CMJ 2012: Top 5 Favorite Bands

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Every October, hundreds of bands and thousands of maybe-misguided music-loving types (from music-makers to bloggers to college radio directors to videographers and photographers to people who just love going to concerts) descend like a plague of well-dressed, caffeine-addled locusts on New York, particularly the always-hopping Lower Manhattan and Williamsburg, hoping to catch the next big thing. CMJ was started when college radio was the default means of discovering new music, and though the internet has changed the way hype builds, the festival’s stayed relevant: it still provides many buzzy artists with a stage on which to break out, even if that stage is in the back of a bar on a Thursday at three in the afternoon in front of nine people who largely showed up to the show for the free booze. For those of you who couldn’t make it to New York this year, we separated the wheat from the chaff for you – behold, five next big things that deserve to be on everyone’s radar in the coming year.


John McCauley of the Rhode Island band Deer Tick might be able to boast a hyper-accurate Kurt Cobain impression (Deer Tick have toured a cover set as Deervana), but after catching Heliotropes’ late-afternoon set at Cake Shop, which the Brooklyn quartet closed with a cover of Nirvana’s “Negative Creep,” we’d happily leave the Cobain reverence in their more-than-capable hands. Heliotropes play heavily distorted, chills-up-your-spine psych – Jessica Numsuwankijkul’s wailing, riff-heavy guitar sounds like toys melting in the sun, and as a frontwoman she’s possessed, intent, and magnetic; utterly relentless drummer Cici Harrison knocked over her tom during the schizophrenically tempo-switching barnburner “True Love’s Knot.” You might be tempted to slap a riot grrrl label on the all-female foursome based on their sheer prolificacy of X chromosomes, unabashed referencing of grunge forebears, and Numsuwankijkul’s taste for bookending her seductive vocals with the occasional bloodcurdling scream, but Heliotropes don’t sound so much like the riot as they do like watching the aftermath on ancient, melting film – excavated, trippy, damaged, and damaging.

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The London postpunk quartet Savages were among the most hyped artists of CMJ, but one listen to their only released single “Husbands” should tell you why – and listening to it belies only an estimated ten percent of the wild-eyed, ferocious intensity of their live set. Though they only got together about a year ago, Savages is a force to be reckoned with, especially live: when bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Faye Milton lock into that rock-solid, Manchesterian groove, guitarist Gemma Thompson starts propelling knife-sharp, jagged, demon-summoning walls of sharded guitar noise into outer space, and singer Jehnny Beth wails one or another cryptic, anthemic, and vaguely disturbing mantra whilst swinging her arms, shaking her head, and staring the audience down like a latter-day female Ian Curtis in a jean jacket buttoned all the way up, they are utterly transporting, completely thrilling, and endlessly promising. My only regret of CMJ was seeing Savages on my final day, so I couldn’t catch every single show they played.

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Angel Haze

New York’s own Angel Haze took the stage at 8pm at a showcase where most of the audience was psyched about the open bar and Death Grips later, and she and her excellently coiffed DJ proceeded to totally kill it. Angel has a knack for going on these unbelievable, breathless runs, impossible and filthy and utterly mindblowing, and that’s true in the live setting too: she hardly depends on her backing track and reproduces every unreal line to a T. During Reservation hit “Werkin Girls,” as everyone grooved to what’s likely the best beat of the year, she slowly worked her way through the entire crowd, hardly five feet tall and utterly commanding – instead of reaching out to touch her the way people tend to do when their musical heroes break the fourth wall, everyone cleared a path for Angel, seemingly out of the kind of scared reverence her vaguely threatening stage presence easily breeds. When someone shouted “Aaliyah!” (she’s a pretty convincing lookalike) Angel was quick to remind everyone exactly who she is – and soon, we’re sure you won’t be able to forget.

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The loudest band of CMJ award goes easily to the Toronto three-piece Metz, who took to the stage at the aptly named DIY venue Death by Audio on Wednesday night (the last of an excellent four-band bill that also included the fantastic Baltimore quartet Roomrunner) in almost complete darkness that was quickly cut by blinding floodlights that cut in with Hayden Menzies’ pounding drums towards the end of opener “Knife in the Water.” Frontman Alex Edkins wore big round glasses complete with a strap around his head to hold them on his face so he wouldn’t rock them off and pristine white tennis shoes, screaming his throat out and throwing himself and his eardrum-bustingly distorted guitar around the tiny stage with an utterly possessed intensity. The crowd reacted in turn, with a huge sweaty pit that started around “Wasted” and continued, featuring members from all the show’s openers, until the end of Metz’s set. And the band were more than grateful – both Edkins and bassist Chris Slorach thanked the audience profusely for moving around, as if we could really help it.

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Icona Pop

By now you know (or you should know) Icona Pop’s ubiquitous and flawless debut single “I Love It,” and their EP Iconic is getting plenty of well-deserved play and good press, so it should come as no surprise that their show at Brooklyn Bowl Friday night (with, for some reason, Born Ruffians and Free Energy) was pretty well- and enthusiastically-attended. Icona Pop is two fashionable young Swedes – Caroline Hjelt in insane heels, with flaming red hair, and Aino Jawo with her Doc Maartens, boyish bowl cut, and silver lipstick – who, live, preside over a table covered in electronics and two microphones each, manipulating sexy, bass-driven grooves and looping and editing their own vocals. They’re also good at cutting to the chase, giving the crowd exactly what they want – Hjelt and Jawo chop out their songs’ slower parts, leaving the massive, anthemic choruses (“I don’t care! I love it!” “There is no one like me! You will never do better!”) and booming bass drops intact. Despite some technical issues with Jawo’s new drum machine, the duo delivered in spades, laughing off their mishaps and quickly segueing into awesome-sounding new material.

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