Editor: Please see the Author's note on this new photo-driven series at the end of this article.
Ian MacKaye once said that the most relevant bands are those that exist right now, because they exist and you can go see them. I couldn't agree more. One of the reasons I wanted to write for Westword many years ago, despite my general disdain for anything resembling establishment and authority, was so that I could write about bands I knew were interesting and from here.
Today, time, finances, conflicting opportunities and the sheer numbers of bands in Denver has sometimes prevented me from checking out artists I've never heard of or at least have never seen. That having been said, if you go to enough shows, local and otherwise, and you end up stumbling across great local bands.
It used to be once in a while you'd discover some neglected treasure as it was developing like Fissure Mystic, Hot White and The Haircut and then not a whole lot for a good long while. But recently it's been easier and easier to stumble on unexpected excellence and unique sounds from bands who haven't exactly been championed. Here's a short list of seven I'd start with -- let us know which lesser-known Denver artists you've recently discovered in the comments.
7. TJ Toddler: This group of weirdos doesn't play many shows. Their music is so far off mainstream it would be difficult to recommend to anyone that isn't into the stranger end of This Heat, Captain Beefheart, Henry Cow, the Fugs and the Residents. Part performance art, part avant-garde, TJ Toddler is probably the most gloriously strange band in Denver.
Where To Listen to TJ Toddler: https://soundcloud.com/tj-toddler
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6. Future Single Mom: This band played its first show in the Spring of 2014 and hasn't played many shows, so if you've not seen this group it's entirely understandable. It also hasn't played much outside of the DIY venue Hamsterdam. An immediate comparison could be drawn between this quartet and Bikini Kill, except this one uses live vocal sampling and keyboards. But the raw energy of the band, from rhythms to vocals is startling, and the songs work as punk or some experimental strain thereof.
Where To Listen to Future Single Mom: No recordings, you have to see this band live for now.
5. Chase Ambler: Pop-punk is back. These guys were slightly ahead of that curve locally, following the late, great No High Fives to Bullshit. What sets Chase Ambler apart from a lot of pop-punk is that the music is more raw, like it's not being written to be the soundtrack to corny summer love and loss anthems. It also adheres to a punk ethic: all-ages shows and no pretension. And oh, the energy. These guys will make you believe that punk is far from dead.
Where To Listen to Chase Ambler: http://chaseambler.bandcamp.com/
4. déCollage: Reed Fuchs and Derrick Bozich are two of the main figures behind the art/music collective Moon Magnet, which is bound to be an important force in local music to come, seeing as Ancient Elk and Wild High are also part of that group. déCollage's vision for technical excellence, coupled with imagination and professionalism, is inspiring. The fusion of surrealistic psychedelia akin to of Montreal with playfully colorful childlike myth-making makes this band's shows feel magical and otherworldly but grounded.
Where To Listen to déCollage: http://moonmagnetmusic.com/
3. Tollund Men: Although this band has been around for a few years, they don't play many shows these days. They have had a bit of a buzz outside of America among fans of black metal and neo-folk music. It's an odd crowd, considering Tollund Men create a powerful but abstract blend of synth pop and electronic post-punk. When you see this band, you kind of wonder how something this cool and idiosyncratic isn't more well-regarded outside the group's immediate circle of friends.
Where To Find Tollund Men: http://bleakenvironment.com
2. Church Fire : At this point this band has such strong synth pop/experimental electronic music it could release an album that, if released by a label that knew how to market it, would be huge in that same sphere of music occupied by bands like Phantogram, Future Islands and Washed Out. For now, you can regularly see the act at DIY spaces and smaller venues like Mutiny Now!, Deerpile and the Walnut Room. With ties to the local experimental music world and punk, Church Fire may be the first band to break out from that realm into the consciousness of a more mainstream audience since Pictureplane.
Where to Listen to Church Fire: http://soundcloud.com/churchfire
1. Echo Beds: If you ask anyone involved in the experimental side of the music world in Denver what their favorite band might be, answers will vary. But there is pretty much universal respect and admiration for Echo Beds. The band threads together of the visceral impact of early industrial music with post-hardcore's intensely emotional vocal release. They add ambient noise and organic intellectual political content, and the result has made Echo Beds an incredibly compelling band on all levels.
Where To Listen to Echo Beds: http://echobeds.bandcamp.com/
*Author's Note on the High Plains Underground Archive: In the late 1990s, I started going to local shows on a regular basis. Growing up in the '70s and '80s, I didn't know there was such a thing as local music worth checking out.
But I was drawn in after seeing a band called Rainbow Sugar (an all-female punk/hip-hop/experimental guitar rock extravaganza) opening for Sleater-Kinney's first show in Colorado at The Fox Theatre in October 1998. Next, I learned about a show at the now-defunct Rebis Galleries. From there I went to the first Monkey Mania show, and there was no looking back.
Rainbow Sugar was the first local band I photographed at Herman's Hideaway in 1999. But it was in 2005 when I got my first digital camera that my extensive photo archive started. In this series, called High Plains Underground Archive, I will share a small fraction of the tens of thousands of those photos, focusing on specific venues, bands, time periods, movements and whatever else seems to make sense. The title of this series comes from the working title of a book on the history of underground music in Denver 1975 to the present.
For this first installment, I felt it was very appropriate to focus on a tiny sliver of the present. The scene today is massive and incredibly diverse in a way that isn't obvious unless you make trying to keep track of all of this stuff an important part of your life. There will be plenty of time for looking at the past, but we'll start here, experiencing life forward into the future.
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.