing down trees night and day with the promise of great, mighty walls to come/ They’re scraping out all of the shade, but then crawling away when their towers fall far below/ There isn’t an anchor or slave, not an ocean or grave, nowhere to bury the pain/ But you seek nothing else despite all our wanting/ Your knife stays on your belt and your words are dishonest/ You seek nothing else, so we’re sleeping with caution and laying our burdens down at the place you depart” – Qajaq, The Bad Year
A Canopy Above Our Endless Sky jumps out the gate with the above run of lines, pulling together socio-political issues, personal strife, and the man/nature rift in a way that can only be described as spiritual. Over the course of the next ten songs Chicago, Illinois native David Shay, better known by his stage persona Qajaq (pronounced Kayak), delves deeper into questions about human nature, politics, God, spirituality, and reality at large, delivering line after line over a lush, expansive soundscape built from the bones of earthy folk music and celestial drone; two seeming opposites married in a way that makes them seem natural born partners. This sonic palette is itself the perfect partner and reflection of Shay’s lyrical style and chosen themes on A Canopy Above Our Endless Sky. The dusty earth of his folk leanings and the endless atmosphere of the accompanying drone sounds mirror lyrics that are simultaneously esoteric and grounded; fitting for an album that feels like it’s pulling transcendence from the earthly and the earthly from the transcendent.
At any given moment it seems that Shay is getting at something intangible in a way that feels personally confident, while simultaneously allowing the room for mystery to remain mysterious. Perhaps what is most impressive is that Shay accomplishes these lofty feats effortlessly, effectively shaping a world out of sound and inviting the listener to live in it for the duration of the album’s 45 minutes. In some ways this makes A Canopy Above Our Endless Sky more akin to a Hayao Miyazaki film that’s been distilled into audio than it is a traditional album of songs. It’s the kind of album that demands your undivided attention in order to truly appreciate it, but once you do, you will find yourself revisiting it again and again.
The Subterranean Super-Cut: Jake Rozmus – View From Your Apartment
Hailing from the town of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, Jake Rozmus’ gorgeous solo debut View From Your Apartment might be the most under-promoted album of the year. I’m pretty sure Jake played one-and-a-half shows in 2018. He barely told anyone about the record, which is a “bandcamp exclusive.” Despite the excavating it took to find it, those of us who managed to stumble across this gem were in for a rare treat.
In a style crossed between country, the soft-rock of the 1970s, and confessional emo sensibilities, Jake opens up his world, giving listeners vivid snapshots of moments in his life and the lives of those around him. Opening track Morning begins with a recording from a Christmas day long gone, when times and joys were much simpler, establishing bittersweet tone. This is immediately juxtaposed with the stream-of-consciousness Driving Old Blue, a reflection on change, “thoughts of younger days and forgotten names run through radio waves / and back through Old Blue’s rusted frame.” It begs the question that haunts the whole record, “how did I get from there to here?”.
The fifth track, Second Wind, poignantly encapsulates this. In the last verse, Jake delivers the hauntingly beautiful lines, “Does the view from your apartment harmonize with your childhood window / like the memory of your mother’s voice / like our journey out on the town tonight.” It captures those moments when a memory hits you out of nowhere, causing you to pause and appreciate where you came from and where you are now, and the seemingly vast distance in between. This record is just that: a brief glimpse through a window, a familiar scent, or an old piece of clothing that makes you remember your childhood, ending with the simple yet profound musing, “I wish I was a kid / to be a kid.” Here’s to hoping this is not the last Jake Rozmus album because this conclusion leaves me dying to hear the next chapter.