Even though 2020 pulled the emergency brake on live music, Pittsburgh’s punk rock underground is forging ahead.
New bands continue to form and the release of top-notch recordings outpaces any other time in the city’s music history. Hand in hand with exported records, Pittsburgh has made a name for itself as one of the most exciting live music cities in the U.S. for underground music, with events such as Skull Fest and regular shows featuring national acts and a large stable of local talent.
From the inside looking out, it might not seem like we are in a renaissance, but we have hit a high watermark with no sign of receding. While we eagerly wait for the return of live music, here are some punk bands and recordings to check out now — and to keep an eye out for once it is safe to cram together in clubs, basements and bars again.
Just before the coronavirus brought live music to a halt last year, a who’s-who of veteran A-list musicians solidified the five-piece, dual guitar lineup of White Stains with freshman vocalist Keith Caves. Previously known more for his fine art skills than his vocal talents, Caves brings an urgent voice to the group, not so much rounding out its sound as injecting it with jagged edges in all the right places. Heavily influenced by the explosive energy of ’80s American hardcore, this is no tribute act — White Stains is taking this sound and giving it new life. Despite not being able to play a single show in front of an audience in 2020, the band hasn’t slowed down, producing one of the best hardcore records of the last year. The band’s song, “Quarantine,” is an anthem for our times.
Killer of Sheep
Killer of Sheep continues to be a mainstay of Pittsburgh punk rock, defying any hint of stagnation or lack of innovation even in a pandemic. The group usually maintains a busy performance schedule on tour and at home but has put its lockdown energy into working on new material and participating in streaming events such as the Punk Black Virtual World Tour. On and off stage (real and virtual), the group is also a force for radical change, and members have used their voices to organize and fundraise for social justice and political reform. Though not fitting the heading per se, the group was voted Best Metal Band in the Pittsburgh City Paper last year; while its sound is absolutely rooted in the cross-pollinated, metal-influenced hardcore scene native to Pittsburgh, Killer of Sheep is punk rock through and through.
Defying any easy-to-categorize sound or pigeonholed aesthetic, Living World has earned a dedicated following among those in the know. Rather than fade into the background with age, the group continues to draw a crowd faithfully and seized every opportunity to play live before the pandemic. Up to this point, Living World hasn’t been able to capture its live energy on any recording, but 2021 could very well change that when they release a new album. While stages are dark, the band can often be found participating in online and streaming performances — and through the clutter of the internet — they have gained national attention from labels and tastemakers.
Thirteen years after its last full-length album, Unreal City released an LP late in 2020 that sets a high bar for the long-running band. Not that the group has been hibernating — touring and live shows on and off for more than a decade, as well as a slew of seven-inch releases, have kept Unreal City steadily on the map. This is a band known for whipping up a crowd and being a heavy draw at home or on tour — this is not a band to watch from the corner with your arms crossed.
Punk bands are supposed to hit the ground running, burn up and fall apart before getting a chance to stagnate, right? What happens when a band instead keeps going, evolves and continues to grow and get better? You get Peace Talks. From the get-go, Peace Talks has been on fire with heavy political messages woven into their riffs, and the group has always been able to maintain its energy and urgency. After releasing one essential-to-own record last year, there is more to come, and I can’t wait for it.