Upstate New York's Music Scene Is Even Heavier Than the Snowfall
Turns out there's a ton of killer metal, punk, and weirdo rock bands killing it up in Rochester, Albany, Syracuse, and Buffalo.
Throat Culture / by Spencer Chamberlain
Let's get something straight before we go any further: This is an article about upstate New York.
This is not an article about Westchester County. This is not an article about Rockland County. This is an article about a clutch of driven, exciting and occasionally disturbing metal and punk bands that have clawed out of the frozen wasteland beyond the security of Bear Mountain and the Hudson River. Some of these bands may even sneer at the "upstate" distinction, opting to lean on "Western New York" and "Central New York" as cultural signifiers. This distinction may feel almost unbearably nit-picky for those not born in Gotham's looming shadow, but to those from the rest of the Empire state, it's a crucial line to draw.
There's a particular negligence toward the overwhelming portion of New York that doesn't have "City" following it. Oftentimes it's as if that strange, heavily wooded mass of land that exists beyond the Manhattan skyline doesn't really exist at all. The only widespread conversations concerning the region tend focus on the "quaintness" and "quirkiness" of the region's Stewart's Rootbeer obsession and seemingly limitless supply of Dave Matthews Band bumper stickers. The sentiment is clear: "New York" is New York City—the rest is just cider-soaked white noise.
Needless to say, for the bands aching to define Upstate New York's heavy music scene as fresh and innovative, this can be an endlessly frustrating uphill battle.
"A lot of people will say to me, 'Oh, you have that Rochester kind of sound,' but can never elaborate past that, leaving me to decide whether it's a compliment or something else," says Trevor Amesmith, drummer of Rochester-based punk trio Green Dreams. "It's as if we feel we shouldn't be taken seriously because our city isn't big enough or legitimate enough or whatever excuses you can come up with, and we feed that attitude back to each other."
It's a mindset that can really take a toll on a musician's psyche. The history of bands raising a dejected middle finger to upstate New York and shoving off to find success and recognition elsewhere is disturbingly long and storied. It creates bad attitudes in those who leave for the cities they leave behind and even worse ones in those who choose to stick around.
For all the in-fighting and negative spectacle that ebbs and flows throughout cities like Rochester, Buffalo, Albany and Syracuse, however, the sense of a tight-knit scene is present across the board. Those who actively reject the more traditional trajectory of musical success and remain in upstate New York to make our own little scenes better for everyone are fostering something of a punk and metal renaissance. Bands like Green Dreams, Throat Culture, Gas Chamber, Bleak, Enthauptung and many others are carving out a niche for themselves and for the region as a whole. While these bands may all differ stylistically, what they share in common represents something for more significant: Exciting takes on genres strongly at risk of becoming stale and over-saturated, and something to say for a pocket of the country that rarely gets its just artistic due.
There's a singular, subtle beauty that permeates the upstate New York landscape. Sure, it's essentially a pastime at this point for our breed of New Yorkers to relentlessly talk shit about whichever city around here they call home, but after the haze of Seneca smoke clears and the riled nerves settle, it'll always be home. By the way, are you driving out to the show from Buffalo? Do you think you can pick me up in Brockport on your way over? I'll buy you a Genny or something, I just really don't want to miss Beastman again.
Albany's Throat Culture sounds like the wood-paneled basement you took acid in for the first time. Frontman Seth Eggleston, eternally existing at a point of near-absolute mental collapse, wails and moans over the best Quicksand riffs run through a food processor a few times. Genre classifiers that don't cheaply brand them as "stoner" this or "fuzzed-out" that elude me, so I'm going to start filing them under the "spitting, feral anxiety" tag from now on. Seth would urge you to "take this moment, give it permanence." I'm urging you to go listen to their demo, lie on the floor and breathe heavily for a while. The first time I heard the main riff in "Ritalin" I started laughing to myself in traffic. That's what you normally do when you genuinely can't believe something is real, right?
I really love Bleak. I also truly hated Bleak the first time I saw them because of how dismal they made my own future in groove-laden death-grind look. I was green as hell and worshiping at the altar of Barney Greenway and the firmly-held notion that "If I play fast enough maybe no one will notice that I don't know what the hell I'm playing and that I'm also a literal child." Bleak rolled out their veritable mountain of cabs with an aloofness that deeply troubled my sense of personal safety, and proceeded to play one of the best sets I've seen to this day.The way they unabashedly abused panic chords and "jump the fuck up" riffs without once seeming anything less than composed and highly intelligent was a sight to behold.
They're doing pretty damn well for themselves these days, too. They just got off tour with Call of the Void, and have been pounding out full U.S. run after full U.S. run to great avail. Their new LP, We Deserve Our Failures, is out on Syracuse's Hex Records, keeping everything in the family, so to speak. Go see them live. You really don't have much of an excuse to miss them because they're probably playing your city four times this year.
The first thing you should probably know about Rochester's Obsessor is that Brandon Ferrell—once the band's sole member and now the singer and lead guitarist—used to play in Municipal Waste. He also played in Career Suicide and Direct Control (two punk bands who undeniablydeserve a far more prominent legacy), but the link to Municipal Waste is crucial to point out, because, despite the thras-y similarities, Obsessor is an entirely unique beast in and of itself. Trading drive-in horror and all things keg-friendly for a style that lends itself far more to Venom and Celtic Frost, Obsessor has quickly become a staple of the Rochester metal scene in their still relatively brief existence.
Bassist Russ Torregiano, also the owner of Rochester's NeedleDrop Records, wants you to know that they have an LP coming out soon that they just recorded. He also wants to go on record and make the claim that the new songs are "sick" and that they also "rip." We will keep you posted on this story as more details emerge.
Whether it's to a gaggle of confused hardcore kids in the middle of the afternoon or in a packed basement to a crowd of eager onlookers, Buffalo's Enthauptung have a knack for making every space they play in feel uniquely their own. Their most recent record, this year's fantastic Adirondack, feels like the negatives to Panopticon's 2015 release Autumn Eternal: A record steeped in the earthen imagery of the latter, but with its sights trained sharply on the things that crawl across the forrest floor rather than what soars above. As far as regional black metal goes, they're easily some of the very best that we've got. As far as regional, multi-faceted, lyrically dense, technically proficient and atmospherically minded black metal goes, they're entirely peerless.
The Highest Leviathan
It takes a special kind of band to play a nearly hour-long opening slot on a three-band bill (on a weeknight, nonetheless) and still captivate an audience throughout. I witnessed Rochester's The Highest Leviathan do this once, and it was spectacular. Not only am I convinced as a result of this band that not nearly enough kids under 30 are listening to Ahab, but the Highest Leviathan also confirms my suspicion that a commitment to the power of sprawling, negative space in doom metal can be a powerful weapon to wield. The slower passages are patient and tender. The louder ones are raucous and fall firmly into the Bongripper wheelhouse. Tune low, play slow.
Simply put, there aren't enough bands ready and willing to place an open, feminist dialogue at the forefront of their music. Rochester's Green Dreams responds to this unsettling absence of truly progressive social politics in our beloved punk rock with serious aplomb. Not only is their message kick-ass, but their music provides a foundation for it that's caked in resin and absolutely wonderful Hole-worship.
They've been doing the damn thing for a minute now, and they have a slew of releases under their belt leading up to their yet-to-be-released LP. Generally, the term "power-trio" is reserved for bands that capitalize on posturing, hyper-masculine bullshit, but Green Dreams is one in every sense of the phrase. This is a band that sounds like they practice. And they've got something important to say, too.
It's probably best to let Gas Chamber speak for themselves. The mission statement provided on their Bandcamp reads, "Est. 2007. Music is a nod to various punk, progressive and noise traditions, and we believe in a song-writing paradigm, nota genre-specific one. 'Gas Chamber' is a reference to the 20th century man's exponentially increased capacity to harm human life, in an era of little accountability." Good time party hardcore this most certainly is not. In fact, attending a Gas Chamber show is a lot like going to church; the members attack their respective influences with a near-religious intensity, and frontman Shepard stares down the audience, unflinching behind his noise rig, between fits of barking and raving from one side of the venue to the other. It's this kind of unwavering attention to craftsmanship and small details that makes Gas Chamber one of the most utterly compelling bands to come out of Buffalo.
Erik Burke and Dan Lilker are basically Rochester royalty due their involvement in bands like Sulaco, Nuclear Assault, Anthrax and Napalm Death (with whom Erik has been touring recently), but they've hardly been resting on their laurels. Blurring is the most recent doomsday device from these metal stalwarts, marrying nauseatingly complex riffs with panicked, spastic vocals. They'd be an impressive enough band if their members consisted of fresh-faced upstarts, but the fact that Blurring is more or less a Rochester metal veteran supergroup makes them all the more inspiring.
Those still confused on where they stand in the great "does life imitate art or does art imitate life" debate should immediately have their decision made for them upon witnessing a Rotten UK set. A UK '82 inspired punk band from Rochester, NY (or Rochester, England as they proudly proclaim) is a brilliant enough concept on its own, but Rotten UK's uncompromising to the aesthetic, speech and overall sound of the time is incredibly commendable. Drummer "Joel Division" keeps the floor tom train rolling while frontman James Von Sinn, standing at well over six-foot—with or without his distinguished mohawk—rails against the evils of the monarchy and the horrors of the British class war. It's loud, it's fun, and it's decked out in a confounding amount of leather and zippers.
Syracuse's Dialysis remind me of the first ever out-of-town hardcore shows I ever attended. Their style of frenzied, off-the-rails punk immediately brings to mind images of piling into a car in the dead of winter to see a $4 punk show at the Westcott. When the Infest-esque vocals kick in and the open chords ring out on "DNA," I feel like I'm in an unfamiliar, cavernous basement watching Black SS all over again. The way that Dialysis triggers these long-forgotten nostalgic trips for me makes me appreciate their chaotic hardcore all the more. There's a power in the constructed frustration of the bands you grew up going to see—and sometimes, it's best to avoid complicating things altogether. In the closing hook of "Things I Like About This Place," frontman Ryan Canavan sings the praises of salt potatoes and local hardcore with equal parts passion and nostalgia. I feel the same way.
Alexander Jones is staying frosty on Twitter.